Tim Boyle: CEO Columbia Sportswear

Tim Boyle was born and raised in the apparel industry. He would ultimately take over the family business from his father and mother and become president and CEO of Columbia Sportswear, a title he has held since 1989. An Oregon native (and alumnus of Portland’s Jesuit High School and the University of Oregon), Boyle has been working with Columbia since his senior year of college in 1971 to deliver unsurpassable product to outdoor enthusiasts in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. He has fueled the progress for Columbia Sportswear by leading the company into record earnings in 2011, and expanding it into a multi-brand enterprise with outlets in over 100 countries around the world.

Columbia continues to differentiate themselves from the competition by not only having the technical aspect of their product down to a science, but by truly striving to connect with their customers on an emotional level through innovative design and the development of new and exciting technologies.

Tell us about the family legacy of your company, and what that legacy means to you. 

The story’s fairly well documented about how my grandparents emigrated from Germany, and from there the history of the company is well known as well. But in terms of what the legacy is, we want to make sure that the business is operating at a very high level and that we have the highest return for our shareholders. We always consider ourselves to be operating at a high level from a business ethics and sustainable standpoint. We’ve also been at very high levels from an operational/profit standpoint, but we’re currently challenging ourselves to get back to those lofty levels.

What is it about Oregon that helps foster the creative culture that has helped build so many leading brands, including Columbia Sportswear?

I think you end up with a lot of cross-pollination. When I was growing up, the big apparel brands here were White Stag, Jantzen and Pendleton. Those brands are still important, but talent from those companies and others moved to new companies like Nike, and new-to-the-area companies like Adidas. And then we were certainly fortunate to have folks from other companies, including Jantzen and White Stag and others, join our firm to help us learn about the apparel business and to be more sophisticated in terms of our approach to the businesses.

With the introduction of new humorous ads, such as ones featuring Wim Hof, have we seen the last of Gert and Tim commercials or can we look forward to more in the future?

I think there may be a resurgence from time to time. But at this time we think that the technical nature of some of the products needs to be front and center, as opposed to the personalities of Gert and I.

Is there a pivotal moment in your career when you did an about face—a moment you remember as being formative in becoming the businessperson you are today?

I suppose it was when I almost went broke in the 70s. It was a memorable experience. It gets your attention.

How has the sportswear industry changed in the years since you started your career at Columbia Sportswear in 1971? 

My official career at Columbia started in ’71, but I’ve really been around the business since I was a little kid, so it’s changed a lot. In the United States, the distribution of textile products in the sixties and earlier was sort of a multi-step process. Distributors (of which Columbia was one in the early sixties) would buy products from factories on the East Coast or in the Midwest, or even in the South or the West, and they would then, in turn, distribute those products to retailers. The retailers would sell those products to the general public, to consumers. Distributors really went away, so if you didn’t have a brand and weren’t in control of your products, manufacturing them yourself or importing them, the distribution function really got swallowed up into the brands. And then the brands would distribute their products to retail. You could certainly see that over time the retailer has gained a lot more control over the product. The retail business in apparel is really heavily consolidated now.

What was it that made 2011 such a great year for Columbia? 

We had a number of things really going for us. First of all, we had a terrific winter in 2010, so our retailers had clean shelves and a robust appetite for cold weather apparel and footwear. It was also the second season for our innovative Omni-Heat Reflective—which is basically a space blanket inside a garment. That was a tremendous boost for us, as well as really significant sales from our footwear brand Sorel (which is a cold weather footwear brand for women and men). So all those things combined to make 2011 a spectacular year. We had some of those things going the wrong way for us in 2012, but you know we have a strong balance sheet, which allows us to strategically operate the business without having to panic and do things we wouldn’t want to do.

How does Columbia Sportswear mitigate the effects of an uncooperative Mother Nature? 

Well, we’ve been working diligently on controlling the weather, but we’re unsuccessful. So we have to work on those things that we can in fact influence, and those are products and what consumers think about our products from a marketing standpoint, and managing our inventory so that we end up with levels that the company feels are appropriate.

A recent press release stated that the company remains focused on nurturing stronger emotional connections with consumers. In what ways do you nurture those connections, and what role does that play in the success of Columbia Sportswear? 

When a consumer goes into a store and decides whether or not they’re going to buy a jacket from Columbia, as opposed to a product from somebody else, there are a number of factors that enter into that decision. So if someone’s going to go buy a jacket or boots or a shirt or a pair of pants, the positives and the differentiators for buying a Columbia product may well be a chemical application on the fabric that’s not visible. The consumer has to sort of take it on blind faith, but those kinds of characteristics have to be explained to the consumer in a simple way. But at the end of the day the decision often comes down to, “Hey, do I like this brand, do I like the color, do I like the way this looks on me, and what am I emotionally saying when I wear this garment?” So we have part A down very well, the technical stuff. Part B—it’s a continuing focus and it’s more difficult to describe, and it’s even more difficult to accomplish.

What role has innovation played in keeping the product line of Columbia Sportswear fresh and competitive in an increasingly crowded marketplace? 

Well it’s been critical. Again we talked about the differentiators that allow us to say our

products are superior to brand X, and some of our competitors rely on outside companies to provide them with innovations. A good example of that would be Gore-Tex. We have many competitors that rely on the Gore-Tex company to provide them with new products. We prefer to develop all those kinds of product characteristics and fabric and technical expertise ourselves so that we can differentiate ourselves in many ways from our competitors.

As CEO, how did you reposition Columbia Sportswear as a market leader?

Well it’s certainly not me. I think the only thing I can take credit for is cultivating an environment where this kind of creativity can happen. It’s the great work ethic and ingenuity and focus on differentiation that exists, really, throughout the company. Certainly all of the great things that are being done here are by people who want to make themselves successful by being different. It’s been very diligent, hard-work, conscientious efforts of the teams that not only work here in Portland, but also those that work for the company around the world. We have lots of employees that don’t work in Portland, or even in this hemisphere, and it’s really been the hard work of all those folks that’s made the company successful.

How have you managed to incorporate recent acquisitions, Mountain Hardwear, Pacific Trail, Sorel and Montrail, into Columbia? 

It’s a difficult thing to accomplish. Pacific Trail brand hasn’t been as successful financially for us as we had hoped. The Sorel and Mountain Hardware brands have been very good. I would say on-boarding brands into the company has been a relatively one-off situation. We’re not a company that acquires a bunch of different brands and companies, so we don’t consider that to be a strength, and we’re probably only modestly good at that. We have some very significant successes but we also have some examples where we haven’t been as successful.

Were there political factors that led to the company’s decision to relocate in Washington County, a little bit further away from the previous location?

We’re in the apparel business globally. We’re not in the real estate development business. So where we’re headquartered is less important as long as we’re approximate to the city. We still have big investments in Portland. Our biggest distribution center in the world is in Rivergate, and we have stores in Portland—several out at the Portland Airport, a couple Downtown, and one in Sellwood. I live in the city of Portland, so obviously we’re committed, but when it came down to locating our headquarters, frankly, like many businesses, we made the best decision economically for the company. That just happened to be out here in Washington County.

What do you think defines you as an Oregonian? 

I grew up here. Most of my leisure activities take place here in Oregon. My family and I bought a golf course down in Gearhart, so we’ve made some fairly significant investments in the state, and we like being here and it’s a great place to live. It occasionally, or even more than occasionally, is very frustrating from a governance standpoint. I’ve been very vocal about where I think the priorities of the state exist today and where they may be at odds with what I believe is the right approach. But in general, I like it here.

In what ways do you personally enjoy the outdoors?

I try to be outside as much as I can. I used to fish in the area much more than I do today, but I still do some fishing from time to time. I like to hunt birds, especially ducks, out on the Columbia River. I play golf and ski and occasionally do some sailing.

Can you tell me more about Gearhart Golf Links?

It’s a real gem, and when we talk about our involvement as a family investment (nothing to do with Columbia), we’re talking about polishing the gem that Gearhart is. It’s one of the oldest courses in the United States, and arguably, the oldest west of the Mississippi. It was founded in 1892.

I’m an avid golfer. I’m not very good, but both of my kids play at a competitively high level. My son played at Drake University in Des Moines, and my daughter played at University of Washington. We have a home at Gearhart, and so we played there as a family. When the opportunity arose to take on the Gearhart Golf Links, we thought it was really something we could do for the state and the community. It’s also been great to be connected with the folks at McMenamins. I know both Mike and Brian well, and having them operate the restaurant and hotel there is a lot of fun.

It seems as if your involvement there has triggered a significant improvement in the agronomy and playability.

I think that’s absolutely correct. Now I wish I could take credit for it, but we had some big help from a firm that does specialty agronomy called Greenway Golf. The CEO of Greenway came and did a tour of the facility and an overall analysis of the green surfaces and some of the other grass contents. The golf course had been well maintained, but it’s the last 10% that’s important in terms of the playability. We’ve already improved the golf course significantly. Now we’re going to eliminate the cart paths. It’s an opportunity for us to make more of a mark on the course, and get it more into a links-type facility.

With over 100 years of Oregon golf history represented here, it’s surprising to me that few golfers know about Gearhart. 

It’s true. This project could be described in phases. Phase one was to get the golf course improved so that it really lived up to its reputation. Phase two is to get it well known—because a lot of people don’t know much about it and I think they don’t know the quality of the golf course. So that’s the challenge for us. We’re very fortunate that McMenamins has made a big investment as tenants on the course with a great restaurant, pub, and hotel. That’s a big part of the next phase.

What else is on the horizon for you and Columbia Sportswear?

The primary focus for us over the next several years is going to be to continue to improve our operating results, and really focus on the brands that the company owns today.

Any new technologies we should be expecting? 

Well, we have a pipeline of innovations extending out into 2015. Some are more developed than others. So yeah, you should expect lots more new and exciting technologies and innovations from the company, and as soon as we can announce what they are then people can embrace them, and hopefully they’ll be as exciting as the ones we’ve put out most recently.


About The Author: Justin Fields