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Thursday, February 7, 2013 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.

Jewell: business leader, corporate conscience

By Amy Martinez
Seattle Times business reporter

At Wednesday’s nomination of Sally Jewell as Interior secretary, President Obama credited the chief executive of REI for helping to turn the 11,000-employee organization from a “stalling outdoor retailer into one of America’s most successful and environmentally conscious companies.”

That might be a slight exaggeration.

While Kent-based REI posted an $11 million loss in 2000, the year Jewell joined as chief operating officer, the outdoor-gear retailer had fully recovered when she took over as CEO in 2005.

Her eight-year tenure since then could be described as a steady climb upward.

Under Jewell, REI’s annual sales nearly doubled from $1 billion in 2005 to $1.8 billion in 2011. The retailer opened a Manhattan flagship, boosted its e-commerce operations and consistently made it onto Fortune Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Places to Work.

Jewell also steered REI through the Great Recession — though not without some painful job cuts — and worked to broaden its popularity beyond its core baby-boomer base.

In a 2010 interview with The Times, she stressed the need to stimulate childhood interest in the outdoors and said computers and video games posed more of a competitive threat to REI than any store chain did.

But her legacy at REI likely will be her commitment to corporate social responsibility, said Matt Hyde, its former executive vice president. He said that while REI’s interest in environmental stewardship always “was there,” she brought it front and center.

“She has a very clear and defined set of personal values and she’s unwavering,” said Hyde, who worked with Jewell for 12 years before leaving REI to become CEO of West Marine. “One of her deep-rooted values is giving back to the communities she’s a part of.”

Last year, REI donated nearly $4 million to protect trails and parks, and a fifth of the electricity used in its stores comes from renewable sources, Obama said in his speech.

REI cheered the nomination, calling Jewell a “remarkable leader, an excellent business person and a thoughtful steward of our public lands and resources.” The company said it will hold off on finding her replacement until she is confirmed.

Jewell came to REI after 19 years in the banking sector. At the former Rainier Bank, she earned respect for persuading the board to turn down tens of millions of dollars in risky oil loans in the early 1980s, helping it avert disaster.

In 1996, she joined Washington Mutual, where she worked in commercial banking until 2000 — a tenure that preceded the housing boom and bust, which led to that bank’s demise.

Current and former REI employees describe Jewell as a straight-shooter and no-nonsense leader.

“She’s one of those bosses who in place of being demanding, sets high expectations and finds the right people who can achieve that,” Hyde said. “If she has to be demanding, it’s the wrong match.”

The Outdoor Industry Association lauded Jewell’s nomination. The trade group gave her its inaugural leadership award in 2011, praising her efforts to inform key White House staff about the importance of the outdoor-recreation economy.

“It’s long overdue that a leader from the outdoor-recreation business is selected as secretary of the Interior,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, the association’s president. He noted that Americans spend more than $600 billion annually on outdoor activities, supporting 6.1 million sustainable U.S. jobs.

Tom Campion, co-founder and chairman of Lynnwood-based retailer Zumiez, which sells snowboard-related merchandise at 500 stores in the U.S., Canada and Europe, said Obama’s nomination of Jewell is good for both business and the environment.

“How we manage our public lands is so important to us as Americans,” said Campion, who serves on the boards of the Alaska Wilderness League and Conservation Northwest.

“Her business was interconnected all around that. REI products for the most part are used on public lands. So she gets it.”

Longtime Seattle civic leader Jim Ellis, whom Jewell has called a mentor, said her business savvy will come in handy in D.C.

“She understands that the economy needs resources to grow and prosper, but she also understands that we live on a finite planet,” Ellis said. “The trees and forests she loves here in the Northwest are pretty easily destroyed and lost. I’m impressed she’s been able to march through this mix.”

By leaving the private sector, Jewell stands to take a big pay cut.

She received total compensation valued at $2 million in 2011, including a salary of $745,307, as well as more than $1 million in bonuses.

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com


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