Fueling Change | Columbia Sportswear
Interview with Tim Boyle, CEO
There are few Northwest brands as iconic as Columbia Sportswear. Like many companies in our region, they have been shaped by our landscape, our weather and a sense of Northwest tough.
CEO Tim Boyle made time to share what sets his family of brands apart from the thousands of outdoor apparel companies vying for consumer dollars.
Tell me a bit about Columbia’s history:
My mother’s parents founded the company. It wasn’t good to be Jewish in Germany in the 1930’s, so my family migrated to Portland. My grandfather bought this little cap company and named it the Columbia Hat Company. In those days, we had distribution in Oregon, Washington, Northern California and Alaska.
In the 1940’s and 50’s, men wore hats, but fashion changed in the 1960’s. The fact that men stopped wearing hats was a problem for a hat company.
We expanded to offer other kinds of products, including a rope tow mitten. If you were skiing in the 60’s you were pulled to the top of the mountain with what is called a rope tow and your gloves would wear out if you didn’t have a special kind of mitten. So then we sold hats and mittens. Later when the mitten factory went broke, we bought the factory.
A small company needs something to do in non-seasonal times, so we started selling something that my mother invented called a fishing vest.
Flash-forward to the 1970’s, the company is doing about a $1 million in revenue. My dad died suddenly when I was a senior in college, so I came home to help run the business. Our 1971 revenue was $500,000, so things got bad. Then they got worse. The bank called the note and they said we’ll give you another few months to figure this out and they said that what we really needed was someone to show us how to run a business.
The banker said, we just loaned some money to some guys in Beaverton who are opening a shoe business, maybe you could get one of these guys to come on your board on a pro bono basis to help you figure some things out. That company was Nike. So we had a member of the early Nike team help us work on our business.
Nike really helped us to understand how to do business. From there, we’ve steadily grown the company to what it is today.
Who are your competitors and how do you differentiate Columbia from other brands?
There are very low barriers to entry in the apparel industry, so we literally have thousands of competitors. In China alone there are 900 competitors in the outdoor business.
We differentiate ourselves by focusing on innovation and finding solutions to problems, like: How do I stay outside when it’s raining? When it’s cold? When it’s hot?
In our business, the problems are easy to find. Our job is to find solutions. Hopefully, ones that are very different from our competitors and are visible to the consumer.
There are lots of invisible solutions out there, some of which are hocus-pocus. We’ve found that the best solutions for our consumers are ones that they can see.
If we used an off-the-shelf solution, we’d be competing against every brand in the world using that same solution.
Describe your company in three words:
Innovative outdoor products.
To me, “innovative” is a way to develop solutions that are new and different.
Almost everyone in the company spends time outdoors. Often times in Portland, if you spend time outdoors, you are doing it in inclement weather. Our team of innovators is made of folks who spend lots of time outdoors, want to be outdoors longer and want be comfortable doing it.
They also have really specialized expertise in areas ranging from chemistry to textile design. Everyone in the company is encouraged to use our products, and if they identify any opportunities for improvement, to bring those suggestions to our team of innovators. We’re really lucky to have a dedicated team that comes to work each and every day to push us further and develop the best, most visible solutions that are uniquely ours.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Personally, I am inspired by other business leaders in our region. We are fortunate to live in a place in the world where there are some great companies. Leaders like Phil Knight, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos have all built companies and are good stewards of their investors’ capital as well as their employees’ time.
As a company, we get our inspiration from the outdoors. Everyone who works in the company enjoys being outside. We’re not selling garbage cans or nuclear waste containers, we’re making stuff that you use outside and have fun with and enjoy. I think that is a positive for everyone who works here and hopefully it is reflected in our products.
What is the best company decision you’ve ever made?
In the company’s dark days, it was a decision made by my mother to say no to sell the business for $1,400. We figured that we could run the business poorly ourselves rather than selling it for $1,400.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing?
We have a global business. Over 40 percent of our business is coming from outside the U.S. Unfortunately, we are living in a time and place where the government is not encouraging people to come to the U.S. or businesses to do business outside the U.S.
We just concluded our international sales meeting. We had a number of folks who were not able to attend because the government won’t allow people to come to the U.S., or people are afraid that they will make an investment in getting to the border only to be turned away.
What is the best business advice you’ve received?
In business, as with many things, you should always ask for help. So make sure that you are testing your theories by asking people what they think about your concepts and what you are doing.
Where do you see Columbia Sportswear going in the next five years?
We consider ourselves a growth company, but we aren’t growing as fast as we’d like. There are certain issues across the U.S. related to the way that customers buy products that have changed dramatically in recent years. For example, we’ve seen several bankruptcies of our retail partners.
The company is fortunate to have a very strong balance sheet, so we are able to use our balance sheet to think about how we get our products to consumers, not just in the United States, but globally.
Another asset is that we have a pipeline of innovations behind us. We know that when someone choses Columbia, they are buying the solution. We need to invest more in marketing to tell our story and demonstrate to the consumer how our products will help them stay outside longer.
Our company is all about innovation, telling people what’s different, why it’s different and why they should be thinking about our products for outdoor use.
In the next five years, you’re going to see us have a bigger voice and tell more interesting stories.