How financier Mark Tercek became an unlikely environmental leader.
Capitalism and environmentalism have long seemed at odds, with one usually coming at the expense of the other. But Mark Tercek is pioneering a new approach in conservationism that leverages the financial interests of corporations and even countries for the ultimate benefit of the environment. A former partner at Goldman Sachs, Tercek has been at the helm of The Nature Conservancy for just over a decade and has launched audacious campaigns that take a business-minded approach to solving some of the most daunting environmental challenges. Late this spring at the annual TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tercek announced an ingenious new project to financially incentivize island and coastal nations to save their surrounding oceans. For Tercek, who has owned a summer home in Sconset since 2000, saving the planet won’t happen by way of lofty platitudes or bumper stickers. Real change comes down to dollars and cents.
“I believe business can be— and usually is—a force for good,” Tercek says. “Generally speaking, it makes very compelling business sense for almost all companies to be as smart and as opportunistic as they can in addressing environmental challenges.” Tercek is uniquely qualified to deliver this message. At the age of twenty-nine, he made partner at Goldman Sachs right as the company went public, but was looking for a career change. Environmentalism had only recently interested him, mainly through taking eco-tours with his family to places like Costa Rica and Belize. “I was not a lifelong nature guy,” says Tercek, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and spent most of his life in urban settings. “But I think there’s an inner environmentalist in almost anyone and I’m an example of a late-in-life convert.”
In 2005, Tercek expressed his interest in pursuing a career in the environment to Henry Paulson, the then-CEO of Goldman Sachs who later became the Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. But Paulson convinced Tercek to stay on with the firm, suggesting that he build out a new environmental arm of Goldman Sachs. “Today, that’s a very conventional idea,” Tercek says. “But in 2005 that was a radical concept.” For the next two and a half years, he developed a strategy of harnessing businesses as a force for good in combating environmental crises.
Then, in 2008, a headhunter approached him seeking a recommendation for a candidate to lead The Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s most powerful environmental organizations with a million members spread out over all fifty states and seventy-two countries. Tercek nominated himself for the position. “Just about everyone said they’re never going to hire a Wall Street banker,” he recalls. “But I really hustled and lo and behold I got the job. So on a Friday in July of 2008 I left Goldman Sachs and on Monday, I started at The Nature Conservancy.”
“Culturally, I don’t think I played my cards very well at the beginning,” he admits. “Right after I joined in 2008, the financial crisis reached its zenith.” As a capital intensive organization requiring upwards of $600 million of fundraising each year, The Nature Conservancy quaked as Lehman Brothers and AIG went bust the month after Tercek started.
Meeting the crisis head on, Tercek unleashed his twenty-six years of Wall Street bullishness in leading the non-profit through the crisis, but he ruffled some feathers in the process. “I think I made pretty good decisions, but on the interpersonal front, things weren’t optimal,” he reflects. “People didn’t enjoy working with me.” Recognizing this, he hired a CEO coach who helped him reshape his approach. He also started learning more from the tenured organization members, who were benefiting from Tercek’s financial savvy. Gradually, they formed a constructive team that is now unleashing a revolutionary approach to saving the planet.
Instead of focusing exclusively on land conservation—The Nature Conservancy has put 119 million acres of land and thousands of miles of rivers and shoreline around the world in conservation since its founding in 1951—Tercek pushed to partner with more and more private companies that could maximize the organization’s efforts. To start, he explains, companies benefit from reducing waste, increasing efficiency and creating more goodwill among their employees, shareholders and clients. “We’ve encouraged companies to go beyond that and think about environmental challenges that they could address through their skillset that might not have the immediate benefit of increasing efficiency, but would benefit them nonetheless,” he explains. He points to companies like FEMSA, the dominant Coca-Cola bottling company in Latin America, which The Nature Conservancy teamed up with to restore watersheds and water quality in the many areas where the company set up manufacturing plants. This not only addressed a risk that the company might face down the line, namely access to clean water, but it also nurtured goodwill within the community.
“We’re better when we team up with a business like that,” Tercek says. “Businesses know how to get results.” The companies also bring vital financial support to The Nature Conservancy while also elevating the profile of the project, which could encourage competitors to take a similar tack. “The world is a huge place, if we try to save the world one project at a time, it’s not bad, but it’s insufficient,” Tercek explains. “We think when we partner with other businesses like this, other businesses will imitate, and we might have a better chance to accelerate success.” The approach has caught flack from some hardline environmentalists who point to some projects or companies that the organization has become involved with that appear counterintuitive to the goals of the environmental movement. Indeed, under Tercek, The Nature Conservancy has partnered on dam projects and with the Dow chemical company. Yet for Tercek, achieving the ultimate objectives for the environment requires pragmatism over idealism.
Tercek’s latest campaign—known as Blue Bonds for Conservation— switches the focus to incentivizing countries, specifically island and coastal nations, to protect their surrounding waters and marine habitats. Through the Blue Bonds program, The Nature Conservancy will refinance a country’s national debt in return for the government’s commitment to protect 30 percent of its near-shore ocean areas. The Nature Conservancy will create a pool of capital by buying up the country’s national debt at a discount, issuing new debt with better interest rates and injecting philanthropic giving from European nations that are interested in supporting marine conservation in the developing world. All of these savings are then held in an offshore trust fund, which the organization will release to the country as it meets the various agreed on conservation benchmarks.
“We think it all adds up to a really robust strategy,” Tercek says. At press time, The Nature Conservancy was trying to raise $40 million, which would pay for the manpower to do twenty of these projects in the next five years. “Through the debt restructuring we think we could mobilize about a billion and a half dollars for marine conservation,” Tercek claims. “It would be hard to find an opportunity where $40 mil- lion could unlock $1.5 billion.”
Though he’s optimistic about the potential impact that The Nature Conservancy’s projects offer, Tercek says that real, meaningful change to the future of the environment hinges on governmental policy. He believes that the United States is among the global leaders that have taken a crushing step backward in addressing climate change, and he hopes business leaders can force the hand of policymakers to get it back on track. “We are so far behind where we need to be on climate change, it kind of breaks my heart,” he says. “Now, when we work with businesses, my first ask is for them to commit to work hard with us to get the policy that we need—because this is in their best interest as business persons, too.” In mid-June, Tercek led four hundred Nature Conservancy chapter leaders from every state and all political affiliations in descending on Capitol Hill. “We bombard[ed] everybody in the Senate and the House with our pragmatic, nonpartisan recommendations for environmental policy,” he says. “We, the royal we, all of us, need to do as much of that as we possibly can because the stakes are just so damn high.”
When he’s not knocking on congressional doors or launching projects in the field, Tercek and his wife, Amy, and their four children spend their down time on Nantucket. Amy Tercek’s parents lived in Sconset for most of their lives, prompting the couple to eventually buy their own home there. Though The Nature Conservancy spans the globe, Tercek is not involved directly with the conservation organizations on Nantucket, beyond cheering for them from the sidelines. “My hat is off to the Nantucket conservation organizations,” he says. “Everybody who enjoys Nantucket should support these great organizations because that’s why Nantucket is so nice.” Tercek sees Nantucket on the frontlines of the global fight to save the planet. And though the challenges loom large, Tercek says it’s never too late to invest in our future.