Columbia Sportswear

Source: Columbia Sportswear

Company Overview

Founded in 1938, Columbia Sportswear Company™ has grown from a small family-owned hat distributorship to one of the world's largest outerwear brands and the leading seller of skiwear in the United States. In 2006, the Company reported record net sales of nearly $1.29 billion. Columbia's extensive product line includes a wide variety of outerwear, sportswear, rugged footwear and accessories. We are renowned for developing innovative products that are functional, stylish and offer great value.

At the head of our company are 83 year-old matriarch Gert Boyle, Chairman of the Board, and her son, Tim Boyle, President and Chief Executive Officer. Columbia's history began in 1937 when Gert's parents, Paul and Marie Lamfrom, fled Germany and settled in Portland, Oregon. They bought a small hat distributorship and named it Columbia Hat Company, after the river bordering the city. Frustrated by poor deliveries from suppliers, the Lamfroms decided to start manufacturing products themselves, and expanded the line to include outerwear, fishing vests, and shirts.

In 1948, Gert married college sweetheart Neal Boyle, who joined the family business and later took the helm of the growing company. In 1970, Neal suddenly died of a heart attack. He left behind three children, an expanding company leaning heavily on bank loans, and a wife who didn't have any business experience.

The day after Neal's funeral, the phones at Columbia were ringing off the hook with salesmen and vendors who assumed the company was going out of business. Then the bank called. They were quite concerned when they found out that a housewife was going to take control of the company. They summoned Gert in for a meeting, during which she somehow managed to buy herself a little time. She pledged Columbia's building as collateral for loans, appeasing the bankers. She also trimmed the company a bit and Tim started hitting the trade shows. After a few years, profits went up.

Inventing the Essentials: Product Innovation

Columbia is known as a product innovator and has an unparalleled reputation for quality and value. These basic principles guide Columbia through the creation of inventive and highly popular designs, including our famous Interchange System™. We developed this revolutionary concept in 1982 and it has since propelled Columbia to the forefront of the outerwear industry. Our first Interchange jackets were made for hunting and featured a weatherproof outershell and an insulating inner jacket that could be worn together or separately, so that each parka was really three or four garments in one. This product was so popular that we applied the same concept to a ski parka and called it the Bugaboo™, which became one of the best-selling ski jackets in history. In 1991 we developed our own proprietary waterproof, breathable coating — Omni-Tech® — and are now the second-largest user of waterproof, breathable fabric in the world.

My Mother, A Super Model?: Marketing Strategies

That is a polite version of Tim's response when our local ad agency — Borders, Perrin & Norrander — proposed that Gert should star in Columbia's ads. Before 1984, our campaign featured the unparalleled engineering of our products. The creative team at BP&N argued that with so much competition, we had to distinguish ourselves in some way, and how many other companies are run by a mother and her son?

In Columbia's ongoing campaign, Mother Boyle is shown as the tyrant who makes sure that each of our products can stand up to her tough standards and Oregon's legendary bad weather. With print, radio and TV ads appearing everywhere from MTV to GQ magazine, Gert's "Tough Mother" persona has turned her into an international celebrity. And while our distinctly American humor may have to be tailored to fit some foreign markets, our message that "mom's looking out for you" is understood by everyone.

Strategies Spreading the Warmth: Community Involvement

As Columbia Sportswear has grown, so has our commitment to serving our expanding community. Locally and throughout the world, Columbia provides support to organizations that specialize in human assistance, conservationism, the environment, the arts and education. Our Rethreads program provides garments that are returned or slightly flawed, but still wearable, to people in need throughout the United States. We are a member of the Conservation Alliance, a group of specialty outdoor business that has become a powerful source of grass roots conservation and environmental funding. Columbia employees also make a difference through a volunteer program that organizes groups of employees for causes like SMART (Start Making A Reader Today), the American Hiking Society, and the American Heart Association.

Our offices are responsible for recycling tens of thousands of pounds of paper and cardboard, as well as glass, plastic, aluminum and tin. By avoiding excessive packaging and by using recycled paper and soy-based inks, Columbia's products also reflect our commitment to reduce, reuse and recycle. We educate our employees about environmental awareness, and we encourage them to carpool and use mass transit with incentives like subsidized bus passes, guaranteed parking for carpoolers, and bike racks and showers in the office for cyclists.

Now We're Everywhere: Global Presence

Today Columbia products are available through more than 13,000 retailers in 72 countries, from Argentina, to New Zealand, to Korea. We own and operate sales offices in North America, Europe and Asia, and have wholly owned subsidiaries in Canada and Japan. Our family of brands has grown to include Montrail, Mountain Hardwear, Pacific Trail, and Sorel. While our corporate headquarters and domestic distribution center (European Distribution Center in Cambrai, France) remain in Portland, Oregon, we employ more than 2,700 people around the world.

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