Portland The University of Portland Magazine
   
 
Current Issue
Features
Images
Best of/Archive
Support the Magazine
  Current Issue: Summer 2003

Inventing ma

Yes, an ad agency invented Columbia Sportswear’s legendary Ma Boyle – but it was Life that made Gert Boyle ’97 hon. one real Tough Mother.

By Todd Schwartz

I. necessity

The morning is dark gray, light coming slowly into the sky the way it does in December in Portland, from no clear source, just seeping in. Gert Boyle’s mind is on getting her twelve-year-old daughter Sally ready for school, or maybe she’s thinking of Christmas, three weeks away, or, maybe about her other children, Kathy and Tim, soon to arrive home from college.

What she is not thinking is that her husband Neal will be dead in thirty minutes.

He is 47 years old, she is 46. They met, as Gert is fond of saying, “under the table at a frat party.” It was the University of Arizona, the Sigma Nu house, a faux Hawaiian luau. There she was, snockered in a sarong, and there he was, resplendent in rayon, and the rest was an enviable 23 years.

“My chest hurts,” he says on this early December morning, 1970, and Gert can see there is something very wrong. She calls the doctor, then tells Neal “we’re going to the hospital.” She and Sally help him into the car. Gert jumps into the driver’s seat, and before they’ve gone five blocks it becomes clear to her that they aren’t going to make it. She turns for the neighborhood fire station, where there is a resuscitator. They race there, the firemen do their best, but it is too late.

Neal dies in the firehouse parking lot.

For Gert, the light seeps back out of the day.

The very next day, she goes to Neal’s office. She has no choice. Neal had taken over the small-but-growing Columbia Sportswear Company after Gert’s father’s death in 1964, and just weeks ago they had taken out a SBA loan for $150,000, putting up their house, Neal’s life insurance, the family beach house, and Gert’s mother’s house as collateral. It is the busiest season of the year, deliveries are due, the employees are waiting, everything is on the line. Gert, who knows nearly nothing about running a company, a woman whose husband has just died in her arms, walks in and tells the staff she’s taking over the business and she hopes they will bear with her.

Thirty-four years from the day she takes over, Gert Boyle remembers it this way: “It was either lose everything or go to work, so I went to work. If you stay home and cry all day long, it isn’t going to change anything. And poverty was really not something I was looking forward to. I wasn’t thinking ‘Am I going to enjoy this? Am I going to survive?’ I had to survive. I was driving a little convertible at the time, and that wouldn’t have made a good bed, let me tell you. But you know, after you’ve been a mother for twenty-some years, you don’t ask anymore, ‘Oh, what am I going to do?!’ I always tell people that running a business is like running a household, only much more so.”

But in 1973, 36 months from the day she takes over, the company will be technically bankrupt, her line of credit all but gone, and Gert will find herself sitting across a desk from the man to whom her bank has insisted she sell the business. He looks right through her as he makes his final offer: $1,400.

II. mother

Her first business venture was babysitting in exchange for piano lessons. After college, she repaired vacuum cleaners. She spoke no English when she landed in America. On Gert’s desk today is a photo of her with Nelson Mandela. (And one with Jerry Seinfeld.) Back in the day, to save money, she cut the collars from her husband’s worn shirts, turned them around and sewed them on again. Today her Columbia Sportswear stock is worth several hundred million dollars.

Gertrude Lamfrom was born in Augsburg, in southern Germany some 40 miles from Munich, in 1924. She was the middle sister of three, and her father Paul owned the largest shirt, sock, and underwear factory in the country. Her family lived the Bavarian good life, complete with maids.

The Lamfrom family was Jewish, and by the mid-1930s it was clear that the wind had begun to blow very chillingly the wrong way. As was often the case in her father’s generation, the eldest son was shipped off to make his way in the New World, and several years earlier her uncle had sailed away to a faraway place called Portland, Oregon. In 1935, Gert’s grandmother traveled to America to visit her son, and before long Gert’s father received a cable from her: “Please dissolve my household. I am not coming back.” Gert’s other grandmother? Murdered by the Nazis at the XXX concentration camp.

Events in Nazi Germany soon went from very bad to even worse, and in 1937 Gert’s father decided to emigrate to America. His daughter Gertrude wouldn’t return to her homeland for sixty years.

“We were fortunate to be able to get out,” she says now. “We had to leave all our money behind. But we were allowed to bring goods with us, so my parents took my sisters and me to a shoe store and bought each of us 20 pairs of shoes, in different sizes! And they made us clothes and bought a dowry for each of us. Packed everything in two big containers that looked like the back ends of trucks. I wasn’t scared about leaving. I’ve always been one of those people who never live in the past.”

The family sailed first-class from Le Havre in Normandy to New York, then through the Panama Canal and on to Portland. They arrived in August, and immediately the three Lamfrom girls stood out from the Portland crowd.

“Oh, we were quite unusual,” says Gert. “My sisters and I had long braids and we looked very different. It became the thing to do for people to invite us over to their homes: ‘Get those little undernourished German girls over and feed them!’”

In fact, Gert was rather more elegantly nourished than most Oregonians she’d had her first exposure to caviar on the voyage from Europe. But she was an oddity, and she spoke no English, so, at 13 years old, she was placed in 1st grade. Two weeks later, she was moved up to 7th grade.

“I must have said ‘Hello’ or something, so they figured I suddenly spoke the language,” she says, “but my complete vocabulary was ‘One

a-penny, two a-penny, hot cross buns’! I remember one day the class was learning about Germany, so I had to talk about it. Everyone listened for the whole hour, and later they told me no one had understood a single word!”

Her father borrowed money and bought a small hat manufacturer, the Rosenfeld Hat Company. Having just fled the Nazis, and not entirely convinced that anti-Semitism was nonexistent in his new home, Gert’s father picked up the phone book and began looking for a new company name. “I won’t deny that I’m Jewish,” he told the family, “but I don’t have to put it on the label.” Reaching the Cs, he settled on Columbia Hat Company.

Gert and her sisters quickly learned English her older sister Hildegard went on to Reed College and became a noted biochemist who worked in the lab of Francis Crick, the Nobel-winning co-discoverer of the double-helix structure of DNA. The sisters also learned, with substantially less enthusiasm, to nail together the endless pieces of wood that went in the hat boxes to keep their father’s products from being crushed. Gert hated every minute of it: “Every nail that you hit with the hammer, you hit three times on your hand!”

On winter Sundays, the family often went skiing, and their home, filled with ski gear from their days in Germany, became the equipment-lending outlet for all the neighborhood kids.

After graduating from high school, Gert broke form when she took off by herself for the University of Arizona in Tucson.

“Everyone in high school seemed like they were in a little box, you know?” she says, perhaps imagining her father’s hats. “Certain shoes and cashmere sweaters and matching skirts, and ‘Oregon or Oregon State?’ and ‘Which sorority?’ I didn’t want to go through life being put into a little box. Plus, I was tired of the rain.”

So, metaphorically and meteorologically, she made a break for it

She had a very, very good time, and earned both a B.S. in sociology and an M.R.S. in Boyle.

“I was going to save the world, but I got married instead,” she says happily.

Her family had never been overly Orthodox, so there was nothing to prevent them from embracing the staunchly Catholic Neal Boyle. “I fell in love with a guy who happened to be Catholic, who cares?” Gert says. “It doesn’t really make any difference, and it didn’t bother my family one bit.”

They married in 1948. Gert had graduated, but Neal still had a year of college left, and to make money for school he sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Gert stayed home and repaired used ones.

“I would take apart a new vacuum to figure out how it was supposed to go together,” she remembers, “then I’d fix the old one. It was a dirty job, but we needed the money! Things weren’t always so rosy, you know!”

After Neal graduated, the young couple moved back to Portland and Neal went to work for his father-in-law’s company. He went on the road to sell merchandise; Gert began the life of a 1950s housewife and mother.

“A year after we were married,” she says, “Tim was born. Whoops! There you go! There’s Tim! Then I had a daughter, Kathy, and another daughter, Sally. In those days you really didn’t think about options the way people do now. You got married, you had kids, and that was it. And there wasn’t any question about whether you did or didn’t like it.

“There were days when you couldn’t get past a two-letter word, you know? But all of us did that. My friends and I would hurry up and get our housework done and then we’d all get togeth-er and have coffee in the neighborhood. That’s the way it used to be. You never said, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t want those kids’ or ‘I want to do this or that.’ We just kind of suffered through it. I thought I’d go through my life that way, but sometimes you have surprises thrown at you.”

Gert had little to do with Columbia in those years, although in 1955 she did design and make what may well have been the world’s first fishing vest. Branching out, her father and her husband had started a factory that made ski mittens all summer, and the factory needed something to make in the winter. So Gert invited a school of fishermen over to the house one night, asked them what they needed clothing-wise, and the answer was pockets, pockets, and how about some more pockets. So she designed and sewed up the prototype fishing vest, which became a strong seller. The magnetic buttons to hold the fishhooks were her idea.

And the days flowed smoothly past like the water in a good fly-fishing stream. Gert cooked and cleaned house and had coffee with the neighbors, and the kids grew and she and Neal taught them to ski and live and think.

“She was always the kind of mother who let us make our own mistakes,” her son Tim Boyle says, smiling. “It wasn’t a control freak environment, that’s for sure.”

Then came a December morning when the light drained from the sky.

III. invention

In the mid-1970s, a new, more active lifestyle clothed itself in sports apparel and began a boom that would continue for three decades. By 2003, the world market for activewear and athletic footwear was $145 billion. That’s $23 for every human being on the planet. In 1973, the Columbia Sportswear Company had a negative net worth of -$300,000. In 2004, Columbia crossed the billion-dollar threshold, recording sales of nearly $1.1 billion. A little more than 30 years ago, the head of one of the big accounting firms, who, like Gert Boyle, happened to be German, told her: “You vill nevah do anysing mit your company. It vould be a miracle.” Miraculously, some 12,000 retailers in 60 countries worldwide sell Columbia products, and they are the largest seller of skiwear in America thanks in large part to a jacket named for an obscure mountain range in British Columbia. Since 1982, more than five million Bugaboo parkas have been sold.

In the days and weeks after Neal died, Gert did her best to get a handle on the business, without much success.

“I ran into things you would not believe,’ she recalls. “The first inventory we did...what did I know about taking inventory? I mean, I know how to count, but I didn’t know how to take inventory. One of the company bookkeepers, who was getting $900 a month, said, ‘I’m not going to help with the inventory unless you pay me $1,500 a month.’ So I shed tears. And I said, ‘You can have it, but you do the inventory.’ What she didn’t realize is that women have memories. I let her stay at the company for another month and a half. Then I called her in the office and fired her.

“[Running the company] was terrible at first. Terrible! Ever see the movie The Birds? That’s sort of the way I felt. One of my guys canceled all the material that was on order for the next batch because he was so afraid we wouldn’t be able to pay. When the material didn’t come, I didn’t know what had happened! And a lot of people wouldn’t sell us fabric because, as they said, ‘That woman isn’t going to be able to run the business.’ Buyers wouldn’t order, because they thought we couldn’t deliver. Finally, the bankers said they were going to withdraw our line of credit. When Neal died, we had sales of $800,000. The next year we had sales of $600,000. The next year was worse than that. It all went the wrong way.”

“We absolutely didn’t know what we were doing,” echoes Tim, now Columbia’s president and CEO, who was a college senior thinking about law school at the time. “We made every mistake in the book. After awhile, there weren’t many options left.”

Three years after Gert was widowed, the banks finally delivered the ultima-tum: Cut your losses; find someone to buy the company. Which is how Gert found herself sitting across the desk from “the gentleman, I’m using the term very loosely, who was supposed to buy our business. He just irritated the dickens out of me! He said, ‘Okay, you’re going to sign this now.’ He wanted me to carry the SBA loan, and he would run the business! ‘And by the way,’ he said, ‘I don’t want to rent your whole building. And, oh yeah, by the way, I don’t want the whole zipper inventory.’ What the hell did he expect me to do with the damn zippers!? The most ridiculous thing was the non-compete clause it was pretty clear at that point I wasn’t going to be much competition!”

“So he finally made his offer, and selling out would have gotten me $1,400! No way! In my 49 years I had learned a few words, and I used every one of them on him. After that I pointed at the exit and said, ‘See that door? For $1,400 I’m going to run the thing into the ground myself!’ So he left. And you know, from the next day forward it went better.”

“She just wasn’t willing to give up,” says Tim today. “At the time you could have easily argued that the sound

advice was to get the hell out of the business, but she has a talent for perseverance.”

“You are what people perceive you to be, right?” Gert explains with a wink. “Isn’t that what’s it’s all about?

I was blessed with a big mouth, but who says I know what’s going on? As a housewife, I did know how to manage money. You shouldn’t spend it if you haven’t got it!”

Gert and Tim began by cutting costs, getting rid of just about any employee whose job description didn’t involve a sewing machine. Years before there were shelves full of business books on the subject, they listened to their customers and changed the way they did business. As they fought their way back up, they eventually got busy enough to add a second shift.

“Tim and I would take turns running the night shift,” Gert remembers. “We had Serger sewing machines with about ten different threads. If I had to rethread them, it would take me hours. I was always hoping, ‘God, don’t let the thread break on those machines!’”

While the Fates may not have taken direct control of the Sergers, they did put the winds of change behind Columbia Sportswear, as people altered the way they dressed, played, and thought.

By the end of the 1970s, the business was profitable again, although Gert still received many phone calls like this:

“Hello, I’d like to speak to the president of the company.”

“Speaking.”

“But you’re a woman.”

“You know, I woke up this morning and noticed that.”

Then, in 1982, the Bugaboo was born. Columbia made a hunting coat called the Quad Parka, with a camouflage-patterned shell and a zip-out liner for warmth. Gert and Tim decided that the same idea would make sense for skiers. The 2-in-1 jacket with the funny name affordable, good-looking, and functional became the hottest ticket in the business. The company was on the map for good.

“When a business goes big,” Gert says, “I think it’s 85 percent hard work and 15 percent luck.” Hiring a relatively new (and, consequently, relatively cheap) Portland ad agency named Borders Perrin & Norrander in 1984 falls under the 15 percent.

The agency took one look at Gert and Tim, and the hilarious and popular “Ma Boyle” ad campaign was born: Gert cast as the merciless, demanding mother requiring ultimate toughness from her products and unquestioning loyalty from her son; Tim cast as faithful lackey and long-suffering product-test dummy. In the name of ensuring that Columbia clothing stands up to the worst of Northwest weather, tough mother has strapped luckless son to the roofs of cars, buried him with snowplows, driven over him with Zambonis and spun him a cement mixer full of porcupines, alligators, and cactus. The ad campaign still works two decades later, and Gert’s baleful Ma-Boyle-glare-over-her-specs is known around the world.

“Of course I’m not that nasty woman in the ads,” says Gert, briefly duplicating the famous look from

behind the desk in her Columbia Sportswear office although on this day the glasses she stares over (one of her 65 pairs) have red-and-white candy-cane stripes, which does take some of the edge off. “I’m so much nicer, taller, blonder, younger, and thinner than I appear to be on TV,” says Gert, laughing. “But I am a different person here at the office than I am at home. Because if you let somebody leave tire tracks on your back, you’re never going to make it.”

With product lines, ad campaign, and prevailing fashion all going their way, Gert and Tim had made it well enough by 1992 to be named co-Northwest Entrepreneurs of the Year by Inc. Magazine. Four years later, Gert was chosen as one of the Top 50 Woman Business Owners In America by Working Woman Magazine. And in 1998, the once-struggling It vould be a miracle company went public, making Gert one of the richest mothers in America.

IV. Gert

When asked for her philosophy of life, Gert says “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.” When asked why she doesn’t have a private jet for her constant travels, Gert says “Who needs a jet? I’ve got a broom.” When asked why she doesn’t cook, she says “I did my share, I’m done.” When asked why she never re-married, she says “No one ever asked me again.”

Gert’s house is on a hill in south of Portland. One side is mostly glass to take in the view. She used to have three acres but sold it when she got tired of mowing the lawn. The house is open and sparsely furnished and devoid of knickknacks. The carpets are white and the floors that aren’t carpeted are white oak. Gert hates clutter. The one thing she does collect is art, and the walls hang with colorful paintings.

She lives, as she says, with a “few hundred spiders and a gentleman named Charlie. I found him in Hawaii. He’s quiet and a little bit stiff.”

Charlie is, in fact, a mannequin, dressed in a tuxedo, who stands by the front door.

“People jump when they see him,” reports Gert with amusement. “One of my neighbors’ kids saw him and said ‘Oh, that lady must be rich, she has a butler!’”

Other than Charlie, and a housecleaner every other week, the chairman of the board of Columbia Sports-wear has no staff (“I used to have a secretary, but I got tired of looking for her!”) and few pretensions.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Did you ever imagine you’d be rich?’ Well, that’s just not the way I think. You can only eat one hamburger at a time. It’s nice to have the means to suffer in comfort, but money doesn’t make you happy. I’ve never been the kind of person who said, ‘Oo, I want this and I want that.’ Money makes other people treat you differently, but you’re still the same inside. My friends are the same old friends I had before the money.”

If she’s to be believed, she’s never been one for stress, either. Even in the bad times.

“I’ve never missed a night’s sleep. If I don’t want to think about something, I just don’t. Everyone has dark moments, but it does no good to sit and cry. Things won’t get better, and people won’t be sympathetic. You’ve got two hands to help yourself.”

And to help others: Gert has given millions to various charities, including two of her favorites, Special Olympics and CASA for Children. She also funded a scholarship at the University of Portland, where the Boyle family has been very involved and generous; Tim is a member of the President’s Advisory Council, his wife Mary is a University regent, and Tim and Mary together made a half-million-dollar gift to the University’s energetic and creative student volunteer service program, which annually sends hundreds of students into schools, hospitals, jails, slums, and shelters to teach, serve food, repair houses, work with children, and much more. (The program has such a startlingly wide effect on Oregon communal life that it received a Governor’s Award.)

The University of Portland, impressed with Gert’s grace under duress and entrepreneurial and philanthropic verve, awarded her an honorary doctorate of public service in 1997. As befits the woman who, on three occasions and under two presidents, has turned down invitations to visit the White House, Gert is flattered by the degree, if not exactly reverential.

“Maybe I should wear my snood at work and make people call me ‘Doctor Boyle,’” she says, back in her office, comparing her august doctoral headgear to an antique hairnet, while on her desk a Ma Boyle bobblehead doll complete with earrings! nods emphatically. “It’s nice to be recognized for having worked hard,” she adds, smiling, “but the thing is, as you take from society, you need to give back. And I’m fortunate that I can give back financially. As for the company, it’s never just one person that makes something a success Tim and so many others have worked very hard to make Columbia what it is.”

Each of Gert’s children picked up her work ethic. Kathy is an artist and successful real estate saleswoman in central Oregon. Sally is the co-owner of Moonstruck Chocolates, the upscale chocolatier whose edible art is served in Academy Awards goodie bags and at White House dinners for the presidents whom Gert won’t go see. And Tim well, Tim and Gert have worked together for nearly 35 years, which hasn’t always been effortless.

“Well, first of all,” Gert says, “you talk differently to your kid than you do to your employees, because you wouldn’t have any employees if you talked to them that way! And he knows where my buttons are, and your kids don’t mind pushing your buttons! It isn’t easy, really. With anyone else I might argue and say ‘No, I don’t agree with you.’ But I would never do that to Tim. I would never demean him. But I’ll probably get on him about the decision afterwards! He’s much more private than I am he’ll do things without discus-sing it with anybody!”

“I get all the complaints, she gets all the glory,” Tim says, smiling. “Her bark has always been bigger than her bite, and it still is. But when it came to the business she was very tough when she needed to be, and, frankly, sometimes even when she didn’t need to be to the short-term detriment of the company. But at the end of the day, that’s how you learn.”

“I was an easygoing mother,” Gert counters, “but it sounds like maybe I should have disciplined my kids more! Especially Tim! I knew moms who spanked their kids with a spatula. I just couldn’t do that...” (perfectly timed pause) “because I didn’t cook so I didn’t own a spatula!”

For his part, Tim, when once asked by an investor what would happen to the celebrated ads and to the company itself when Gert passed away, famously answered, “We’ll probably have her stuffed.”

It’s doubtful that Ma Boyle will sit still long enough for the taxidermist. She travels the world, often for philanthropy, sometimes just for phun; a recent few weeks found Gert in Paris, South Africa, New York City, Kentucky, and British Columbia. Every workday that she’s in Portland (which recently gave her its First Citizen Award), she comes into the office. On Wednesdays, she still signs all the checks. Her autobiography, One Tough Mother, written with co-author Kerry Tymchuk, has just been released, and a slate of appearances are scheduled. The book ends with a recipe for apple pie, just in case anyone thinks they didn’t get their money’s worth from the 2003 inductee to the Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame.

“If I’m busy, I’m not tired,” she says. “What makes me tired is not being busy.”

And with that, Gert Boyle, whose bark is worse than her bite, whose husband once died in her arms, who took on the Old Boys and won big, looks at one of her 45 watches. Behind her, outside her office window, the light fills the sky the way it does this time of year, coming from everywhere, just bursting in.

Todd Schwartz (schwartz@spiritone.com) has written deft profiles of many University alumni, among them brain scientist Mike Merzenich '64, the courtly grocer Gene Wizer '60, master nurse Joan Moye '73, surfing legend and inventor Jack O'Neill '49, and music-education visionaries Charles Lewis '94 and Michelle Boss Barba '00.