The Converted World: Columbia Sportswear. Appeared October 1995.

In Fall ’94 the snowboarding industry was forever changed when Columbia, the Portland-based sports-apparel powerhouse, became one of the first non-snowboard outerwear companies to successfully launch a snowboard-wear line. They called it Convert.

With the trademark ads featuring the company’s grandmotherly spokesmodel/co-owner Gert Boyle, Columbia brazenly broke into the market and gobbled up a large piece of an already heavily divided pie. Convert showed the industry and the world that snowboarding was going mainstream, and those with access to volume sales invariably reach a wider number of people and sell more.

Regardless of how the industry may view selling outside the hardcore, the proof of the importance of mass sales becomes increasingly obvious as some of the bigger names in snowboarding¿who are also near and dear to the ‘core¿sell to chains and general sporting-good shops. In the case of Convert, Columbia’s well-established market share in multi-million-dollar stores like REI helped smoothly slide the snowboard line in nationally without the fight for a spot.

But even though Convert appeared to grab a large percentage of the overall snowboard market share in its first season, the line only represented seven-million dollars of Columbia’s estimated 260-million-dollar annual sales figures in ’94¿95. And this season, in the second year of sales, Convert has managed to bring in an estimated ten-million of the company’s projected 320-million-dollar sales figure. As small as the figure may seem to Columbia, these are figures that the snowboard market should and does takes seriously.

Why is a mainstream company that appears to defy successful hardcore concepts, such as promoting an alternative image and being grass-roots in snowboarding, so successful? The simple answer is that Columbia is a company with a long history in technical outerwear. But there is more to the development of the Convert line than Columbia’s past success with outerwear.

On a recent visit to Columbia, where I met Convert Designer Erika Clark and President Tim Boyle, I discovered what it takes to launch a successful outerwear line.

One of the most noticeable aspects of the Columbia office is how subtly it blends in with its surroundings. Located in a semi-industrial neighborhood near the Willamette River in Northeast Portland, the gray two-story wood building looks like a dentist’s office in the suburbs. Everything about Columbia and the tree-lined neighboorhood is understated. With exception of a cherry-red BMW convertible parked out front, very little about the company suggests it is a multimillion dollar business. Across the street in a newly annexed building, I notice the 70s decor is still intact and better understand how Columbia can command such a presence in the market. It is obvious that the money Columbia makes is not spent on glamorizing the surroundings. Neither building looks large from the outside, but the mazes within them both reveal endless rooms of cubicles holding maybe 300 people.

Clark, the designer for Convert, is a young, friendly woman in her mid-twenties. She looks more like a daughter of an employee than an employee herself. Instead of the conservative Northwest office-style khakis-and-button-down-shirt look many Columbia employees wear, she sports a baby tee and army pants.

When she began working at Columbia over three years ago, Clark was a recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. She started assisting Columbia’s head designer and eventually was given a mountain-bike line to design. After the line was cut down to one piece, Clark talked to General Manager of Outerwear Doug Prentice about trying snowboard clothing. Prentice approached the President of Columbia.

“Columbia was in a place where we needed to do something to attract a younger consumer,” Clark explains. “Doug saw that snowboarding was the vehicle to reintroduce Columbia, and so did Tim Boyle, Columbia’s president.”Clark and Prentice sat down and drew up a line list and presented it. “Columbia’s not so formal that they say this is how many styles we want,” she says. “I just put together ideas and we got to do some of them.” After Clark designed the line, there were still people who felt uncomfortable with the style. Clark ended up redrawing it three times until she came up with a line that had the “grunge style” look.

“I hate calling it that,” says Clark, “but that’s what we did. In retrospect it was the right thing because it was familiar and more accepted by retailers and snowboarders in our first year.”

Boyle also appears pleased with how the snowboard line has come along. While he wasn’t aprehensive about the idea of Convert, changing the name was a difficult decision. But Prentice and Clark recognized the need for a new name in order to gain access to ‘core shops, explaining to Boyle and others that the outerwear may not have been accepted by kids bearing a name they associate with their parents’ ski wear.

Looking at Clark, it’s easy to visualize her standing in a conference room at Columbia explaining the line to disbelieving reps. The new name and logo, the different materials, colors, and baggier styles are all a part of Convert that still mystifies the average middle-aged rep. All of their past experience in sales is rocked as she talks about the bro-bra aspect of selling the product.

“We have friends in shops who say: ‘Why don’t you just change the logo every year or run a bunch of different ads?'” continues Clark, listing the endless details that must be considered when working within a large company. “What they don’t understand is that when you are working within such a large company, you can’t just run a new ad every issue or change the logo every season. Changing a logo is a big deal to a company that hires expensive advertising agencies and has a president who is determined to have a consistent message that is easily recognizable to the consumer.”

But Clark, being the incredible optimist that she is, is quick to point out that this year Columbia has designed two ads for the Convert line. “Last year we only ran one,” she says laughing. “That’s a 100 percent increase.”

When the company saw how well the line sold in the first season, a second season of Convert was okayed. In the second season, Clark decided to redesign everything from scratch.

“I have tried to keep the names of a few of the jackets and pants the same so that the reps have a sense of familiarity with the line, but it’s really important to keep progressing with an innovative style every year.”

For a company that has hardly altered its styles (one Columbia jacket called the Bugaboo is now in its ninth season), change can be difficult at times. To ease the angst over her suggestion of redesigning the line, Clark and Prentice went out with the new designs to retailers and riders in the area.

“A lot of my success in the line is the reps pulling me around to talk to all of the hardcore shops,” she says, explaining the process she went through to redesign the line. Armed with outsiders’ comments and improved drawings, Prentice and Clark were able to ease their new line into a second season.

The new season brought an expansion of the line and additional riders to the Convert team. “I think the team is very important. It’s a minimal monetary expense,” says Boyle. Team members receive clothes and a small salary. “And they help with image and product testing.” He is also quick to say how impressed he is with the line in its current state: “Doug and Erika have done such a good job with Convert.”

But Clark worries about Boyle’s acceptance of the line: “There is a running joke between us that if he likes the clothes that I design, I had better redesign them because snowboarders won’t like them.”

Following Clark through the various rooms filled with sample areas, sewing stations, and cubicles, I have the feeling that businesses like Columbia will definitely be part of the industry’s future¿especially as larger companies break away from tradition and take a risk by trying new things.

“The only problem with Columbia is that in the past we tried to be everything to everyone with all of our lines,” says Clark. “We were scared to aim for one market.” But they did aim and even separate their snowboarding line, discovering in the process that it was a sucessful tactic. Whether it will be a happily ever-after tale remains to be seen as Convert charges into its second season in the stores, leaving those who question how they did it in the dark.h image and product testing.” He is also quick to say how impressed he is with the line in its current state: “Doug and Erika have done such a good job with Convert.”

But Clark worries about Boyle’s acceptance of the line: “There is a running joke between us that if he likes the clothes that I design, I had better redesign them because snowboarders won’t like them.”

Following Clark through the various rooms filled with sample areas, sewing stations, and cubicles, I have the feeling that businesses like Columbia will definitely be part of the industry’s future¿especially as larger companies break away from tradition and take a risk by trying new things.

“The only problem with Columbia is that in the past we tried to be everything to everyone with all of our lines,” says Clark. “We were scared to aim for one market.” But they did aim and even separate their snowboarding line, discovering in the process that it was a sucessful tactic. Whether it will be a happily ever-after tale remains to be seen as Convert charges into its second season in the stores, leaving those who question how they did it in the dark.