Success in business and other lessons from one of the world’s biggest outerwear brands

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By BING PAREL

Neither age nor gender should stop one from becoming successful. This was proven by the ‘tough mom’ of Columbia Sportswear, who turned the floundering company into the billion-dollar business it has become today.

BANNER PHOTO

I first came to know about Gertrude “Gert” Boyle many moons ago when a friend gave me this little hardbound book that had this tough-looking, short-haired old lady with a challenging look on her face and a faux tattoo on her shoulder that read, “BORN TO NAG.”

Titled “One Tough Mother: Success in Life, Business and Apple Pies” that Boyle co-wrote with Kerry Tymchuck, the cover certainly piqued the curiosity of a bookworm like me, especially when I went over the flap to have a feel of what the book was about, and what was it about Gert Boyle that made her so tough:

Being a mother is the most important job in the world

“When a heart attack claimed Gert Boyle’s husband in 1970, the forty-six-year-old housewife and mother of three found herself at the helm of Columbia Sportswear, a small and financially struggling outerwear manufacturer in Portland, Oregon. With no business experience whatsoever, Boyle was faced with the challenge of running Columbia, which had been founded in 1937 by her father – a Jewish immigrant who fled Hitler’s Germany to come to America.

HK Quarry Bay Taikoo Shing Cityplaza Columbia Sportswear Co Shop
Columbia Sportswear branch in Hong Kong. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

“Though many expected Boyle to fail, she and her son Tim persevered, and kept the business afloat through very challenging times. In 1970, Columbia Sportswear boasted forty employees and $800,000 in annual sales. Under the leadership of Gert and Tim Boyle, the company now has more than two thousand employees, annual sales approaching one billion dollars, and is the leading seller of skiwear in the United States.”

No matter how old we may get, we will never outgrow our need for a mother

First published in 2005, the biography is written in a very casual, cheeky tone that makes it easy for the reader to enjoy the ride with Gert Boyle on her journey from a housewife with no business experience whatsoever into a no-nonsense CEO of a successful company, with a lot of hard knocks in-between.

One can only imagine what it must have been like to have this huge responsibility thrust upon the widowed Boyle. When her husband Neal died, he left behind a $150,000 loan and had put up their house, a vacation home, his mother-in-law’s home and his life insurance as collateral. Obviously, the family had to pay the loan back or risk losing everything. With only her college-age son Tim helping her and with no fresh capital, the company began floundering and started losing money. She also had to endure derisive suggestions for her to hand the responsibility over to a man who could do a better job of running the company. Eventually, the banks told her it was time to fold up.

A tough mom would want the best from her children – even if it means putting them through the wringer

She almost gave in – deciding to sell Columbia Sportswear lock, stock and barrel. But when the buyer tried to undervalue the company (which would have just left her and the kids $1,400 in proceeds from the sale), the tough mother roared to life, telling the man he could shove his offer somewhere up his body part, in a place that was really uncomfortable. Then she slammed the door to his face.

She dug her heels in, so to speak, to show that success had nothing to do with gender. While bigger competitors focused only on making products for the elite that were sold in high-end stores, she sold products in stores that catered to ordinary people who did not even indulge in outdoor sports or climbing.

She also made use of her being a mom, instinctively knowing what was practical for outdoor wear and using that as basis for design changes on products. After all, the origins of Columbia Sportswear can be partly attributed to her, when she hand-sewed a fishing vest with multiple pockets that would hold her husband’s fly-fishing gear. Pretty soon, she began receiving requests from friends to sew the same kind of vest for them – opening her eyes to the potential market for outdoor wear.

It was no easy feat, but the turnaround came in 1984, or almost 15 years from the time Gert Boyle took over, when she decided to become the face for Columbia’s advertising campaign when she was already a ripe old lady at 60.

There she was as Mother Boyle – a cantankerous, no-nonsense old lady who demanded nothing less than the best. Her “Gertisms” became such a big hit because they underscored the exacting standards placed on Columbia’s products. 

“A reversible line that is also weatherproof? Sounds impossible. Build me one.”

“It’s perfect. Now make it better.”

The photos were simply hilarious, especially the one with her in a Mao jacket with the copy that read, “Quotes from Chairman Ma – Inspiration from Mother Boyle, the Skiwear Revolutionary who kowtows to no one.” In many instances, too, her son Tim had to bear the brunt of Ma Boyle’s exacting standards. In one of the ads, he was seen in a Columbia jacket, enduring the car wash to show that the outdoor apparel was tough, durable and of good quality.

All moms have this in common – they become fierce when their children’s well-being gets threatened.

Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who endorsed the book, said, “I have always believed in the unrivaled importance of mothers. And no one confirms my belief more than Gert Boyle. She is a mother, tycoon, an athlete, an entertainer, a motivator and a generous soul. The athletes of Special Olympics are lucky that she is a mother to them and to us all. Read this book if you want to understand why being a mother is the most important job in the world.”

Gert Boyle in 2013
Gert Boyle in 2013. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Gert Boyle passed away in November 2019 at the age of 95, leaving behind an indelible mark as an icon in the outdoor apparel industry, becoming the first woman ever to be inducted into the International Sporting Goods Hall of Fame.

But more than the “Gertisms” and the secrets to her success that are found in the chapter titled “Ma Boyle’s Recipes” – what really stands out for me is the I-won’t-take-shit-from-anyone attitude that she had in order to protect the business and ultimately, the family and the people who worked for her.

Implicit in the book are the life lessons about not giving up despite overwhelming odds. Simply put, she had to survive because the business, the employees and her family had to survive. And while it was not directly said, a tough mom would want the best from her children – even if it means putting them through the wringer (or in the case of Tim Boyle, the car wash). Never mind if she gets branded as a nag.

One of the reasons why the book continues to resonate with me to this day (aside from the killer cover) – is that it reminds me of my own journey as a mother, having to put up (and continuing) with so many things in this rollercoaster called life. But along with the drudgery and sometimes backbreaking work that goes with being a mother as well as provider is the warm feeling that comes along when you receive a hug of appreciation, and the joy of seeing your son’s face light up at successes no matter how small.

I have to confess that one of the most gratifying moments I experienced was when office colleagues presented me with this “Tough Momma Award” during our traditional Christmas awarding ceremonies, perhaps because they see me as someone feisty and well, motherly despite that. I’m called all sorts of names — Mommy Bing, Mama, Inay, Nanay, Mami Bing, Mumshie – by younger officemates past and current whom I have laughed and cried with, shared heartaches and small victories with, and I must say the thought of being considered an office mom leaves a warm feeling inside.

Bing tough momma tag
The ‘Tough Momma’ award that the author received from officemates

I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that there’s a tough mom in every one of us – we all step up to the plate and become fierce when the well-being of those we love and care for gets threatened. And guess what — no matter how old we may get, we will never outgrow our need for a mother.


About the Writer
Bing Parel

Bing Parel is a Senior Vice President for the Editorial Department of WSP Incorporated, a Filipino-owned communications firm. In her past life, she was a travel magazine writer and associate editor for a glossy, and was also involved in the national campaign of a presidential candidate. She describes herself as a domestic diva on weekends and confesses that one of her frustrations is the inability to solve a Rubik’s Cube despite her teenage son’s patient encouragement and tutorial attempts.


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