Columbia Sportswear sets aggressive growth target


Bryan Timm is hoping for snow.

As president of Columbia Sportswear, which generates nearly two-thirds of its annual revenue in the third and fourth quarters, the 18-year company veteran jokes that having snow on the ground by Halloween is a good sign for the holiday season.

So with temperatures in New York City still in the 70s, Timm admitted he and the rest of the industry are getting "a little bit jumpy."

"Seventy degrees in New York? We don't wish for that," he said.

A Columbia Sportswear store in downtown Seattle, Washington.
Stephen Ehlers | Getty Images

In an effort to make its sales less dependent on cold weather, Columbia is working to evolve its assortment so that its products are practical year-round. But that's just one rung on the ladder it plans to climb toward a lofty five-year sales goal.

Last year marked the end of Columbia's decade-long journey to double its annual sales to $2 billion. Now, the company is shooting to once again double its revenues — this time to $4 billion — in half the time.

To get there, the team is turning away from the attitude that it's all about the Columbia brand, even though it accounts for roughly 83 percent of sales. Instead, Timm now sells Columbia Sportswear as a portfolio of labels, including bootmaker Sorel, outdoor apparel and equipment brand Mountain Hardware, and its latest addition, athleisure firm prAna.

His plans include growing these brands in the U.S. and overseas; further expanding the product assortment into warm-weather apparel and accessories; and keeping its eyes out for companies that would fill a hole in its portfolio.

Achieving its lofty goal won't come easy. The 77-year-old family company is facing formidable competitors in the outdoor space, including VF Corp's The North Face. That brand's revenues last year rose 11 percent to $2.3 billion.

Columbia is also fighting to capture the attention of the critical millennial group, whose members are expected to spend $63 billion this holiday season, according to PwC.

"To make the leap that they can continue to have that sustainable growth for the next five years I think is a little bit lofty," Canaccord Genuity analyst Camilo Lyon said.

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Lyon said one of the brand's biggest challenges has been connecting with millennials in the U.S. Though the company has done a good job keeping up with technical innovations in the industry, it's up against brands including Under Armour, which have excelled at marketing to the 18- to 34-year old age group.

In part to appeal to this demographic, Columbia this week unveiled a more than $50 million global marketing campaign — its most expensive in history — which aims to tell the story behind the Columbia brand instead of promoting individual products.

It marks a return to the brand's marketing strategy from one decade ago, when ads featured company matriarch Gert Boyle testing its products on her son, CEO Tim Boyle.

"We really had historically told a very powerful story of what Columbia stood for," said Stuart Redsun, the company's chief marketing officer. "It was always a little bit more likable and a little more fun in terms of Gert running the company and testing the products on Tim."

"We had walked away from some of that."

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This time, the now 91-year-old Gert is testing the products on Columbia's employees. Redsun said this shift is a means of showcasing not only the company's heritage, but also its internal culture — two issues in which millennials have an acute interest, studies have found.

Eventually, the brand wants consumers to send in their own stories, Redsun said.

"Most of the best brands are all based on that one simple truth: This is why we started, and why we're unique and why we're different, and they just keep finding new ways of telling that same story," he said.

Although the story behind Columbia Sportswear is not changing, its product mix is. Redsun said the Columbia brand is growing its stake in the fishing category, in an effort to gain more exposure to spring and summer.

Its Sorel brand, known for its winter boots, is launching its first spring collection this year, and will have a "big fall presence" that includes wedges,Timm said. And the prAna brand, which Columbia acquired last year, is split 50/50 from a seasonality standpoint, Timm added.

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Aside from expanding its product mix, Timm said the company's growth plans include building out all the brands' presence in the U.S. and abroad.

Whereas he envisions the Columbia brand's growth stemming from existing customers domestically, both retail and wholesale, its international goals are skewed toward growing its three other brands, which for now are either exclusively or predominantly sold in the U.S.

Roughly 60 percent of the company's sales occur in the U.S.

Though Columbia has plenty of growth levers to pull, Lyon cautioned that the company is still largely dependent on weather, and that it is lapping a "phenomenal" winter selling season last year.

In conversations he's had with retailers, Lyon said he has heard that they're starting to delay deliveries, a result of the unseasonably high temperatures. If this trend continues, it could result in canceled orders, he said.

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"There's a level of risk there that they can't really prevent against," Lyon said.

For his part, Timm said Columbia is still a company that wishes for early snow; however, it's taking the necessary steps to be less dependent seasonal swings.

"Sometimes with a family company you tend to harvest as opposed to really want to focus on growth," Timm said.

"That's the cool part about Tim [Boyle]. ... He always says we've got to be growing in the high teens or we're not living up to our expectations."