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Mark Tercek: A Wall Street Plan for Nature

Gloria McDonough-Taub
Off the Cuff

When Mark Tercek describes his job, he puts it this way “we're winning many battles, we might be losing the war.” Many would consider that a bleak outlook especially from the man who’s leading an organization that’s trying to save the earth.

Tercek is the CEO of The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit group founded in 1915 (its name then was the Ecological Society of America). His path to the nonprofit world came via his career at one of the world’s biggest for profit companies, Goldman Sachs where he had worked for 24 years and had risen to the enviable and lucrative position of managing director.

But even with an enviable paycheck, it wasn’t enough.

“Lots of people ask me how and why I left Wall Street to join The Nature Conservancy and why, in particular, The Nature Conservancy. I couldn't be happier. As a Wall Street investment banker, I became very interested in the environmental cause. And as a parent, I became very interested in getting my kids exposed to nature.”

The career change brought its challenges. Tercek had to learn how to shift from an industry where numbers rules to one where consensus rules. But as he told “Off the Cuff,” he did find similarities. “I know everybody is not a big fan of Wall Street right now. And sure enough they bear some responsibility for the financial collapse. But at the end of the day, you have Wall Street bankers who are entrepreneurial, working for clients to creatively solve problems. My colleagues and I at The Nature Conservancy, we're trying to do the same. We're working very hard to solve big challenges. But our client is nature itself.”

With about 4,000 employees including hundreds of scientists and chapters in all 50 states and 36 countries, TNC has projects that span the world including work to reduce deforestation in the Amazon; restoring oyster reefs in the Gulf of Mexico, protecting the Pacific’s Coral Triangle and working with China’s government to save the giant pandas and regenerate depleted forests. The organization has an estimated $ 6.021 billion in net assets according to its 2012 annual report, dwarfing its conservation competitors.

Tercek brings a deep business experience to his role leading the Conservancy and a sense of urgency.

“We know the world's population is growing from today's seven billion to something like nine billion people in 2050. Even more important, the world's middle class is growing.” Tercek adds that it’s great that people are being lifted out of poverty but the conservationist in him says, “as people rise out of poverty and get better homes, and better educations, and access to energy - all good things - it also means there'll be more consumers more demand for food, space, energy, water.”

To put it bluntly, “Environmentalists have to raise their game and get more done.”

Tercek admits that there is some tree hugger fatigue so he’s trying to change the way environmentalists are perceived, how they talk, how they work with others and how they even work with the so-called “enemy.” “We partner with sometimes strange bedfellows. We'll work with anyone. But it's all driven by a core focus on achieving the mission: saving the lands and water that life depends on.”

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Since joining the Conservancy in 2008, Tercek, has brought his business acumen for getting things done. “When we say, "How?" that requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of other guy, to roll up our sleeves, to collaborate and solve problems. And that's what we do with a lot of our work with big business and with government.”

An example he cites of understanding the needs of others is the organization’s work with Dow Chemical. The corporate giant wanted to protect its Gulf operations from future hurricane damage. As part of a five-year, $10 million collaboration, TNC and Dow studied whether Dow could invest in the coastal ecosystem to grow marshlands to enhance protection of a Dow site, instead of building higher concrete levees.

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It’s a start and one that could signal to other companies that nature can no longer be ignored.

In his new book, “Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature,” Tercek makes the case that environmental investments by any business or government is not only smartest investment they can make, but one that is moral and good for the entire planet even if it means changing long-held beliefs. “The things we're partnering on are difficult. On the one hand, there are big environmental risks. On the other hand, there are important business opportunities. Balancing all of that is tough. So we need leaders who are bold, who have vision, but also have collaborative skills and communication skills.”

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