BY LINDA BAKER
Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle and his dog, Rocky, duck hunting on Sauvie Island. Watching Rocky "work" and the "modest amount of skill" it takes to shoot a moving target are among the pleasures Boyle takes in duck hunting.
// Photo by Anthony Pidgeon
On an uncharacteristically gorgeous November morning, the skies are blue, the sun is shining and Tim Boyle, president and CEO of Columbia Sportswear, is not at all happy. “If it were nasty, crummy, blowy, rainy, we’d see a lot more ducks flying around,” says Boyle, sticking his camouflaged head out of a duck blind. An avid duck hunter, Boyle likes to head out to Sauvie Island, sometimes waking at dawn before heading to the office, where the CEO is known for distributing the spoils to his staff.
But on this particular day, 63-year-old Boyle has yet to take a shot, even after decamping for an hour on swampy waters. On clear days, apparently, mallards prefer to hang out on the lake rather than fly around looking for cover.
The specter of clear and balmy skies has been a problem for Boyle on and off the hunting grounds. Columbia depends on sales of cold-weather products for about two-thirds of its revenue, so mild winters in 2011-12 depressed profits by 4.5% during the third quarter of last year; sales dropped about 4%. But if Boyle’s ill-fated duck-hunting outing is a metaphor for Columbia circa 2013, there’s more at stake than the weather. A sluggish global economy is also putting a damper on business, especially in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, where sales during the third quarter of last year were down 40%.
There are internal pressures as well. The company’s profits are below industry averages, and its stock growth has underperformed compared to its peers in the past 18 months.
Columbia, which employs 4,000 people worldwide and grossed $1.7 billion in 2011, enjoys broad geographic distribution, excellent sourcing and widespread product appeal, says Boyle. “But we need to grow,” he says. “Frankly, we need to grow much faster.”
At the dawn of its 75th anniversary, Columbia’s captain is trying to right his ship and then go full-steam ahead. In 1971 Boyle left the University of Oregon to help his mother, the indomitable Gert Boyle, run Columbia after his father and second-generation owner, Neal Boyle, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Forty years later, he’s proud of helping transform a family-owned business started by his immigrant grandfather into a company that has become a leader in an increasingly crowded global marketplace.
“But there’s a company down the street that has basically the same business model,” says Boyle, alluding dryly to Nike. “They design in Portland, market globally and source globally. They do $25 billion and we do $2 billion. We’re nowhere near our potential.”
To help reach that potential, Boyle and his team are launching new initiatives, debuting new warm-weather technologies and expanding geographically. These projects do more than shine a light on company tactics; they also underscore the unique character of an iconic Oregon company and its CEO, a man whose rumpled hair and understated speaking style makes him seem less a captain of industry than, well, a Columbia Sportswear outlet shopper — or, for that matter, a duck hunter. That contrast is an accurate reflection of Columbia, an outdoor apparel company that often feels more like a small family-owned business than a multinational corporation.
“We’re humble, not the kind of company that thinks it has everything figured out,” says Woody Blackford, Columbia’s vice president of global innovation. Boyle himself “is incredibly modest,” says Blackford. “He’s not the sort to overhype.” But if Boyle walks softly, he also carries a big stick. “Tim has a fixation on all aspects of the business,” observes Blackford. “For him it’s somewhat of a sport. Every season is a competition where it’s fun to win and sucks to lose.”
Modest yet aspirational, local but global, a purveyor of traditional hunting gear as well as high-tech outdoor fashion — Columbia is defined by the tension between its Pacific Northwest brand legacy and the desire to innovate in a rapidly changing international marketplace. Today internal pressures to grow the business are increasing, as are external pressures bearing down on that growth. Against that backdrop, Columbia emerges as a company trying to resolve those tensions, and to figure out which to exploit and which to overcome.