SEATTLE — When President Barack Obama nominated Sally Jewell as secretary of interior last week, he chose a woman not unlike him: smart, low-key and with a self-deprecating wit.
In a 2011 speech at the University of Denver, Jewell quoted Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” to argue that Americans have avoided the more-difficult road “less traveled by” that assures the Earth’s preservation. She underlined that point by showing a slide of a glacier from her recent jaunt to South America and Antarctica, acknowledging ruefully, “Our carbon footprint was dreadful.”
Jewell, chief executive of Kent, Wash.-based retailer REI, also took a less-traveled road to the Cabinet nomination. She is not known as a top political fundraiser and never ran for office. But she long has hobnobbed in Seattle power circles and is a regular donor to Democratic politicians, including Obama.
Her work with influential conservation groups and other causes, along with a broad business background, caught Obama’s eye during his first term. People close to Jewell believe Obama considered her for the Interior Department job four years ago.
Later, in 2009, he invited Jewell to the White House to discuss health care reform.
As CEO of REI, Jewell oversees a $2 billion company with nearly 130 stores in 31 states and 11,000 employees.
“The fact that she’s from the private sector was a major consideration for the administration,” said Costco co-founder and Chairman Jeff Brotman, who served more than a decade with Jewell on the University of Washington Board of Regents and recently participated in the White House’s vetting of her. “They’ve been criticized roundly for not having enough people from the business sector, and they can check off that box with Sally.”
Brotman noted that Jewell has been to his Medina home for campaign fundraisers twice since 2008, giving her the chance to meet both Barack and Michelle Obama.
If the Senate confirms her, Jewell will take over an organization that’s one of the government’s biggest sources of revenue other than taxes. In 2011, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management brought in $7 billion from leasing rights for oil, gas, coal and minerals, and recreation fees.
Jewell, who has mostly avoided controversy throughout her career, also will face the dueling demands of protecting public lands while tapping the wealth buried beneath.
That tension reared its head Thursday, when Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski called Jewell to say she would hold up the nomination unless the Interior Department approves a 20-mile road across the remote Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s Aleutian Peninsula.
Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association in Washington, D.C., said Jewell won’t be easily cowed by political pressure.
“Sally is strong, smart and wonderfully assertive,” said Kiernan, who helped recruit Jewell to his board eight years ago. Jewell, 56, was born in England as Sally Roffey and moved to Seattle four years later when her father, an anesthesiologist, took a fellowship at the University of Washington.
“He thought of nature as a wonderful laboratory,” Jewell recalled to The New York Times in 2007. “So when I was 9, my parents started sending me on educational camping trips.”
She graduated from Renton High School in 1973. And in 1978, she received a degree in mechanical engineering from the UW along with her soon-to-be husband, Warren. They both moved to Oklahoma and took jobs with Mobil Oil.
“Neither of us felt bad about working for an oil company,” she told The New York Times. “In fact, I remember thinking how ironic it was when Greenpeace started using gasoline-powered boats to block oil tankers, or when people drove to protests against oil drilling, or when people who built wood houses and read books said no one should ever cut down trees.”
Sally and Warren Jewell, who have two adult children, returned to Seattle in 1981, and she joined the former Rainier Bank to help evaluate loans to energy companies. She worked at the bank until Security Pacific bought it in 1987, then left Security Pacific when Bank of America bought it five years later.
Jewell headed Washington operations at another bank, West One, for nearly four years, and in 1996 joined Washington Mutual to lead a new commercial banking group. Former WaMu executive Craig Tall said she impressed him as someone with “a very nice style who gets things done.”
Even so, WaMu later decided it couldn’t compete with the likes of Bank of America or Wells Fargo in commercial banking, and Jewell saw a better opportunity elsewhere. In 2000, she became chief operating officer at REI, the outdoor equipment chain.
“REI is a real cultural fit,” she said in 2007. “I still spend a huge amount of time in the outdoors. My son Mark takes me mountain climbing for Mother’s Day each year.”
About 25 years ago, local civic leader Jim Ellis turned to Jewell and other environmentally minded business people to help create the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. It aims to preserve the forested landscape along Interstate 90 from Cle Elum through Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle.
“She and I were put on that board in the beginning, when we were 33 and 34 years old, respectively. So we got quite an education,” said environmental lawyer Bill Chapman, the trust’s president.
“She’s certainly driven to fulfill her commitments,” Chapman said. “And it’s all the more impressive that she seems to do so without betraying any ego whatsoever. It’s about getting to a solution on a problem.”
Jewell also helped create another Seattle nonprofit, the Initiative for Global Development (IGD), which promotes private investment in developing nations to fight poverty. Its leadership council is co-chaired by former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell.
“The Interior Department is all about balance,” said Bill Ruckelshaus, who once headed the Environmental Protection Agency, noting the tension between preserving federal lands for recreation and wildlife and the need to allow oil drilling and mining. “She’s seen all sides of that so she’ll have the ability to weigh what needs to be done as secretary.”
Jewell’s work with Mountains to Sound put her on REI’s radar, and in 1996 she joined its board, eventually leading to the COO and CEO posts.
“With her experience in banking, she could offer a perspective we didn’t have at the time. We were all homegrown employees,” said Dennis Madsen, REI’s CEO from 2000 to 2005, when Jewell succeeded him.
“She wants to make a difference, so she seeks out challenges. She’s not a status-quo person,” he said. “She’s always pushing.”
During Jewell’s tenure, REI nearly doubled its annual sales from $1 billion in 2005 to $1.8 billion in 2011 and added 71 stores, including one in Manhattan.
Former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, who served for decades on the House Appropriations Interior subcommittee, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by Jewell’s nomination, contrasting her business background with the usual pick of established Western politicians.
The Washington Democrat said part of Jewell’s appeal to the Obama administration may be that she doesn’t have a controversial political record that critics can pick apart.
The administration also has been under pressure to add women to the Cabinet.
“I’m not saying that was the deciding factor, but the reality is he said he was going to have a very diverse Cabinet and the first few picks were all men,” Dicks said.
During Wednesday’s nomination announcement, Obama mentioned that Jewell climbed mountains in Antarctica, “which is just not something I’d think of doing,” he added, drawing laughter. “Because it seems like it would be cold, and I was born in Hawaii.”
Chapman, who was on that 2010 expedition, recalls how they climbed Vinson Massif, Antarctica’s highest mountain, in nine days, but political unrest in Chile prevented them from returning home on an airplane for nearly three weeks.
“Every day we got a briefing that it turned out it wasn’t going to be today but maybe tomorrow,” Chapman said.
To pass time, Chapman and Jewell read books, went skiing, climbed other peaks, even invented a game using dinner plates as Frisbees.
“She’s just a very steady hand and a good partner,” he said.