By Leo Quigley, AJOT

Columbia Sportswear started out as the Columbia Hat Company in 1938 and has since become an international firm that designs and distributes outerwear, footwear, accessories and outdoor equipment to roughly 10,000 retail outlets in the US and to customers in over 75 countries worldwide.

Located in Portland, Oregon, the family-run firm - with roughly $1.3 billion in sales annually - is a major customer of the Port of Portland and depends on the port for the timely delivery of goods from manufacturers worldwide to its 829,000 square-foot head office and distribution centre on Science Park Drive, Portland.

As well as the Portland distribution center, Columbia Sportswear also opened a 520,000 square-foot distribution centre in Robards, Kentucky, in 2005 to handle primarily footwear and to serve East Coast and Midwest retailers. The firm also operates distribution centers internationally to supply retailers in the E.C., Canada, Asia, Russia and South America.

Grant Armbruster, director of international transportation and supply chain projects, told AJOT that before the Kentucky-based transportation center was opened two years ago, 90% of all Columbia Sportswear came in through the Port of Portland and was warehoused and shipped from the company’s Portland Distribution Center. Today, however, about two-thirds of Columbia Sportswear’s US cargo is distributed from Portland and about 80% of the product that feeds the Portland Distribution Center comes through the Port of Portland.

‘However it only represents about 50% of all the cargo that comes into America,’ Armbruster said.

The Kentucky Distribution Center now receives about 37% of all Columbia Sportswear’s US-bound cargo, most of which comes into the country through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

‘We don’t bring any raw materials such as buttons and zippers into America,’ he said. ‘All the products that come in are finished goods and most of those come in from Southeast Asia: China, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.’

The firm also has foreign offices in about nine major cities in Asia that help manage Columbia Sportswear’s contracted factories in the production of branded products.

‘There’s a lot of tight procedures and processes that those offices follow, both on documentation and exporting,’ he said.

‘With computers it runs pretty smoothly, with three or four people tracking shipments. But, there’s always headaches and challenges, particularly when you throw in labor strikes, or bad weather in either America or Asia, or congestion at ports either in the US or Asia,’ he said.

Most of Columbia Sportswear’s sales revenues are generated in the second half of the calendar year, when cold weather approaches. Therefore, the biggest shipping period for imports for company is the third quarter, July to September, and most of the cargo for that period is brought into the US during the months of May, June, July and August.

For products leaving the distribution center, the busiest months are July, August, September and October. As cold weather starts to set in, there are back-to-school sales and fall fashion events.

While Columbia Sportswear products can be found almost anywhere in North America, the company actually owns fewer than 15 stores in the US. Almost all shipments are trucked to US retailers.

‘Customers submit orders five to six months in advance,’ Armbruster said. ‘That allows us to make a plan and get the right stuff made. But, matching up all the demand of customer orders and doing the services they want, and shipping it in a timely manner presents big challenges to the entire supply chain for us; both at producing it, shipping, bringing it into the country and storing it in our warehouses,’ he said.

‘We have two very, very big warehouses that have to match multiple different SKUs ’ up to 80,000 different SKUs between the two warehouses (Portland and Kentucky).’

Armbruster said these SKUs represent about 5,000 different styles and products in the