Mark His Words
Thursday, July 17, 2008; 11:32 AM

The stereotypes of biz-begrudging enviros and planet-pillaging business leaders were upended years ago. These days, green groups and corporations team up on everything from preserving land to pushing for climate regulations. Now, in the latest example of cross-pollination, they're even swapping executives.

Mark Tercek, who took the helm of The Nature Conservancy this week, spent more than two decades as an investment banker and managing director at Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs. In recent years, he oversaw the company's Environmental Strategy Group and Center for Environmental Markets, and pioneered Goldman's sustainability initiative, which includes commitments to use recycled office products, report publicly on the firm's carbon footprint, and invest in emerging green sectors. During his tenure, Goldman invested $1.5 billion in renewables and clean technology and helped preserve 680,000 of pristine wilderness in Chile's Tierra del Fuego region. Still, what makes a go-getting moneyman the right leader for a conservation organization? How compatible are conservation goals with the bottom line? I spoke to Tercek recently to find out. (Full disclosure: Amanda Griscom Little's brother is an employee at The Nature Conservancy.)

Why did you leave Wall Street for the world of green advocacy?

I'm a long-time admirer of The Nature Conservancy. I think its mission -- to conserve biodiversity on a global basis -- is an absolutely vital one. For me to have the opportunity to put to work everything I've learned over 24 years at Goldman Sachs to help the team at The Nature Conservancy achieve its mission -- how could I say no? How could I resist that kind of incredible opportunity?

What skills from your business background prepare you for the job?

Goldman Sachs is a hard-charging, ambitious organization that seeks to get difficult things done by collaborating effectively with other people -- by consensus-building and rallying people together to pursue important tasks. The firm has produced very capable leaders who have gone off to do very interesting things -- leaders like Hank Paulsen, secretary of Treasury; Gov. [Jon] Corzine [of New Jersey]; and Bob Rubin, former secretary of Treasury.

I've had the good fortune at Goldman Sachs to have a couple of important leadership positions, most recently spearheading our efforts in the environmental area. I think I've learned about how to unite people around ambitious, clear goals and achieve those goals in the most direct, efficient, and fulfilling way.

What inspired you to make the environment a focus in your work?

As a citizen of the world, I have a tremendous sense of appreciation for the natural world -- for the services the ecosystem presents and provides to us. As a parent, my wife and I have tried to expose our kids to the great wonders of the natural world, and that has reinforced my interest in the environment. And over the last five years, I've become increasingly engaged with and concerned about the environmental problems the world confronts today. So right now I feel very fortunate, genuinely and 100 percent fortunate, to have been selected to lead The Nature Conservancy.

I like your phrasing -- "the services the ecosystem presents and provides to us." It has the ring of a banker's pragmatism. Can you elaborate on the values yielded by ecosystems?

The benefits that the natural world provides mankind are obviously enormous, valueless. You can't quantify them in a crass, accountant-like way. The wonders of biodiversity are sufficiently important that they, in and of themselves, should motivate tremendous effort toward conservation. Further, there are spiritual benefits -- people might use other words -- that flow to mankind from biodiversity that justify conservation efforts.

But if you want to go even further in the analysis and look at the more concrete ecosystem services that nature provides, these economic values are staggeringly large. Academics, scientists, economists are only beginning to think hard and comprehensively about how to value them. If you think about forests acting as lungs for the planet, or forests as stores of carbon, or forests as sources of providing clean water, protecting rivers from silt, providing flood control -- you can just keep ticking through the natural world and the economic value of its services is huge.

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