100 Most Influential Women in Advertising

How Mother Boyle Saved Columbia Sportswear

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Gert Boyle

Chairman, Columbia Sportswear

For years Columbia Sportswear's advertising tagline was the rational, if somewhat puzzling, "We don't just design it. We engineer it." But in 1984, inspiration struck. Agency Borders Perrin & Norrander landed on the idea of presenting Gert Boyle, the company's chairman and mother of three, as the tough, no nonsense, "bullheaded" Mother Boyle who oversaw the creation of innovative, durable products. The concept wasn't terribly far from the truth.

At age 13, Ms. Boyle's family fled Nazi Germany, settling in Portland, Ore., and establishing what would become Columbia. Following the death of her father, Ms. Boyle's husband, Neal, took over. But in 1970, just six years later, he died at the age of 47. Ms. Boyle, until that point a housewife, found herself at the helm of a struggling company. "There weren't any women running companies out there," said Ms. Boyle, today a fiery 88-year-old. "But it's actually not very different from running a family."

But Ms. Boyle persevered, famously turning down a $1,400 offer in 1971 to purchase the company. Today Columbia does $1.7 billion in annual sales, and Ms. Boyle still goes to the office every day and answers her own phone. Still, she admitted that becoming the star of the company's ads -- this at a time when the term "glass ceiling" had become a part of the cultural lexicon -- was unusual. Not that she minded.

"I thought it was neat, and I thought it was different," she said. "And since I was the owner of the company, it was money in my pocket."

Ms. Boyle, who is blunt yet charming in an interview with Ad Age , has appeared in more than 50 ads over 24 years. Early on, the ads began playing up the relationship between Ms. Boyle and her son, Tim, the company's president. The pair appeared side by side in Columbia's first national TV spot in 1990. Ms. Boyle extolled the virtues of a coat, demonstrating its attributes by prodding Mr. Boyle through a carwash. "I voted against that ," he deadpanned in the ad.

That spot -- Ms. Boyle's favorite -- was an immediate hit, spawning a series of commercials in which Mother Boyle -- or Ma Boyle, as she came to be known -- tested the company's gear on her resigned and often unsuspecting son. In one spot, she blew a tranquilizer dart into his neck and he awoke atop a snowy peak clad in Columbia gear. And in the series finale, which aired in 2008, Ms. Boyle stranded her son in the desert with little beyond his Columbia shirt and hat.

"To be really frank, how many ways can you make a coat? There's a front, back and two sleeves. So, you have to do something that sets you apart from the rest of the world," Ms. Boyle said. "The growth of the company has been partially because we're innovative, but the thing that brought the company to mind was our good advertising."

And she's still one tough mother -- two years ago she made headlines for foiling thugs who attempted to kidnap her. At age 86.

See more: Most Influential Women in Advertising: The Torchbearers
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