Q&A: Gert Boyle, the ‘First Lady of Oregon,’ on Making Ads and Being the Center of Attention

Columbia Sportswear's chairman returns, though she never really left

Gert Boyle, 91, chairman of Columbia Sportswear, returns this week in the company's ads after a decade's absence. From 1984 to 2005, she perfected the "One Tough Mother" persona in a series of comical commercials, appearing with her son, Timothy, Columbia's CEO.

Affectionately known as "The First Lady of Oregon" and a business legend in the Pacific Northwest, Boyle's overcome plenty of adversity on her way to the top. She arrived in the U.S. when she was 13, after her family had fled Nazi Germany. (One of her grandmothers died in a concentration camp.) She took over Columbia in 1970 after her husband, its president, died of a heart attack. Embracing new technologies (such as Gore-Tex) and clever marketing, she brought Columbia back from the brink of bankruptcy. The company went public in 1998 and generates more than $2 billion in global revenue. (A few years ago, Boyle made headlines for thwarting a home invasion by setting off a silent alarm despite being tied up by burglars.)

Adweek: How does it feel being back?
Gert Boyle: I never left. I've been coming to work at Columbia every day for more than 50 years. They just hadn't pointed the camera at me in a while for some reason. But I do like the distraction. I can get a bit bored chasing down our salesmen about their expense report receipts. I mean, $4.50 for a cup of coffee? Did it come with a new car?

What's changed since the last time you were in commercials?
In the last campaign, I was really the center of attention, and I think that served its purpose. But now I'm excited we're going to put the spotlight on the rest of the company. We are a more global company and it will be great to see our employees working together to test our products in our backyard but also across Europe, Asia and Russia. As long as we're making the warmest, most protective jackets (and have really good lawyers), I'll make anyone go out in the snow and beta test.

Any anecdotes from the set?
There was one commercial where I got to ride up and down in a cherry picker to deliver a pizza to some (Columbia apparel) testers on a chair lift. It was fun, but the crew kept trying to put me in a harness so I wouldn't fall off and break something.

Did you miss having your son in the new ads?
I don't miss him. I get to see my son Tim every day at work. And something tells me that he doesn't miss being dragged through the car wash without a car. [A storyline from one of Gert and Tim's original spots.]

Do you think advertising is too data-driven and not fun enough today?
I think everything needs to be more fun, advertising included.

Any nuggets of advice for women entrepreneurs or CEOs?
Believe in your abilities and never take no for an answer. At least that's worked for me.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.