This is Boyle’s plan for Columbia’s 75th birthday: to get the company back in line. He’s got his hands full. Fifty percent of Columbia product sold in Russia is counterfeit; last year’s warm winter has created an inventory backlog; and on top of everything else, McCormick, the architect of the company’s rebranding strategy, resigned last summer citing undisclosed personal reasons. “It’s increased my workload,” says Boyle, adding that the company has not yet decided if and how to reorganize in the aftermath of McCormick’s departure.
That sounds a bit like the Columbia ship is adrift. But despite recent disappointing sales results, Boyle is careful to say, Columbia is doing a better job managing expenses today than in the past. “I’m often asked by investors how big the company can get,” says Boyle. “The answer is simple: There’s no top.” On the subject of Columbia’s below-average profits, he is more specific: “We should at least be average.”
It’s a modest-sounding goal. Then again, striking a midpoint is Columbia’s modus operandi, be it balancing the innovative and the conservative, warm weather with cool, or high fashion with functionality. It’s a strategy that has brought the company tremendous success and a few setbacks.
In the 21st century, of course, most multibrand, multigeography apparel companies have something for everyone. But Columbia seems to wear the complexities and contradictions of globalization on its sleeve, a quality that makes the company appear more accessible than its competitors. At the same time, Columbia’s balancing act is now at a tipping point, as the company moves more aggressively to embrace its innovation and marketing side, while absorbing, more quietly, its solid and traditional Pacific Northwest heritage.
It’s a corporate dynamic that will continue to be shaped not only by global forces but by internal developments as well. Boyle’s son Joe works for Columbia as a merchandising manager. (A daughter, Molly, works for Gap.) But Columbia is not a family-owned company, and Boyle will not be appointing a fourth-generation successor. Asked about that succession, Boyle says pragmatically, “We have a lot of great employees with significant stakes in the company who are quite capable.”
Columbia Sportswear without the Boyles would be a very different Columbia indeed: slicker, perhaps, less straightforward, less Oregonian. It’s impossible to know. One thing is clear: For better or for worse, the Columbia of today straddles several identities, a trait perhaps best embodied by Boyle himself, a man with a signature ability to navigate different worlds.