Obama’s Weekend Warrior

By Beacon Staff

When Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced his resignation from the Obama Administration, attention turned instantly to a successor. But President Barack Obama shattered the mold when he nominated Seattleite Sally Jewell, CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc., known as REI.

Born in England, Jewell came to America at age four when her anesthesiologist dad took an academic fellowship at University of Washington. Raised in the eastern Seattle suburb of Renton, Jewell graduated from the University of Washington with a 1978 degree in mechanical engineering. After three years in Oklahoma with Mobil, Jewell returned home to the Northwest and a banking position specializing in petroleum-related loans.

In 1996, Jewell was appointed to the Board of Directors of REI, leaving Washington Mutual in 2000 to become REI chief operating officer, then chief executive officer in 2005.

But Sally Jewell’s relationship with REI, and the REI “experience,” has been lifelong. Her father bought a tent from REI as member #17249, and began a family love affair with Seattle’s spectacular, accessible mountains and salt water on weekends. Today, the company has 4.7 million members, 9,500 employees, and 130 stores, almost all located in America’s largest urban complexes.

Jewell is credited with turning a stagnating REI into a powerhouse. REI’s revenues in 2005, when Jewell took the helm, were $880 million, with $72 million in operating profit. Revenues reached $1.8 billion in 2011, clearing $116 million of operating profit, enabling $99 million in life member dividend refunds.

Married to Warren Jewell, also an engineer, with two grown children, a regent at alma mater UW, in her spare time she climbed the 16,000-foot, always-deadly-cold Vinson Massif in Antarctica last year. Awesome!

But I’m not sure she’ll be awesome as Secretary of Interior.

In a nutshell, REI is Cabela’s for green urban yuppies. Any Friday night, mixed in with the pickups and trailers of the Cabela’s cohort, hordes of Subarus and Volvos, roof racks groaning with gear from REI, zoom out of America’s metropolitan centers in a mass escape from cubicle jail to a weekend of freedom in the natural world. On Sunday night, the weekend warriors are back in town. What happens in the hinterlands the rest of the week, or in the off season, matters little, if at all, to them.

With the exception of three years in the high-plains oilfields, Jewell has spent her entire adult life as a weekend warrior, including a decade of guiding a large business that lives or dies on its ability to package and sell the weekend-warrior lifestyle.

Since becoming CEO, Jewell has taken strategic actions aimed at advancing REI’s interests: Jewell joined the Board of Directors of the National Parks Conservation Association in 2005 and is currently vice chair. She also began making targeted political contributions in 2006, almost all to green Democratic politicians – including maximum contributions to President Obama.

Further, the largest share of her federal political spending went to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) PAC, where she is the second-largest contributor. OIA is a lobbying group for the “active outdoor” retail sector.

REI Foundation also supports the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit established by OIA to “be a driving force behind a massive increase in active outdoor recreation in America.”

Finally, Sally Jewell had the honor of introducing President Obama at the 2011 White House rollout of the America’s Great Outdoors initiative, which aims to “connect Americans to the great outdoors,” especially America’s couch-surfing urban youth.

Clearly, Jewell has been pursuing a remarkably well-focused strategy, not only in a business sense. She is involved with groups that seek to expand the slice of public lands pie managed primarily for the benefit of REI’s discriminating customer base, and, with AGO, has even enlisted the government in recruiting youth to “active” outdoors activities, at least partly in the hope they’ll grow up to become loyal REI weekend warriors.

I am deeply impressed with Sally Jewell’s intellect, drive, and execution. She’s doing what she loves, stupendously well. But the Interior Department is a seven-day-a-week enterprise that involves work, not just play. If confirmed, Sally Jewell will have to be more than President Obama’s weekend warrior.

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