REI CEO Nominated to Become Next Interior Secretary
Sally Jewell combines business background with a passion for wilderness
Two weeks ago Sally Jewell, the longtime CEO of gear company REI, was working the room at the bi-annual Outdoor Retailers Trade Show in Salt Lake City. Today she’ll be working the State Dining Room at the White House when President Obama nominates her to replace Ken Salazar as the Secretary of the Interior.
Fortune Live Media photo
Jewell’s selection to head the Interior Department, though rumored by Politico last week, is unexpected. Since most of the public lands managed by the department are in the West, the position often goes to a Westerner, making Washington native Jewell a good fit. But the short list of candidates bandied about in recent weeks was dominated by veteran pols: former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, Former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal and – progressives’ favorite pick – feisty Representative Raul Grijalva from Arizona. Jewell was a come-from-behind dark horse.
The 56-year-old Jewell would bring a unique mix of management skills and passion for wilderness to the Interior Department. After graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in mechanical engineering, she worked for three years for Mobil Oil in Oklahoma. She then spent 20 years in the banking industry, and in 2000 became the chief operating officer at REI. In 2005 she took over as the CEO of the venerable outfitting company. Under he tenure, annual sales grew from $887 million to $1.8 billion.
Environmental groups – many of them already familiar with Jewell from REI’s political advocacy via Obama’s “America’s Great Outdoor Initiative” – were unanimous in praising the selection of Jewell.
Here’s the statement from Bob Irvin, President of American Rivers:
“We applaud President Obama’s choice of Sally Jewell for Secretary of the Interior. As the head of REI, the outdoor gear and clothing company, she understands firsthand the connections among healthy rivers, healthy communities, and a strong economy.”
And here’s the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune:
“In Jewell, President Obama chose a leader with a demonstrated commitment to preserving the higher purposes public lands hold for all Americans – recreation, adventure, and enjoyment.”
Jewell also received warm words from some voices in the oil and gas sector.
“Western Energy Alliance welcomes the nomination of REI CEO Sally Jewell as Interior Secretary,” said Tim Wigley, president of the Denver-based industry group. “Her experience as a petroleum engineer and business leader will bring a unique perspective to an office that is key to our nation’s energy portfolio.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Jewell (who would be only the second woman to hold the post) will be tasked with managing the competing claims of wild lands preservation and oil and gas production. In a speech last week, Clinton era Interior chief Bruce Babbitt said that for every acre given over to fossil fuel extraction another acre should be set aside for conservation.
I happened to have dinner with Jewell about two years ago when we were both aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird for a strategy session hosted by the “No Child Left Inside” movement, of which she has been a leading voice. Jewell had all the qualities you would expect of a natural leader: smarts, confidence, and plenty of charm. I recall being especially impressed by her plans to spend the Christmas-New Year’s season on a one-month expedition to Antarctica, where she hoped to summit a couple of peaks. The wiry Jewell told me she had been training by hiking around her neighborhood dragging a car tire in a harness, practice for the sled she would haul in Antarctica. The neighbors, she said, looked at her like she was crazy.
If the Senate green lights her nomination, Jewell will need that same stamina and unconventional spirit to protect our public lands that are under constant threat from development and extractive industries.