Columbia Sportswear Owner Tim Boyle's First Catch on the Fly!
BIRDS, BEETLES, AND THE TRUTHS OF SUCCESS
In an age where social media wants you to believe the other guy’s life is rich and easy, two industry giants remind us success is a process, and sometimes it’s a bird on the end of your line.
Written by Len Waldron
If your smartphone is any oracle of reality, everyone else has just lost weight, is catching bigger fish, enjoying better weather, and traveling at a discount to an exotic place.
But among 2020’s many lessons, we learned that social media’s curated bias towards the extremes is best taken with a skeptic’s grain of salt, or two.
If 2021 is the year for anything, it will be wisdom.
One approach to re-calibrating your outlook is seeking out and listening to those who have been through tough times before and managed not only to endure, but thrive.
Tim Boyle, president and CEO of Columbia Sportswear Company, and Frank Amato, founder and publisher of Amato Publishing, are two such warriors of life. The pair recently caught up on Salmon Trout Steelheader’s podcast to reflect on their 50 years of shared friendship and love of the outdoors, as well as the challenges life and business have dealt them over the decades. Their woven stories reflect a depth no tweet or post could hope to capture.
From Men’s Hats to a Global Brand
For outdoor enthusiasts, Columbia Sportswear is a household name.
This author owns several Columbia PFG (Performance Fishing Gear) shirts of various vintages with campfire burn holes, stains of unknown origin, and some with frayed collars. A few of the shirts have the embroidered logos of faraway lodges and locales, and in my mind, carry so much collective luck, they’ll turn to lint on my back before I throw them out. Additionally, Columbia subsidiary Mountain Hardware makes the Windstopper/Gore-Tex Dome Perignon, a beanie that not only keeps your head and ears warm but cuts the wind and keeps out driving rain. I own three.
But Columbia was not always the outdoor gear icon it is today. In fact, the Boyle family has endured death, faced bankruptcy, and weathered numerous storms in its 81-year history.
Tim Boyle’s grandparents emigrated from Nazi Germany in 1937. In 1938, the couple purchased the Rosenfeld Hat Company, a business that imported men’s hats from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast. Renamed Columbia Hat Company, Tim’s father Neal took over the company but died in 1970, at age 47, of a heart attack.
Gert and Neal Boyle as newlyweds in the mid-1940s.
Tim’s mother, Gert (of future “One Tough Mother” fame), took the reins and asked Tim, then a senior at the University of Oregon, to forego law school and return home to help run the family’s business. The company faced challenges out of the gate. In addition to the family tragedy of Neal’s death, men’s fashion trends in the late 1950s and early 1960s moved away from hats. Columbia and the Boyle’s faced a shrinking market and the proposition of closing up shop or innovating. They chose to innovate, but their pursuits didn’t find immediate traction. Ultimately, trial, error, and the good fortune that smiles on relentless grinders helped Columbia find its footing.
Noting a product gap in the local market, Gert Boyle designed a tough but functional fishing vest from duck canvas. Made with zippered and flapped pockets and a fly drying patch, the vest became as common a sight on northwest rivers as the fly rod.
Ad from Salmon Trout Steelheader magazine from the late 1960s.
But designing a great product and getting it to market are two entirely different exercises, and the banks were calling.
Tim’s father took a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan just before his death to help grow the company. The impact of his passing and the changing market meant heightened financial scrutiny. After several rounds of negotiations, the SBA banker agreed to keep the company afloat while also threatening the company’s potential liquidation. However, he referred Columbia business to another of his clients for some advice on growth, a shoe company in nearby Beaverton, Oregon. That company was the start-up that would become Nike shoes. With some advice on priorities, efficiency, and marketing from Nike’s executives, Columbia Sportswear began to grow.
Original Columbia Sportswear building under the St. Johns bridge in Portland, Oregon
Today, Columbia Sportswear makes authentic outdoor apparel and branched out to include Sorel footwear, Mountain Hardware outdoor equipment, and prAna apparel focused on activities such as yoga, hiking, and adventure travel. The company is now a worldwide business with over $3 billion in sales. Sadly, in 2019, the company lost its Chairman and matriarch, Tim’s mother Gert, at 95. But her example of strength and resilience was not lost on her son.
In 2020, Boyle reduced his pay to $10,000 to better help the nearly 3,500 retail employees impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. From a salary estimated at $3.3 million during the more certain and prosperous times of 2018, the gesture and leadership were not lost on his employees or the outdoor industry.
Tim’s First Cast and Frank’s First Ad
Like so many things at Columbia, Gert’s instincts led to growth at Columbia. In 1973, keen to see her son learn to fly fish, Gert asked Frank Amato, the local Portland start-up magazine editor of Salmon Trout Steelheader, to take Tim fly fishing. At that point in history, Frank and Gert were merely fellow small business owners in Portland.
A high school teacher and fishing fanatic, Amato hatched the idea of publishing a fishing magazine, and initially, the operation was a one-man show. As such, he was not only the editor but also the magazine’s chief ad salesman. Amato called on Tim’s father Neal about their interest in advertising the new Columbia Sportswear Steelheader Vest in his new magazine. Neal invited Frank over for a burger lunch, and the two families have been friends and associates since.
Though not unfamiliar with fishing, Tim’s trip with Frank was his first with a fly rod. Neither steelhead nor Frank Amato is afraid of foul weather activity, as Tim was soon to learn.
Face-ripping winds that often portend a Northwest steelhead run greeted Tim and Frank’s inaugural trip to Oregon’s Deschutes River. Tim followed Frank down to the river with insulated waders up to his chest and a fly rod in hand and tried to mimic what his more experienced partner was doing. Mother Nature had other ideas. On his first cast, Tim’s fly hit the frothy surface of the water and was thrown skyward by a blast of wind where a patrolling swallow immediately snatched it.
“...On his first cast, Tim’s fly hit the frothy surface of the water and was thrown skyward by a blast of wind where a patrolling swallow immediately snatched it. ...”
The swallow was landed and released, but Tim spent the remainder of the day taking a beginner’s lashing from the environment.
Boyle learned how to fish from Frank on this and subsequent outings to the Deschutes River for trout, the Trask River for steelhead, and the Kalama River for salmon.
“Frank knew how to catch fish under a variety of conditions and there are techniques he taught me during that time I still use. During those early days of Columbia, fishing was the only distraction I had other than work. If I wasn’t working, I was fishing, and vice versa,” recalls Boyle.
Entrepreneurial fishing enthusiasts and not yet industry magnates, the pair traveled to the Deschutes River that day in Amato’s tan, 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. Frank was likely one of the few fishermen in the Pacific Northwest who found the Beetle an appropriate fishing vessel.
The choice was probably more of practicality and necessity than insight. Still, he made it work most of the time. However, it was not always perfect, “I used a set of rabbit ear holders to attach my fly rod to the roof. On one trip, I had a Farlow bamboo fly rod and a Pflueger reel lashed to the top and was driving on a particularly bumpy road. At some point, I looked back through my rearview mirror and saw my fly line flapping in the wind for several hundred yards behind the car. The reel had bounced loose from the rod, and the log road took it all the way to the backing, and finally, the line snapped. I never found the reel.” Frank recalled, laughing. “But the Beetle was a remarkable vehicle as its short wheelbase, rear-engine design, and manual transmission gave it traction and handling over primitive roads where some trucks couldn’t go.
“I had a 13-foot wooden drift boat I could tow with that Beetle up to around 60 miles per hour on the highway. Once, I was at a rough gravel boat launch where four-wheel-drive trucks were struggling to launch larger boats, and several fishermen came over, amazed when the little Beetle was able to drop the drift boat, and in its low first gear, pull right back up the rocks! I think I rebuilt the engine on the car at 100,000 miles, and the friend I gave it to (Rod Robinson) replaced the engine two more times. I don’t know what ultimately happened to the car, but it had over 300,000 miles on it at last count,” Frank recalled.
One Hundred Years of Perspective
So what wisdom can 100 years of combined life and business experience teach us? Both men lean towards basics that apply as much to an individual as a multi-billion dollar company. For example, Boyle reflected on preparing Columbia Sportswear for scalable growth based on their future vision.
“We concentrated on taking time to build what one of our board members referred to as a ‘fortress balance sheet.’ This discipline allowed us to sustain peace-of-mind and confidence to invest when the time was right—rather than responding to dire circumstances.” Boyle said. “You also have to make sure your values align with your future goals and where you want to go. This approach allowed us to experiment with products we might not have otherwise considered. One thing we got better at over time at Columbia was incorporating feedback from our users and the market. It’s not good enough to just have a great idea. You have to be able to explain it to people—to users and non-users alike. You must use your imagination not only to create but also to differentiate your ideas. You also have to learn to withstand criticism, but also objectively consider it.”
Amato, for his part, was equally as optimistic. “Follow your dreams. Starting at 19 years old, I worked at a grocery store during undergraduate and graduate school and had plans to become a professor of religious and European history. During daily breaks, the store owner would allow us to read magazines from the rack so long as we returned them in good condition. I noticed there were no magazines focused on sport fishing here in the Pacific Northwest amongst the major outdoor publications. It planted the seed of an idea to start a magazine to fill the gap left by more national magazines. The idea continued to grow, and I started paying attention to which writers and advertisers might be a fit for the type of magazine I had in mind,” says Amato.
Ultimately instead of a doctoral program, Amato pursued his idea and called on both writers and advertisers to build his first issue. A short time later, a 32-page, two-color, glossy-covered first edition of Salmon, Trout, Steelheader was on western regional newsstands along with the national titles. Amato Publishing would ultimately print both multiple magazine titles and hundreds of books over the next half-century. Like all print media businesses, Amato has faced challenges in the digital age. Still, his advice hasn’t changed, encouraging young people with innovative ideas to find ways to bring them to reality.
So what is in store for 2021? Tim Boyle, for one, is optimistic.
“These are certainly challenging times and while not immediately, those who have persevered through these times will find they have developed skills and muscles they didn’t know they had that will enable them to be more creative and resilient in the long term,” says Boyle.
After all these years, does this pair still get on the water? The answer is yes.
These days, Boyle splits his free time between bird hunting and fishing. While Amato has to be a bit more strategic in choosing his days on the river, his mind is never far from the fish.
He admitted that during a hospital stay a few years ago, “I was lying there with these tubes and machines and everyone was concerned about me, but I was wondering if the steelhead had started running yet—and I was here and not there.”
What else would we expect?
- Len Waldron