Tough times require tough companies – and tougher leaders. That’s why it’s no surprise that 60-year old Columbia Sportswear continues to blaze ahead of apparel companies worldwide. Join us as the company’s chairman and CEO, Tim Boyle, reflects on how one family transformed a hat business into today’s outdoor apparel behemoth boasting sales of $3B+. What made the difference – great products or clever advertising? Where did the company get its distinctly irreverent style? And what did Tim’s mom, the iconic Gert Boyle, really think about her marketing-driven persona of “one tough mother”? Listen to Tim’s conversation with Rob Cornilles and find out.
Watch the episode here:
Tim Boyle | One Tough Difference-Maker
I’m sure like you as a kid, I wanted to hide under the blanket the first time I ever watched the suspenseful Wizard of Oz. I knew everything would be all right for Dorothy and her friends when we finally discovered that controlling the big, bad wizard was a gentle and compassionate man who saw the potential in others and help make their dreams come true. My guest is Tim Boyle, the warm and humble man behind a powerful and sometimes edgy curtain of Columbia Sportswear. As I’ve known for years and you’re about to know, Tim is a humble visionary, a faithful steward, and a discreet but generous philanthropist. Tim Boyle, Columbia Sportswear’s Chairman and CEO is our Game Face Exec.
I want to thank you, Tim Boyle, for joining us. It’s a treat to have you. You’re someone that I’ve admired for a long time. The business community, the academic community, the entertainment and sports community, the outdoor community, everyone has admired the rise of Columbia Sportswear in many years that you’ve been leading it. I look forward to the conversation.
It’s always great for me to talk about the company. That’s fun for me. Thank you.
Before we talk about the company, a lot of people are interested in your personal story. We are both Oregonians. You’ve lived in Oregon your entire life. You were born in Portland, weren’t you, Tim?
I was born on Tucson.
Were you raised in Portland?
My parents were students at the University of Arizona and they lived there for a while. My grandparents lived there. I was born in Tucson and moved to Portland.
I’m going to ask you to complete this story for me. I’m going to set it up. Your grandparents on your mother’s side fled Nazi Germany in 1937 with your mother, of course. They got their way to Portland, Oregon. While they’re here in Portland, they bought a hat company and they renamed it, The Columbia Hat Company. That was after the Columbia River, which anyone who’s been to Portland knows that that goes through Portland, intersects with the Willamette River, and goes out to the Pacific Ocean. While they were leading that company, they turned it over to your father, Neil. Your mother was taking care and raising a family until in 1970 when your father unexpectedly passed away. Meanwhile, you’re at the University of Oregon pursuing a journalism degree. You were one year away from graduation.
It was December so I was halfway through my senior year.
Tragedy hits your family. Your mother has a business and it’s got about 40 or so employees at the time. She’s not accustomed to running a business. She’s been, as I say, paying attention to raising the family. What happens to the Boyle family at that moment?'It's perfect. Now make it better.' – Gert Boyle Click To Tweet
The company was a tiny company. In 1970, the year my dad died, the revenue was $1 million. In 1971, when I came home to help my mom and my grandmother who was still alive at that time who run the business, we went to $500,000. By the early ‘70s, we’d lost all the equity in the business. Things were bad. My dad had taken out an SBA loan a month or so prior to his death. We were trying to figure out how to pay the loan back and make payroll, etc. The bank rightly called the note. We didn’t know what we were doing. They said, “You have to sell the business.” We tried but a money-losing little tiny business like the one that we were running at that time is not marketable.
The bank said, “We’ll give you a few more months to figure this out. Otherwise, we’ll have to liquidate.” The banker had loaned some money to some guys starting a shoe business in Beaverton. I can get one of these guys to help me understand how to run a business. We were very fortunate. Somebody joined a pro bono board who was one of the early Nike employees and helped us to focus our time and effort on the right stuff which was building a product that people wanted to buy that had some point of differentiation. That was the turning point. In 2019, we were slightly north of $3 million.
Tim, as to your career path, you got a journalism degree. I presume that was because you wanted to go into journalism.
I was planning to go to law school.
Your mother calls and says, “I need your help, Tim. Come work with me for a little bit.”
She didn’t have to call. I’d worked in the business from a young age. I knew nothing but I thought I knew a lot but I didn’t know that we had to help the family out. That was my calling. That’s what happened.
I want to talk a little bit about your mom as well, Gert Boyle, who has effectually been termed one tough mother for many years. Unfortunately, she passed away in November of 2019 at the age of 95. Those of us who knew her would all say that she was a beloved woman. We don’t know her as a mother. We know that she was one tough mother for business, but as a mom, growing up and later, as you were business partners, what was she like? Can you give us a little bit of background or an insight of Gert Boyle?
She had come from a tough spot as a child. She grew up in Nazi Germany and being Jewish was not a great place to be. She had a lot of concerns about German products. We didn’t have a lot of German products in the house growing up. She wasn’t incredibly religious. I don’t think I’d ever been to a synagogue until I was at my grandfather’s funeral. My dad was an Irish Catholic guy from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania. We grew up in the Catholic church and my mom was right there with all the other mothers. She was quite vocal if someone would make a comment about Jewish people or Jewish religion or whatever. Other than that, she was June Cleaver and she’s not a great cook.
She obviously developed a survival instinct. I can’t psychoanalyze a legend like Gert Boyle but she always felt like her back was against the wall, needed to prove, and exceed expectations. You mentioned a moment ago that she had an acerbic tongue and very quick-witted. A lot of people don’t know unless they know her, she had a fantastic sense of humor despite those difficulties. Where did that sense of humor come from? Did she inherit it or she developed it?
The German people are not well-known for their sense of humor, but she had a great sense of humor. That might be from my dad who also had a great sense of humor. She never took herself too seriously and was quite willing to make a joke about almost anything. My grandmother, not so much but my grandfather had a good sense of humor. It helped us a lot in the business in terms of differentiating ourselves because the brand Columbia is known for a lot of things but almost singularly for its irreverence in terms of how we approach what some people think is an incredibly serious topic being in the outdoors. You take a particular approach that’s different and it’s been good for us.
She had a famous line when she’s talking to employees. She would say, “It’s perfect, now make it better.” That’s an attitude that always permeates Columbia Sportswear.
We try and live by that mantra.
You mentioned this irreverent attitude. That sounds very familiar when you consider Nike, that other company across the freeway from you in Beaverton, Oregon. You grew up at about the same pace, same time, and you shared ideas. I know you’re a very close friend of Phil Knight and all the leaders at Nike. What was it about that era, perhaps even that geography that created that push back attitude that spawned these wonderful businesses?
It’s serendipitous that both companies are here in the Portland area. Who can say anything other than laudatory things about what Phil Knight has done for the area and his business in terms of growing it and making it the juggernaut that it is now? It’s nice to be sometimes discussed in the same sentence with them but they’re a very large company. We tried to emulate in many ways what they do but at the same time, being different and distinctive. The fact that if you’re from Oregon, you’re either a logger or a fisherman and that’s what people do here. There are a lot of people who do those things here but there are other things as well.
Getting a degree in Journalism and having a desire to become a lawyer, what kind of law did you want to practice?
It’s a good thing that I didn’t go into law because I have no idea what being an attorney meant and what it was. I would have ended up being a bad attorney. Growing up, watching Perry Mason, you said, “I guess that’s what an attorney does.” I think I did the right thing.
You have this spirit of innovation and I would even say it must run through your veins because your mom and your father had it. It probably started with your grandparents but you have been at the core of the innovation that has driven Columbia Sportswear since you became involved with it in 1971. You have innovated and created products for the outdoor world. Tim, I know you’re going to deflect this and you’re going to say you put good people around you but you have to have a unique talent to be able to inspire that kind of creativity that comes out of Columbia Sportswear. I have to ask you, what have you discovered about yourself since you’ve been running the company?
I’ve learned to be a capable merchant. We talk about this all the time in the company, nobody needs another brand of apparel or footwear. There’s plenty in the US but if you go to China or around the world, there are thousands of apparel companies. That means if you’re going to exist in this business, you better be different. That’s where we’ve taken the approach to focus on innovation and technologies that can differentiate the products that we can own.
We’ve invested fairly heavily in people and the capabilities of developing our own commodities and products that get turned into ultimately consumer products. That’s been a focus for us and it’s served us well. Our marketing needs to have a different tone than others. It’s about being different. It might be the same in every business. If you silkscreen your message on a t-shirt, you are in the apparel business. The barriers to entry are low.Never ask your employees to make sacrifices that you are not prepared to make. Click To Tweet
You talked about being different and you also talk about marketing. You’ve told this story a thousand times, probably a million times, but for those readers who have not know it yet, the story about the whole marketing around your mom, how did that originate?
It’s about a focus on differentiation and our advertising agency. At that time, we were a very tiny company. Revenue of $5 million to $7 million, something in that range. In the early ‘80s, there were a few companies where there’s a woman president of a company. My mom was president at that time. They said, “We need to explore how we might point out to consumers the differences about Columbia.” When we had an ad rejected by The New Yorker magazine, we knew we had something. That’s the way to get noticed on a small budget and it morphed into something was quite effective for the company.
Was your mom a willing participant or did she go into it begrudgingly?
Sometimes we said, “Gert, we make this stuff up. You don’t need to live this tough mother thing way.” She enjoyed it. There were a few times where we may have asked her to do something that she thought was not lady-like but she was ultimately a good sport with it.
Of all the innovations and inventions that have come out of Columbia Sportswear, Tim, it’s like picking a favorite child. I know what that might be but I’d like it from your perspective. Which is the innovation that turned the tables for the company and helped the explosion?
I always remember the interchange jacket that we developed, which took a garment that was in the marketplace in many different forms and allowed us to make it in a way that could be used in multiple different ways. You could buy one jacket, the liner which was insulated and zipped out. That was a very different product. It fit well into our system of marketing that had Gert describing it in many different ways. That was what launched the business on the back of that kind of product. We’ve had others since then. The most famous is the Omni-heat reflective lining which was developed in-house. We sold more than $1 billion worth of products with that lining. We continue to innovate on that reflective system to give us a constant flow of new products coming out using that technology. There are a few, but those two stand out.
When it comes to securing accounts, whether it’s a relationship with a particular organization, association, or event, was there a particular moment that you reflect back on and you say, “That was a difference-maker for our company.” Achieving that win from a sales perspective, if you will. We, at Game Face Execs, like to talk about how everything we do revolves around the sales process. Nothing happens at Columbia until someone sells something like in any other business. Was there a particular sales event where you landed that account and you said, “That was also a turning point for us?”
If I think back about it, my focus has been sales and merchandising. For our company, those two processes are so intertwined that it’s hard to pick out a particular event where we opened an account or we made a sale that made a difference. It was the blending of those selling, talking to customers and having them say, “If you did the following to that garment, I would buy a lot more.” Having the ability to make those changes to accommodate a customer request, those were the times I remember.
Our interchange garment, which was so impactful on the company was designed during a sales call that I made it to a company in Grand Junction, Tennessee which doesn’t exist anymore. It was a catalog operation called Dunes and they sold products for Auckland Bird Hunters. We talked about the garments we were making and they said, “If you took this lining and zipped it around a little bit.” That was a meeting that had a significant impact on the company. It was more about learning and listening than it was about making a big sale.
I’m not trying to flatter you but as the expert salesperson that you are, how do you balance listening and learning from the customer but also portraying expertise that the customer trusts? Sometimes, the customer doesn’t want to give you ideas. They want to know what you’re selling, “Tell me what you got.” Other times, they want to be collaborative obviously and they want to provide input. How have you in your career and how does your team balance that we have to be out there and listening to the customer but they also expect us to bring expertise and knowledge to every discussion?
In our business, we always talk about being around for the long-term. It’s not like the real estate business where you’re making a transaction, wiping your hands and leaving. That’s a different kind of selling. For us, we want to be on your sales floor in your store for a long time. If we’re going to do that, we have to be more profitable and turn at a higher rate than the other brands that we’re competing with. If we’re doing that the right way, you may want to buy 500 of something. We say, “We need to be buying 200 and turning it more frequently to give you a higher profit at the end of the season so when I come back to see you next season, you aren’t asking me to take back merchandise or somehow compensate you for your bad decision.”
It’s about as much as possible getting data from our retailers so that we can be a partner in terms of managing the inventory levels. We learned that in the tiny bit of work we did at Walmart. You’re familiar with the surreal brand that we bought in 1993. Their biggest customer when we bought them was Walmart. Now it’s Nordstrom and it’s a much different business. Walmart gave me every bit of information you could ask about how your products were selling so that you were a partner in terms of making them successful. We don’t do any business with Walmart at all, but something we learned early on in working with them was how important the data is and making them selling the right amount of merchandise, not as much as possible.
At Columbia, have you had a big fail that you can tell us about where great lessons were learned from it?
We’ve had more than one. When I think about important failures, it’s when we first launched our interchange garments, it seemed like it was a Midas touch. Everything we touched that we put this garment into, we put this innovation into work. We had multiple jackets. We had hats that you could take the lining out of. We also made a pair of ski pants with a zip outliner. Our retailers started describing that as Rubik’s pant because once you took it apart, there was no way you were going to get it back together. We’ve learned over time that you can extend products only so far.
I want to talk about where Columbia Sportswear is if we could. Of all the people reading this, very few of them can say, “In 2020, they are taking less salary than Tim Boyle is.” What I mean by that is, earlier in 2020, you reduced your salary to $10,000. Can you tell us why would you do that?
It’s not the first time I’ve done it, frankly. We’ve been a public company since 1998 and we’ve grown at an incredible rate and our investors have done quite well with the shares. I’m the largest shareholder and that comes with an obligation to do the right thing for the business. When times have been challenging for the company, I felt it was important that I live by example and made sacrifices that I was comfortable making but I wouldn’t want to ask employees to make sacrifices that I was not prepared to make. I made a significant reduction in my salary, and our key employees also made reductions in their salaries which was more laudable. I felt it’s important to do that so I did so.
Is it true that close to 9,000 employees you have, you make the least amount in 2020 in terms of salary?
I’m definitely in the low cortile, that’s for sure. We have a bunch of employees who are living in Asia but I’m the lowest paid. People have said I’m finally getting my true value.
You’re certainly the lowest at headquarters. Regarding your employees, you, at Columbia do a lot to support your employees, not just the ones at headquarters. How many employees of your 9,000 or so do you have there at the world headquarters in Portland?Two things are mandatory for employees at Columbia Sportswear: hard work and a sense of humor. Click To Tweet
Somewhere in the thousand.
You have a lot in Asia and around the world, but you’ve done some very interesting and compassionate things to build up the skillset, financial literacy, and the future of your employees. Whether they even remain with you, the things that they’re learning through you right now are going to benefit them and their families for years and perhaps even generations. I’m thinking about the HERproject, for example. Can you describe a little bit about that program or any others that you’re doing that are meaningful to you?
It’s especially important to talk about this in today’s America because there are a lot of people who don’t find the international nature of the business to be positive. I’m happy to explain why I feel differently. When I was growing up after World War II, inexpensive consumer products were beginning to be available from Asia and they were all made in Japan. As Japan grew and became more financially and economically stable, their rates of pay and their status as employees grew. It became impossible to make products in Japan that were inexpensive. Production of those kinds of commodities moved to Taiwan and Korea, both of which are now so strong economically that it’s impossible to build inexpensive consumer products there. They moved to China.
We have a big business selling product in China. Our folks who run that business says, “We don’t want to sell products that are made in China because they’re too expensive.” We make products in Bangladesh and Vietnam. We moved them to other parts of the world like Southern Africa where those people will also be lifted up by the economic boosts that are going to be floated by international trade. What we find in areas of the world that are quite poor that women oftentimes manufacture more products and they don’t have all the educational opportunities obviously that are present from more developed countries.
We’ve established a process where we partner with the factory and provide education with HERproject on a number of topics including health, family wellness, especially financial acumen so that these women can bring themselves out of poverty. Frankly, they can be great parents and bring their families up from categories of literacy into education and significant sustainable focus on their lives. We enjoy doing it.
When someone in your leadership team brings an idea to you, as far as, “Here’s a new area of corporate social responsibility that I recommend we approach or we enter into,” what’s going to get a yes from you? Is there a sweet spot for you personally where when you hear it, it instantly resonates and you want to move forward?
Under the category of differentiation, we want to make sure that we’re doing things that are different and unique. One other area is a collaboration with a company called Planet Water where we build water purification towers in communities where the children of the workers in our contract factories live where they don’t have the ability to have clean water for hand-washing and consumption of food. We can provide those fairly inexpensively so we can put a lot of them in place. It’s a different area that others may ignore or not think as important and not as impactful. Those are the kinds of things that turn the needle for me.
These are my words now but I see the planet as Columbia’s playground so there’s a dichotomy at face value. We’re getting people way out into the outdoors, as you often say at Columbia and suggests that we need to go and enjoy the planet. The dichotomy that could be there is at the same time we want to preserve the planet. We want to protect the planet and let nature have its own course. Can you give us a little peek behind the curtain as to the discussions that you have within the walls of Columbia Sportswear about that?
That’s an interesting topic because we have many competitors who talk about their focus on the environment which is laudable. Under the category of being different, we think we provide as much or even more support to the environment than our competitors, but we can’t shout about it because it doesn’t resonate as being a point of differentiation. We focus on areas that can be impactful. As an example, we’ve invested heavily in processes and systems to help us load our containers in Asia destined for places around the world much more efficiently. We reduced the amount of containers that were pushing around the world to reduce greenhouse gases but it’s also a contributor to positive earnings for the company. That’s one example of how we might approach being different and making a difference.
A couple of more questions I want to ask and that is, if you were to bring someone into the Columbia family, how would you describe the employees and co-workers that would fit and be successful in your culture of Columbia?
You’d have to have a sense of humor, it’s mandatory, and you’re going to work hard. We don’t have a huge organization here. We have fairly thin management. A group of people who work here make a difference in a lot of different areas. They have responsibilities that are broad and require collaboration. Those things mean working hard, working long hours, and getting along with people. You better have a sense of humor because you’re going to be ribbed about some topic which is going to hopefully not offend you but make you sharper.
You haven’t mentioned any qualities that I could acquire in university or trade school. You’re talking more about personality traits. I assume it’s because you know that you can teach those skills if you find the right personality.
You have to be able to accept criticism. That would be important. You have to have an innate embrace of education. It may be that you didn’t graduate from college, you didn’t attend college, or you learned along the way but you continued to learn. That’s critical because we don’t expect someone who graduates from college or has an MBA to step in and understand how to be a contributor. We do expect people to understand that you’re going to be learning and you have to continue to learn. That’s important.
From what little I know, Tim, my sense is that Columbia Sportswear is going to be around a lot longer than you, me, and a lot of the members of your leadership team. What I’m about to ask is not a prophecy and it’s certainly not a death wish but I’m curious, if you were to write the inscription on the headstone of Columbia Sportswear, what would you wanted to say?
Hopefully, we made a difference. People in companies that make a difference get remembered and those that don’t. It won’t be in inscription stone. It will be remembered in people’s psyches when they think about the outdoors.
You’ve made a difference in the community where I was raised, Portland, Oregon and around the world. In fact, I’m wearing one of your shirts. I happen to wear this particular shirt, Tim, on a very momentous occasion. I took one of my sons. We had a chance to go to Africa. Namibia, specifically. We had a fantastic life-changing experience. We were wearing Columbia Sportswear gear the entire time from head to toe. There’s an object behind me that’s one of the take-homes from that wonderful trip and what beautiful people we experienced there.
I took Columbia with me on that life-changing experience. Tim, I want to thank you again for your time. Thank you for your insights and what you’ve done, not only for Columbia Sportswear but for all the communities in which Columbia exists and does make a difference in the lives and the careers of people, and you better their lives and their careers and their communities. I know you personally. You’re a humble person. You like to deflect credit but I want you to know that you’re a tremendous man, leader. I appreciate it and I admire you greatly.
Thanks for the compliments. We have a great team here and they make me look good which is a challenge. Thanks for your help. I enjoyed chatting about the company and about what we do.
All the best to Columbia for the rest of the year and beyond.
Thanks, Rob. I appreciate it.
About Timothy P. Boyle
Tim Boyle has served as chief executive officer of Columbia Sportswear Company since 1988 and reassumed the role of President in 2017, which he had previously held until 2015. Tim was appointed Chairman of the Board in 2020. He oversees operations of the active outdoor company from its Portland, Oregon headquarters.
Tim’s career with Columbia Sportswear began in 1971 when, during his senior year at The University of Oregon, his father, who had been running the company since 1964, died suddenly of a heart attack. His mother, Gert Boyle, quickly enlisted Tim’s help in order to continue the aggressive expansion that her husband had initiated and that had expanded the company’s sales that year to $1 million.
An alumnus of Portland, Oregon’s Jesuit High School (1967) and the University of Oregon (1971, B.S. Journalism), Tim serves on the Boards of Directors of Northwest Natural Gas Company and Craft Brew Alliance, Inc.
Tim is Joseph P. Boyle’s father.