Boyle in the Columbia Sportswear employee store at ehadquarters just outside Beaverton. The company employs 4,000 people in the United States, Asia and Europe and has outlets in over 100 countries.
// Photo by Anthony Pidgeon
Columbia’s rebranding initiative and subsequent modifications tell a story about the company — a story about a company willing to try new things and make mistakes, with Nike lurking, omnipresent, in the background. But if the footwear behemoth looms large in the Columbia psyche, it’s not just because Nike veterans have left their imprint on the company or because Nike has far bigger coffers. There's a qualitative distinction, one that underscores the challenges facing Columbia, as well as the company’s ability to capitalize on a less corporate and more familial cast of characters to bolster its brand identity.
Nike, says Boyle, “is supported by sports and marketed by utilizing powerful celebrity athletes to support the brand.” Columbia, by contrast, operates in the outdoor sector, where there is a noticeable dearth of celebrity hikers and fishermen. “The outdoor business,” Boyle says, “has to be driven by other motivators.”
To understand Columbia’s take on some of those motivators, start with the company’s hit 2011 satirical ad for Omni-Heat, in which Dutch stuntman Wim Hof roams the Arctic in nothing but shorts. “Wim Hof is clearly a nut,” says Boyle, who showed the clip during a recent appearance at a Salem Rotary Club meeting. “He’s the antispokesperson.”
With its fan culture and “Just Do It” messaging, that other apparel company down the street is an unabashed marketing machine. But Columbia is more ironic, with ads that poke fun at the image of the rugged outdoorsman while touting the endurance and technical aspects of the company’s products. That sardonic tone may be a reflection of Boyle, a man longtime friend John von Schlegell, among other friends and colleagues, describes as “really funny,” with a dry, understated sense of humor. But the Hof commercial is also a modern update on the company’s enormously successful “One Tough Mother” advertising campaign, which, in the 1980s and ’90s, transformed the Oregon label into an internationally recognized apparel company and made Gert Boyle the face of Columbia Sportswear for decades.
“Anybody who knows about the company knows about her,” says Boyle. “Few know about me, and that’s fine.”
At 88, Boyle senior is chair of the board; she, Tim and his sister and director, Sarah Bany (the proprietor of Moonstruck Chocolates), own 62% of Columbia stock. In 2011 Boyle’s total compensation was $1.9 million, including $859,000 in salary. He took a 50% pay cut for 2012 after the unseasonably warm weather shrank the company’s sales forecast, prompting the company to lay off about 80 employees. Following a cold winter in 2010, the company posted record earnings in 2011. Today Columbia’s stock is trading at about $52 a share, down from about $70 in May 2011.
Along with its self-referential advertising, Columbia’s family-controlled but publicly traded status is another one of the dualities running through the company. It’s a combination that makes Columbia a better company, Boyle says. Columbia has to abide by the transparency requirements of a public company yet also enjoys a close-knit, highly contributory board. Having a woman as the face of the company is also another “differentiator,” he says.
Gert Boyle still goes to work every day, chauffeured to and from the Mirabella retirement community in Portland’s South Waterfront neighborhood, where she has lived ever since she was the victim of a botched robbery and kidnapping attempt in 2010. “I’d like to see the company stabilize,” she says one morning from her office, which is just 100 yards from her son’s. “I’d like the weather to get really cold. And Europe … well, it’s just as the Irish say: the shits.”