First of all, Tim Boyle is NOT moving Columbia Sportswear to Chicago or anywhere else. His notoriously tough mother, Gert, isn't going anywhere either. As for his first grandchild (and her first great-grandchild), the Boyle plan is to keep him in Oregon as well, or more specifically, to create a future Oregon so full of opportunity that he won't want to live anywhere else.
That will take some doing, especially when it comes to higher ed. Oregon's higher education system has been struggling under the weight of overbearing state micromanagement combined with embarrassingly sub-par public funding. The state ranks near the bottom of the list when it comes to funding its universities, yet as Boyle pointed out to a room full of business leaders this morning, that measly level of support is documented in a mind-boggling 6,300 line items in the state budget. The situation has gotten so dire that the University of Oregon is proposing a precedent-setting sale of $1 billion in bonds to help fund the the school for the next 30 years.
"Our state leaders seem to have transformed crisis into a way of life," Boyle told the crowd. "And this is not acceptable."
The applause was loud after that line. At this point in his speech, Boyle appeared prepared to drop a well-placed truth bomb. That's what he did five years ago at a similar speech at a Portland Business Alliance event. Five years later people still talk about that speech, in which Boyle calmly ripped local leaders to shreds for spending millions on a jail they didn't have the money to operate, attempting to buy a power utility they didn't know how to run and nit-picking would-be entrepreneurs to death.
Today's speech was flat in comparison, even tame. More importantly, it was glaringly short on specifics. Don't expect Boyle's comments to make the front page of the paper tomorrow or to send shock waves through Portland's business and political circles. For all of his great set-up in describing the problem, Boyle never explained exactly how he would reform the higher ed system. Nor did he explain how he would fix a tax system he compared to "a stereo system built around an eight-track tape player." The same goes for the bungled Columbia Crossing bridge project and the state's Public Employee Retirement System. He criticized all of these things but offered no clear suggestions to fix them.
At least three times this morning, Boyle repeated what appeared to be a canned phrase: "There's never going to be enough money, so we're going to have to set priorities to allow the state to be successful in the future."
Well, OK. Hard to argue with that. But what does it mean?
Perhaps he was humbled by the pitiful performance of the second campaign to recall Portland Mayor Sam Adams. Boyle was the first major business leader to back the recall, but if he expected other major players to follow his lead, he was soon proven wrong. All Boyle chose to say about the matter this morning was, "If you ask me about that, please do not be surprised if I simply scratch my head and say, 'I do not recall.'"
The rise of Columbia Sportswear under the Boyle family, from less than $1 million in annual sales in 1970 to more than $1 billion today, is an enduring success story, and Columbia's stellar results from the first quarter indicate that the ride is far from over. There is no disputing Boyle's ability to run a complex, global company, and run it well. Nor is there any doubt about his dedication to the community, as evidenced by a recent family gift of $2.5 million to the OHSU Knight Cancer Center. The fact that Boyle is not only staying in Oregon but investing in it heavily while putting his weight behind crucial issues such as higher education reform is certainly good news.
I just wish his reform ideas were as sharply formed as his criticisms.
Ben Jacklet is managing editor of Oregon Business.