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Science & Environment

Obama Picks REI Ceo Jewell To Head Interior


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene.

Let's meet the woman who may be the nation's next Secretary of the Interior. President Barack Obama has named Sally Jewell to the post. She still needs to be confirmed by the Senate. Jewell does not have a background in government or politics. She's CEO of the outdoor gear company REI. Supporters say her love of the outdoors goes much deeper than that. And they say she has a savvy social conscience.

From member station KPLU in Seattle, Gabriel Spitzer reports.

GABRIEL SPITZER, BYLINE: Sally Jewell's family came to the United States from England back in the late '50s. And very early on her father, Peter, came to this spot where I'm standing now in downtown Seattle. It's a high-rise now, but back then it was the first REI store. And he went inside and he bought himself a tent. And with that tent he would help to foster a lifelong passion in his daughter for the outdoors and for the landscapes of the American West.

Its' a passion that would come to fruition almost a half-century later, when Sally Jewell would become the CEO of the company that had sold that tent to her dad.

SALLY JEWELL: 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.

SPITZER: That's Sally Jewell talking with the Trust for Public Land.

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. Jewell spent nearly two decades in banking. She joined REI's board in 1996 and nine years later became CEO.

JONATHAN DORN: Sally professionalized the REI operation and grew it substantially.

SPITZER: Jonathan Dorn edits Backpacker magazine and runs several outdoor industry publications. He says REI's marketing and research and development got much more rigorous under Jewell. And Dorn credits her with growing a company that cherishes its roots as a ragtag co-op without making too many enemies.

DORN: 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.

SPITZER: 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 recalls one trip to Acadia National Park in Maine.

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

SPITZER: 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.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'm willing to bet that she will 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 is just not something I'd think of doing.


SPITZER: Jewell may lack public sector experience. But this engineer-turned-banker-turned-executive says she balances her passion with pragmatism. Here's what she said at a corporate responsibility conference in Boulder, Colorado.

JEWELL: You know, there's no mission without margin. 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.

SPITZER: REI has certainly come a long way since it was in that funky storefront in downtown Seattle. The current flagship store, where I'm standing now, is a monolith of modern architecture. There's a waterfall and a landscaped test track for mountain bikes out front. This company's success is in some part a testament to that mix of business know-how and progressive values that Sally Jewell embraces. And 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.

For NPR News, I'm Gabriel Spitzer in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.