With the death of Columbia’s chairperson, Gert Boyle (95), the global sports industry lost a spirited, inspiring and visionary leader with a delightful sense of humour … often targeted at herself. Sports Trader had the privilege of interviewing her when she visited South Africa in 2004 when Columbia was introduced into the country via the newly-opened Duesouth chain of stores.
We therefore could enjoy some of her most famous utterances first hand – for example her recipe for success: “early to bed, early to rise and advertise!” Lots of hard work and innovative promotions became the brand’s building blocks.
She recounted how she told the bankers who offered her a pittance to cover the outstanding loans of the Columbia clothing factory after her husband’s sudden death from a heart-attack at age 47: “for that amount I’ll run the company into the ground myself.”
Instead, she and her son Tim, who was then a senior at the University of Oregon, grew the almost-bankrupt company into one of the world’s biggest selling brands. Gert attributed this to “luck” that the young people in the early 1970s changed from wearing grey slacks and blazers to colourful, individually-styled garments and the growing popularity of the outdoor look. “My son (who became Columbia CEO) is especially good at tagging what will be new trends and getting the right products in place,” she told us.
Their right product was the Quad hunting coat with its waterproof, breathable outer shell in camouflage colours and reversible inner liners for warmth, which was such a hit with hunters that they transferred the same features to the Bugaboo ski jacket … and launched one of the most successful outdoor clothing brands sold in 66 countries. Their registered layered system – made from waterproof, breathable fabric – changed the way that people thought about outdoor brands.
Their irreverent and very funny advertising campaign also contributed hugely to establishing Columbia as a brand that is quite different from the run-of-the-mill. As a counterpoint to the nurturing, cookie-baking mommy figure normally depicted in advertising, they created the ultra-tough, uncompromising Ma Boyle persona who would put her hapless son through the most arduous ordeals (like being buried in snow, hanging from a cliff, etc.). He would, of course, be wearing Columbia and after each rescue, the Tested Tough tag line would reinforce the Columbia message. What made these adverts utterly unique was that instead of using actors, Gert and Tim Boyle played their parts.
“I told Tim he would have to pump me up to use me in the ads when I die,” she joked back then. Many people now wish that he would also be able to pump in some of her indomitable spirit.