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By David Whitford; Gert Boyle

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Oh, yeah?!" says Gert Boyle, all 5 feet 3 inches of her--eyes blazing, hands on hips, staring me down across her desk. I've just told her that she doesn't seem nearly as fierce in person as she does in all those tough-mother ads she stars in for Columbia Sportswear. When the famous Ma Boyle campaign started in 1984, Columbia had sales of just $3 million. Today it's an $816 million enterprise (Columbia is the largest seller of skiwear in the U.S. and one of the biggest sportswear companies in the world, period), with a 50-country, 10,000-retailer global distribution network.

At 79, Boyle still serves as chairman of Columbia (her son, Tim, is CEO), still signs every check, and still acts in her own TV commercials. Hers is not the kind of entrepreneurial saga that's about fashioning some small corner of the world to her precise specifications. In fact, it's hard to imagine a life shaped more dramatically by forces beyond one's control than Boyle's. As a child, she fled Nazi Germany. In middle age, she was widowed and had to take over her deceased husband's company. In each case, though, Boyle displayed ample reserves of a potent entrepreneurial trait: the ability to confront circumstances beyond her control and make the best of them. "I don't look back at what happened," she says. "There's nothing you can do about it. You go on." --DAVID WHITFORD

"I was 13 years old in 1937 when my parents immigrated. My father used to own the largest shirt factory in Germany. We were Jewish, and we were fortunate enough to be able to leave. I had a grandmother who died in a concentration camp. We could take only $10 per person. But we were able to bring goods with us. So my parents took my two sisters and me to a shoe store and bought each one of us 20 pairs of shoes, in different sizes. And they made us clothes and bought a dowry for each one of us. Packed everything in two big containers that looked like the back ends of trucks. I wasn't scared about leaving. I've always been one of those people who never live in the past.

We came by boat from Germany to New York, then went through the Panama Canal. My father paid for first class because he had to leave all the other money behind anyway. It was quite elegant. It was the first time I was exposed to caviar. As the oldest child, my father's cousin had been sent to the new country first, so he was already in Portland, Ore. He lent my father the money to buy a small hat company. It was called Rosenfeld Hat Co. Just having come out of Hitler's Germany, he thought, Well, you know, we'll give it another name, and he came up with Columbia, after the river.

I didn't speak English, so at 13 I started out in the first grade. It took me about two weeks to get up to the seventh grade. I remember how humiliating it was. The teacher would make me sit on her lap. And she'd say, "Don't say 'wiolin.' Say 'violin, violin, violin'!" And I'd say, "Wiolin, wiolin, wiolin!"

We all had to work on the weekends. They'd send out these hatboxes, and you'd take these little stakes and make crosses so that the boxes wouldn't get crushed. I hated every minute of it. Because for every nail that you hit with the hammer, you hit three times on your hand. Later I went to college at the University of Arizona. I thought it would be kind of fun to get away. I didn't want to be put in a little box here.

I graduated with a sociology degree--I was going to save the world--but I never worked at it. I got married. You don't really want to know how I met my husband, Neal, do you? I met him under a table at a fraternity party. Later he worked for my dad, and after my dad died he became president of the company. A year after we were married, Tim was born. Whoops! There you go! There's Tim! Then I had a daughter, Kathy, and another daughter, Sally. In those days you really didn't think about options the way people do now. You got married, you had kids, and that was it. And there wasn't any question about whether you did, or didn't, like it. There were days when you couldn't get past a two-letter word, you know? But all of us did that. My friends and I would hurry up and get our housework done and then we'd all get together and have coffee in the neighborhood. That's the way it used to be. You never said, "Oh, well, I didn't want those kids" or "I want to do this or that." We just kind of suffered through it. I thought I'd go through my life that way. But sometimes you have things thrown at you like that, and you have to take care of them.

My husband died of a heart attack in 1970, very suddenly. He got up in the morning, and he said, you know, "My chest hurts." So I called the doctor and said we're coming in. And we got about a quarter of a mile from the house. I'm driving. And I knew that there was something wrong. So I drove him to the fire station because I knew they had a resuscitator there. But it was too late. My daughter Sally, who was 12, was still living at home. Kathy was 18, and she was at the University of Arizona. And Tim was 21--he had just gotten married. Things happen, and there's nothing you can do about it. I never have any trouble sleeping. I'm one of these people who can just turn it off. I've always been like that. If I don't want to think about it, I just don't think about it.

I had to go to work the next day. It was the fifth of December, just before Christmas, and we had all these deliveries to do. I was afraid all the seamstresses would quit. It was hard to find good seamstresses! We had just taken on an SBA loan. The government said that if you don't pay us back, what are you going to give us? Well, my husband had said that we'd give them our life insurance. He was 47! We'd also give them our house, our mother's house, and our beach house. How am I going to say to my mother, "Hey, you know that house you've been living in? It's gone." I couldn't do that. If you stay home and cry all day long, it isn't going to change stuff. And poverty was really not something I was looking forward to. So I went to work.

I wasn't thinking, Am I enjoying this? Am I going to survive? I had to survive. If I didn't survive, I was going to lose everything. I had a little convertible at the time. That didn't make a good bed, let me tell you. But you know, after you've been a mother for 20-some-odd years, you don't ask anymore, "What am I going to do?" I always tell people that running a business is a little like running a household, only much more so. Because you've got a lot of other people in there who say, "You can't do that."

I ran into things that you would not believe. The first inventory that we did--I didn't know how to take inventory. I mean, I know how to count, but I didn't know how to take inventory. One of the bookkeepers who was getting $900 a month said, "I'm not going to come back unless you pay me $1,500 a month." So I shed tears. And I said, "You can have it, but you do the inventory." What she didn't realize is that women have memories. I let her get through with the inventory. And after that I let her stay at the company for another month and a half. And then I called her in the office one day and I told her that today was her last day.

It was terrible at first. Terrible! Ever see the movie The Birds? That's sort of the way I felt. One of the guys canceled all the material that was on order for the next batch, he was so afraid we wouldn't be able to pay. When the material didn't come, I didn't know what had happened. And then a lot of people wouldn't sell us stuff because, they said, that woman isn't going to be able to run the business. Then the bankers said they were going to withdraw our line of credit. When Neal died, we had had sales of $800,000. The next year we had sales of $600,000. It sort of went the wrong way. I really didn't know what I was doing.

Finally the banker said, "Find somebody to buy it." We found this gentleman--I'm using the term very loosely. Anyway, I was sitting across the desk from him with a pen. And he said, "Okay, you're going to sign this now." He wanted me to take the SBA loan--I would carry the SBA loan, and he would run the business! "And by the way, I don't want to rent your whole building. And oh, yeah, by the way, I don't want the whole zipper inventory." Selling out would have gotten me $1,400. Uh-uh. In my old age I had learned a few words. I used every one of them on him. I said, "See that door? For $1,400 I'm going to run the frickin' thing into the ground myself!" That was the nice word. That's not really what I said. So he left. And you know, from the next day on it went better.

After we got rid of all the accountants and attorneys and everybody and got our own team together, things were really humming right along. Tim was still in college, but he would come home every two weeks or so and help us buy clothing for our new lines. Eventually, when we got really busy, we ran a double shift. Tim and I would take turns running the night shift. We had sergers [a type of sewing machine] that had about ten different threads. If I had to rethread them, it would take me hours. I was always hoping, "God, dear Lord, don't let the thread break on those machines!" The times were right for our kind of outdoor clothing. Between the '50s and '60s, when Neal had begun expanding our product line beyond hats, men were still wearing gray slacks and navy-blue blazers. In the '70s people changed the way they dressed and the way they thought. We started with outerwear. We now have sportswear because people are more sports-minded.

The Bugaboo jacket was the one thing that really put us on the map. With its zip-out lining, it's sort of like a hunting coat. When you go hunting, you can't take the camouflage layer off; you have to take the inside off. So we did that for the ski parka, made two jackets in one, a shell and a lining. Today we have sold $3 million worth. When we first came out with it in 1982, it retailed for somewhere around $75. It became a very affordable thing for people to buy. Every kid had to have a Bugaboo jacket. Which is a little bit like being endorsed by the Pope.

In 1984 we started making the Mother Boyle ads. I don't really think of myself as that nasty woman in the ads. I'm so much nicer, taller, blonder, and thinner [laughs]. But I am a different person here at the office than I am at home. Because if you let somebody leave tire tracks on your back, you're never going to make it. You have to speak up and say, "This is what I am about." After my husband died, I said, "It's the same ballgame--it's just a different coach. I might not know what I'm doing, but we're going to do it my way."

Anyway, when we began with those ads, we had quite a number of people in-house who would mutter, "Who in the hell would ever listen to that old bag?" But we did it anyway, and it was successful. Because it's different. You can look at nine-tenths of the manufacturers of outerwear, skiwear, anything like that--they're all the same ads. All these gorgeous people who couldn't possibly do on skis what they're supposed to be doing. Then you've got the little old lady. That's what sets us apart. Not because we make better clothing, but because the advertising gets your attention. They asked Tim once, "What's going to happen to the ad when your mother dies?" He said, "We'll have her stuffed."

Tim's ambition is to become a billion-dollar company immediately. My theory is that growth is okay if you have the people to back it up. I'm also much more open to suggestion than Tim is. But whatever we've done together--half Tim's approach and half mine--has been good. Before Neal died, I enjoyed doing things like creating new garments. I used to come down to the office and design a new jacket or something. Did you know I invented the fishing vest? But I never thought of myself as having to manage other people's lives the way you have to do when you're running a company. I think everyone's potential is much greater than they think it is. If you have to do it, you have to do it, you know?"