Columbia Sportswear president

Passing Date: 
Sunday, November 3, 2019

Gert Boyle, the Holocaust refugee who built Columbia Sportwear into a giant corporation, died November 3 in Portland, Oregon. She was 95 years old.

Born Gertrude Lamfrom in Augsburg, Germany, she was brought to the United States at age 13, in 1937, when her family fled Nazi Germany. Her father bought a hat factory in Portland, renamed it after the Columbia River, and diversified into sportswear for hunters, fishermen and eventually for skiers.

While studying sociology at the University of Arizona, Gert met and, in 1948 married, Neal Boyle. In 1964, after her father’s death, Neal took over the family business. When Neal died in 1970, of a sudden heart attack, Gert was a housewife with no business experience. Assisted by her son Tim, then a senior in college, she assumed presidency of the debt-ridden company.

Columbia weathered several difficult years, but after restructuring, the mother-and-son team established steady growth based on a functional product line that sold modern technologies like Gore-Tex at reasonable prices. By 1984 they were ready to launch a national advertising campaign on the theme “One Tough Mother,” in which Gert’s “Born to Nag” character demonstrated the weather-proofing of their products by devising torture tests for the Columbia-clad Tim.

Over the following decade, sales rose 20-fold, to $260 million. In 1988, Gert stepped up to chairman, and Tim has served as president of Columbia since then. The company went public in 1998, acquired Sorel shoes and boots in 2000, Mountain Hardware in 2003, and the sustainable-fashions prAna in 2014. For 2018, Columbia reported sales of $2.8 billion.

Gert never retired, and signed Columbia’s checks until a few weeks before her death. —Seth Masia

Photo by Sgt. Cory Grogan

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