Columbia Sportswear moved its headquarters from Portland to its current location near Beaverton in 2001.
// Photo by Sierra Breshears
Columbia’s mother-son team reinforces the brand as tough, funny and accessible, if not exactly aspirational. But when it comes to technological innovation, the company is increasingly geeky and very serious. For decades, much of Columbia’s innovation push has focused on keeping people warm. But this is the era of climate change, and as Columbia seeks to grow amid all sorts of global transformations, a company once focused on keeping people warm is now devoting more resources to keeping people cool.
Most of the world’s population lives in hot-weather environments, says Blackford. To tap that demographic, Columbia this spring is launching a breakthrough technology: Omni-Freeze Zero, a fabric that harnesses the power of sweat to make the wearer feel cooler.
Embedded with distinctive blue rings — that visibility thing again — the technology will debut in dozens of Columbia products, ranging from Columbia’s new Drainmaker watersport/running shoes to apparel and accessories. A similar technology, Cool.Q Zero, will be introduced in many products under the Mountain Hardwear brand.
The new polymer should help Columbia equalize sales of winter and summer products, says Blackford, adding that few competitors occupy the “cooling” space. “It’s one of our best opportunities to grow market share.”
Reed Anderson, an analyst with Northland Capital Markets, agrees. In a typical year, he says, Columbia gets more than 60% of sales and almost 100% of profits from its third and fourth quarters, which encompass the fall/winter selling season. “As Columbia’s warm-weather assortment continues to expand, the brand will become more relevant to its customers, both retailers and consumers alike,” says Anderson.
Targeting the cooling market is one way Columbia aims to boost revenues; expanding in the world’s largest potential geographic market is another. Columbia is already the largest outdoor brand in China, where the growing consumer demographic views the brand as “ultra-premium,” according to Boyle. This past fall the company signed a joint-venture agreement with Swire Resources, a distributor of Columbia products in China since 2004. Swire’s 2011 Columbia sales totaled approximately $123 million, and they are expected to achieve double-digit growth for 2012. The partnership will help bolster Columbia’s presence in the world’s most populous country, Boyle says. “China is our biggest opportunity.”
A Democrat who voted for Romney, Boyle did single out a potential limiting factor: the Obama administration’s recent trade cases against China. “Our business is very oriented toward trade, and Obama has put a lot of our business at risk,” he says. Those kinds of declarations spotlight Boyle’s occasionally controversial political persona as corporate executive who airs critiques of government officials and then takes action. In 2009 Boyle helped finance a Sam Adams recall campaign; four years earlier, he delivered a famous speech at the Portland Business Alliance lambasting city leaders for creating a hostile business environment.
“For those who agreed, there was a private moment of euphoria,” says Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association. “But for the rest of the room, it was a big thud.” Boyle’s decision to cofound a higher-education PAC last year, a move aimed at supporting independent governance for state universities, springs from a similar sensibility, Deckert says. “He’s one of a few CEOs who throws deep and plants a flag.”
In business and in politics, Boyle can be pugnacious. But this is a complicated man. On the subject of Columbia’s sluggish sales in Europe, he is more self-effacing. “I’d love to blame 100% of our problems on the weather and the economy. But there are other factors.” The company needs to do a better job identifying the right mix of products for retailers and delivering services more efficiently, he says — tasks Boyle accomplished on a recent weeklong European tour. “It was a good trip,” he says, noting that Norwegian chain XXL wanted more accessories, which apparently sell at a much higher rate than in the U.S. “It’s much clearer what we need to be doing to get the business back in line.”
The trip yielded other benefits. “We always have to remind ourselves that the company is so much bigger than just Portland,” Boyle says. “We can get a little myopic.”