You might recognize Gert Boyle, the snarling 86-year-old chairwoman of Columbia Sportswear and star of the company's "One Tough Mother" ad campaign. The ads have made the Oregon icon one of America's most recognizable industry heads, showing her “testing” outdoor gear by driving through the mountains with her son strapped to the roof of a car, pushing him out of the house into a blizzard, and running him through a cement mixer.
Turns out, the trope of the brawny grandma was no false advertising. Boyle outsmarted a trio of perpetrators during a bizarre burglary and kidnapping attempt this month at her home outside of Portland. And two days later she was back at work.
“They messed with the wrong grandmother,” said Kerry Tymchuk, a public relations specialist who helped Boyle write her autobiography, One Tough Mother: Taking Charge in Life, Business, and Apple Pies.
The octogenarian's one-woman crime-fighting spree was short-lived, but intrepid. On November 11, she returned home from running a company that’s seen its sales balloon from $300,000 annually to more than $1 billion since she took it over from her husband after he died of a heart attack, despite having “never worked a day in her life,” according to Tymchuk.
As Boyle approached her front door, she saw a man standing in the driveway of her West Linn home bearing a kind of fruit basket. Boyle was immediately suspicious, said West Linn Police Sgt. Neil Hennelly. The man tried to explain that the basket was a gift for her from some organization.
“She looked at the guy and said ‘No thanks. Please leave,’” Sgt. Hennelly told The Daily Beast.
The octogenarian's one-woman crime-fighting spree was short-lived, but intrepid.
Then the stranger produced a book, possibly Boyle’s autobiography, and asked her to sign it. She again asked him to leave. That’s when the man pulled out a gun and demanded that she get in the house.
It’s probably fair to say that at this point, most 86 year olds—most anybody, really—would have done whatever the gunman demanded, given him money and valuables, anything to make him go away.
Not Gertie Boyle. This is a woman who escaped to America in the 1940s during Hitler’s reign of terror, who took a corporation that was a niche manufacturer of outdoor clothing aimed at fishermen and turned it into an international brand and publicly traded powerhouse. Her favorite expression, according to Tymchuk, is, “If someone were to ask me if I could swim a mile in the ocean, I’d say no way. But if someone took me out into the ocean and pushed me off a boat, you’d better believe I’d start swimming.’” She wasn’t the type, in other words, to let some jerk ambush her in her own driveway.
Thinking quickly, she told the robber she needed to turn off the house alarm before they could go inside. Instead, she hit a silent panic button. Seven minutes later, a West Linn police officer was knocking at the door.
The robber let Boyle answer the dorr, her wrists bound by a cord, and she told the officer a gunman was in her house. The cop spotted a shadow running down the hallway behind him and gave chase, but the suspect leaped off the back deck and fell down a 25-foot embankment.
For the next few hours, police used search dogs to comb the woods for the man. Then one officer on his way to cover the night shift got lucky, Hennelly said. He spotted Nestor Gabriel Caballero Gutierrez, 39, of Aloha, Oregon, limping down the road. Gutierrez was a once-successful Portland entrepreneur who ran several companies, including an advertising firm for eight years until it went under in 2008.
The officer noticed Gutierrez was soaking wet from running through the brush.
“It turns out, that’s our guy,” said Hennelly. Gutierrez eventually confessed to the robbery, according to court documents.
Boyle stars in a "One Tough Mother" ad
It also turns out that Gutierrez was at least at one point not working alone, according to police. He’d recruited two other men, Ramon Alberto Midence and Jose Luis Arevalo, and attempted to rope in a third, with a lame plot to kidnap Boyle and hold her for $20,000 ransom. West Linn police learned of the plan before it was attempted because the third man called police in Hillsboro, another Portland suburb, and reported it.
At the time, the details of the plan were too vague to identify the target, said Hennelly, but once the Hillsboro cops learned of Boyle’s kidnap attempt, they made the connection. Arevalo later admitted to police that he’d driven a van to Boyle’s home for the purposes of kidnapping, and Midence admitted giving Gutierrez a ride to Boyle’s house. Beyond that, police are mum about how the plot was supposed to play out.
Adding to the odd circumstances: None of the suspects have ever been charged with a crime before, and all were Honduran businessmen. They must have thought they’d have an easy target in the rich, elderly Boyle.
“It seems odd to me that this was their first foray into criminal activity,” Hennelly said. “It’s like taking a road test at the Indy 500.”
What isn’t so odd, say those who know Oregon’s favorite senior citizen, is that Boyle had the wherewithal to outsmart Gutierrez.
“She has spent a lifetime beating the odds,” Tymchuk said. After Boyle’s Jewish family escaped Nazi Germany when she was 13 and came to America, her father bought the Rosenfeld Hat Company and renamed it Columbia Sportswear. This was long before every yuppie in America owned a Gore-Tex jacket, back when outdoor clothing was a minor league industry that was marketed mostly to fishermen and hunters. Eventually, her husband Neal Boyle took over the company, but he died in 1970 and Gert Boyle had a choice: take over Columbia with zero business experience and try to run it herself, or fold and sell the company. She rose to the challenge and refused to give in, even after Columbia’s annual sales nosedived from $500,000 to $300,000 the year she took the helm.
“The bank, everyone, was telling her to quit,” said Tymchuk. “She was the only woman CEO in an industry dominated by males.”
At one point, Boyle did negotiate a sale, but “the buyer thought he had this poor woman over a barrel,” said Tymchuk. “He tried to nickel and dime her some more, and she realized she’d end up with $1,400 in cash after the deal was done. She thought, ‘For that much money, I can run it into the ground myself.’”
With the help of her son and current CEO, Tim, Boyle expanded Columbia’s reach, acquiring other sportswear brands like Sorel, the high-end hiking boot maker. The “One Tough Mother” campaign portrayed Boyle as a dominating chief executive with a tattoo on her bicep that read “Born to Nag” during a time when PR experts advised her to play down this image. But it worked, and Columbia is now one of the outdoor industry’s leaders. She took the company public in 1998, and it now trades on the NASDAQ.
Gert Boyle is a hard woman to slow down. She was back at work two days after the robbery. And lest her many fans are concerned that the robbery attempt shook her up, they needn't be worried. When the West Linn police chief showed up at the crime scene that night, wearing a jacket made by Boyle’s competitor, The North Face, he asked if she was OK.
Boyle shot back without a moment's hesitation, “I was fine until that jacket walked in here.”
Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com.