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Gert Boyle, Columbia Sportswear chief known as ‘One Tough Mother,’ dies at 95

Gert Boyle, who chaired Columbia Sportswear, at the company’s Oregon headquarters in 2004. (Stephanie Yao/The Oregonian/AP)

Gert Boyle, who was thrust into managing her family’s struggling outerwear business and helped build it into a multibillion-dollar juggernaut, Columbia Sportswear, while starring in humorous advertisements as “One Tough Mother,” died Nov. 3 at an assisted-living center in Portland, Ore. She was 95.

Her son, Timothy P. Boyle, the company’s president and chief executive, confirmed the death but did not give a cause. He was named acting chairman on Monday, succeeding Ms. Boyle, who had previously served as president. Well into the last three months, he said, “she signed all the company checks.”

Ms. Boyle was 46, a stay-at-home mother of three, when her husband, Neal, died after a heart attack in 1970. He left her with a debt-laden company that she had scarcely been involved with, aside from designing a fishing vest for her husband that became one of Columbia Sportswear’s top sellers.

Selling the business was out of the question; three months earlier, Neal had used their house (and her mother’s house) to take out a large loan. And selling would have been out of character for Ms. Boyle, a Jewish refu­gee from Nazi Germany who arrived in the United States at 13, speaking not a word of English.

Settling in Portland, where her father bought a hat company that grew into Columbia Sportswear, she was enrolled in first grade but went on to graduate from high school in three years.

“I’d heard business talk all my life from my dad and didn’t pay any attention, ’cause you know it’s just never gonna affect you and never gonna matter,” she told Inc. magazine in 2006. “And then one day it does. So I’ll tell you what: Always listen.”

With help from her mother and son, then a college senior, she staved off Columbia Sportswear’s creditors while trying to keep the company afloat, learning to navigate the factory floor and make sense of a sprawling inventory of hunting and skiing products. “We worked diligently, but we had no idea what we were doing,” Tim Boyle said by phone. “We promptly lost all the equity in the business.”

By the end of Ms. Boyle’s first year, sales had dropped 25 percent. She held on and spurned prospective buyers, including one who offered $1,400, telling him that for that amount, “I’ll drive it into the ground myself!”

She also resisted critics — and some employees — who suggested that a man might do better at the helm. “They kept telling me, ‘Come on, Gert, you’re a woman — you don’t know how to run this thing,’ ” Ms. Boyle told Fortune magazine.

She soon fired the doubters and received support from Ronald E. Nelson, an accountant turned Nike executive who shared the same banker and became a mentor. By the 1980s, Columbia Sportswear had found its footing, spurred by the success of water-repellent Gore-Tex coats and jackets with removable linings — and by an advertising campaign that fueled the company’s expansion far beyond the Pacific Northwest.

Created by the agency Borders Perrin Norrander, the ads presented the 5-foot-3 “Ma Boyle” as a gruff, no-nonsense figure with a “Born to Nag” tattoo on her biceps. She was shown pushing (or forcing) her son to hang off a cliff, or stand in an automatic carwash, to ensure Columbia Sportswear goods were up to snuff.

In one television spot, she used a dart gun to sedate Tim Boyle, then left him alone on a snowy mountaintop; in another, she strapped him to the roof of a car and drove through the rain and mud.

“Our first ad, a quarter page, got rejected by the New Yorker because it was too salacious,” Tim Boyle recalled. “I think it said ‘Tough Mother.’ So at that time we knew we really had something.” Sales grew from $13 million at the campaign’s launch in 1984 to $260 million in 1994, six years after Ms. Boyle stepped down as president, making way for her son.

“I don’t really think of myself as that nasty woman in the ads. I’m so much nicer, taller, blonder, and thinner,” she told Fortune Small Business magazine in 2003, 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. You have to speak up and say, ‘This is what I am about.’

“After my husband died, I said, ‘It’s the same ballgame — it’s just a different coach. I might not know what I’m doing, but we’re going to do it my way.’ ”

Gertrude Lamfrom was born in Augsburg, Germany, on March 6, 1924. Her father, Paul Lamfrom, ran a shirt factory before leaving the country, taking the family to Portland in 1937 to join his brother. The next year, he bought a local hat company and named it after the Columbia River, in part to mask its Jewish ownership amid memories of anti-Semitism in Germany.

Ms. Boyle studied sociology at the University of Arizona, where she met Neal Boyle under a table at a fraternity party. “When you have a few drinks, it’s a lot more comfortable to sit, and I guess there wasn’t a chair,” she told Inc. magazine. “Somehow or other I ended up down there. So, always look under the table to see what’s there.”

They married in 1948, and Neal took over the family business in 1964.

Under CEO Tim Boyle, Columbia Sportswear acquired brands including Mountain Hardware, Prana and Sorel, and reported sales last year of $2.8 billion.

In addition to Ms. Boyle’s son, survivors include two daughters, Kathy Deggendorfer, an artist, and Sarah Bany, co-owner of Portland-based Moonstruck Chocolates; a sister; five grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

In 2010, Ms. Boyle was robbed by a man at her home in West Linn, a Portland suburb. He pulled a gun, and Ms. Boyle told him that she had to disable her alarm system but pushed a silent panic button instead — bringing police to her home and leading to the man’s arrest, and to that of two others, who pleaded guilty to a kidnapping plot.

Into her 90s, she remained active in business and philanthropy, notably donating $100 million to the Knight Cancer Institute, part of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. She was often seen in the office issuing “Gertisms,” mantras such as “Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise.”

“I get up in the morning and go to water aerobics, then I come to work, then go around and verbally abuse as many people as I can,” she told Inc. magazine. “You know what I’d have to do otherwise? Stay home and do housework. That’s not my bag. They asked my son, what are you gonna do when your mother dies? He said, we’ll have her stuffed. In Columbia gear.”

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