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Visionary Thinking

THE FIVE-BILLION-DOLLAR FAMILY BUSINESS – How the Boyle family fled from the Nazis and built the billion-dollar Columbia activewear brand.

Columbia Sportswear revenue for the twelve months ending December 31, 2022, was $3.464B, a 10.8% increase year-over-year.

“If you want to get ahead, get a hat,” ran an old ad headline for the Hat Council. In 1938, an émigré called Paul Lamfrom took this thought one step further and got himself a hat company.

According to Columbia, Paul’s humble hattery has now become “a global outdoor brand that crafts active lifestyle gear fortified with industry-leading technologies.” Based in Portland, Oregon, the five-billion-dollar-market-cap brand makes “apparel, footwear, and accessories reflecting our Pacific Northwest heritage and indomitable spirit.”

That ‘spirt’ was an essential part of the business’s early years. As Lamfrom arrived in the USA after fleeing Germany, where he had owned the country’s largest shirt factory, until the Nazis seized it.

After the entrepreneur’s death in 1964, daughter, Gert Boyle, took over with her husband, Neal. The business grew at pace. And – thanks to a famous ‘One Tough Mother’ advertising campaign – Gert became the face of the company. As recognisable within the US activewear sector as Pepsi or Coke.

Today, Columbia is still very much a family business.

Current CEO, Tim Boyle worked at the company sweeping floors and doing odd jobs when he was in high school. And, as he told Family Business Magazine, “My first recollections as a kid were all about the business, I’d visit my grandparents and my dad when they were at the office, which was in downtown Portland.”

The CEO has a clear-eyed understanding of how important marketing and the celebrated campaign featuring his mother have been for the brand.

“From the beginning, we realized that retailers in the United States don’t need another brand to sell, and at the end of the day, consumers don’t need another jacket or hat,” he commented in Family Business. “Our products are not like bread and butter; they’re not a requirement, and we have plenty of competition. There’s really no reason for anybody to buy our stuff unless we can make it demonstrably different.”

Sadly, Gert died in 2019. But it’s the current generation of the Boyle family are demonstrating the same entrepreneurial grit and perseverance shared by her, and Grandfather Paul. According to Macrotrends, “Columbia Sportswear revenue for the twelve months ending December 31, 2022, was $3.464B, a 10.8% increase year-over-year.”

Somewhere up there, Paul Lamfrom may just be tipping his hat to them.

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