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For Interior nominee Sally Jewell, NW landscapes are in her blood

Sally Jewell.jpg

President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior is an unusual choice. Sally Jewell is not a politician – she’s CEO of the outdoor gear company, REI. But those who know her say she has savvy, social conscience, and a deep respect for the open spaces she’ll be managing if the Senate confirms her.

Jewell came to Seattle as a young girl, moving with her family from England. Early on, her father Peter went to a storefront at 5th and Pike in downtown Seattle, where the fledgling company REI had its first retail store. He bought himself a tent there, which would help to foster in his daughter a lifelong passion for nature and for the landscapes of the American west.

“My success has really been shaped by adults early in my life that introduced me to the great outdoors. And those experiences were the most powerful ones of my youth,” said Jewell, speaking last year to the Trust for Public Land.

A roundabout route to CEO

She began her career as an engineer for Mobil Corporation, working in the oil fields of Oklahoma. She later returned to Seattle and took a job with a small bank – banks would sometimes hire oil engineers who could help appraise, say, a borrower’s underground collateral. Jewell spent nearly two decades in banking, then joined REI’s board in 1996. Nine years later, became CEO.

“Sally professionalized the REI operation and grew it substantially,” said Jonathan Dorn, editor-in-chief of Backpacker magazine and head of several outdoor industry publications.

He said REI’s marketing and research and development got much more rigorous under Jewell. And he credits her with growing a company that cherishes its roots as a ragtag co-op without making too many enemies.

“Even as REI has become more corporate and buttoned-down in a lot of its procedures and the way it approaches business, at the same time it hasn’t lost its credibility as an outdoor brand,” Dorn said.

An advocate for wild spaces

All along she continued to explore and advocate for America’s wild spaces. She joined the board of the National Parks Conservation Association where she’d go along with staffers on hikes through the parks. Association president Tom Kiernan recalled one trip to Acadia National Park in Maine.

“The trail was getting narrow and kind of steep and one of our staff was having nervousness issues,” Kiernan said. “Sally was the one who actually helped her back down. Sally is an extraordinary outdoorswoman, and has that human connection of caring deeply about individuals.”

Jewell’s long relationship with the outdoors clearly boosted her stock with President Barack Obama, as he alluded to in yesterday’s announcement of her nomination.

“I’m willing to bet that she’ll be the first Secretary of the Interior who frequently hikes Mailbox Peak in her native Washington State, and who once spent a month climbing mountains in Antarctica. Which just isn’t something I’d think of doing,” Obama said.

"No mission without margin"

Jewell may lack public sector experience, but this engineer-turned-banker-turned–executive says she balances her passion with pragmatism.

“You know there’s no mission without margin,” Jewell said at the Net Impact conference in Boulder, Colorado. “If you can’t run a healthy business, you’re not sustainable. If you can’t do the things that, you know, we aspire to do in a profitable way, you will be out of business.”

Under Jewell’s leadership, REI nearly doubled its annual sales, to almost $2 billion, and added 71 stores, according to the company. It’s come a long way since it was in that funky storefront in downtown Seattle where Jewell’s father bought his tent. The current flagship store is a monolith of modern architecture, complete with a waterfall and a landscaped test track for mountain bikes out front.

The company’s success is in some part a testament to the mix of business know-how and progressive values Sally Jewell embraces. The question now is whether that same approach will yield results in what would be a totally new venue for her – as Secretary of the Interior for the United States.

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