Meet Mark Tercek
Photo: Bill Marr for The Nature Conservancy
As the CEO of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the world’s largest conservation NGO, Mark Tercek leads a global team of more than 4,000 colleagues, who are working on the biggest environmental challenges we face today. After 24 years on Wall Street, he switched tracks to become a full-time environmentalist. He speaks to Bittu Sahgal about his life, passions and dreams for tomorrow.
Mark, tell us a bit about your childhood.
I was a city kid and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid, but it wasn’t at nature preserves. I shovelled snow, played basketball, and delivered the local newspaper on a paper route.
All four of my grandparents were immigrants from Slovenia and insisted on planting full gardens in the middle of the city so we could grow our own fruits and vegetables. They planted many big fruit trees – peaches, pears, plums, apples, and cherries. I remember this distinctly, because it was my job to take care of them, and I hated yard work. But that’s not why this memory stands out.
In the late 60s, I remember the trees stopped producing good fruit. Some weakened, and even died. Even as a kid, it was pretty easy for me to see the likely culprit. I can still picture the smog that covered the city.
Then, in 1969, the Cuyahoga river, which runs through the city, caught fire. You don’t need to be an environmentalist to know that something is wrong when a river bursts into flames. There was a comedy show on air at the time, Laugh-In, that would make running jokes about the fire. Even to a kid, it was embarrassing.
These events opened my eyes, and a lot of other people’s too. This wasn’t just a Cleveland problem. Major U.S. cities like Pittsburg and Los Angeles were also struggling with dirty air and water pollution that was harming the health of their communities. What came next was the rise of the greatest period of environmental progress in U.S. history. Under President Nixon we got the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. It wasn’t easy, but it was critical to move forward. And it’s made a huge difference today.
Who were the great influences in your life?
My parents. They did their best to encourage me to treat other people well, to engage in civic activities, to work hard, and to be kind. I can say the same thing about my wonderful wife, Amy. She has also provided me with a great deal of support over the years.
My four kids are also a big influence – Ali, Margo, Luke, and Rex. They kind of got me started as an environmentalist because Amy and I took great efforts to introduce them to the wonders of nature. Along the way, we fell in love with the environment ourselves.
And then of course there are many individuals throughout my school days, my life on Wall Street, and at The Nature Conservancy, who have been extraordinarily kind, patient and supportive of me. Without their support, I never could have accomplished all the things I have.
What triggered your shift from Wall Street to the Nature Conservancy?
For 24 years, I was an investment banker on Wall Street. Along the way, two important things happened. First as I mentioned, my wife and I had children and started taking them on trips outdoors. We would venture out of our New York City apartment to nature preserves around the world. Spending time outside opened my eyes and turned me into an environmentalist.
Second, as a business person, I developed the view that business, when done right, can be a force for good. I still believe this today. My boss at the time, Hank Paulson, former CEO of Goldman Sachs, offered me the chance to lead the bank’s first environmental initiative. My job was to look for win-win opportunities where both nature and business could benefit. I didn’t have to look very far — it turns out investing in nature is often a good deal that can have clear business returns.
But in early 2008, I was ready to do more. When a headhunter called me to ask who I thought would make a good fit for The Nature Conservancy’s new president I had my answer ready to go: me. Lo and behold I got the job – it was the happiest day of my career.
Do former banking colleagues understand that natural ecosystems are economic infrastructures?
I would say yes, I believe most of them do. Moreover, their level of understanding is rising fast. It’s not just the financial sector that is considering natural ecosystems in this way – we can see this shift across many sectors in the economy.
Business leaders know a lot about making long-term plans, assessing risk, and managing outcomes. And they know in order to do this well, they need to be mindful of the infrastructure they rely on and keep tabs on the shape that infrastructure is in. It makes sense then, that bankers and business people from all sectors would be taking a closer look at the natural ecosystems that support their people, their products, and their livelihoods. What we need now is to encourage these actors to take bolder action, consider an even longer view, and step up to do more for the environment.
While mobilising business and financial forces is important, I should note that we will, of course, continue to need NGOs and government regulators to pursue bad actors in the business world.
Is TNC weaning some of the best minds away from banking and economics towards tackling our planet’s looming climate and biodiversity crisis?
TNC seeks to be an inclusive organisation that brings people with diverse experiences together to address big environmental challenges. In doing this, we certainly do bring business people to the mix. But we also bring great academic minds, farmers and ranchers, scientists, politicians, philanthropists – you name it. And we still have some way to go.
Too often, business leaders still make decisions on timeframes that are too short, or they back away from bolder initiatives that I think could yield both great economic and environmental outcomes. In this respect, I’m very pleased to have the job I do. I have the opportunity to change their minds.
Photo Courtesy: Mark Tercek
Is TNC a conservation body, financial institution, or a scientific organisation?
TNC is an organisation that does everything it can to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends. We do that, certainly, as a conservation organisation, but one that relies on great scientific expertise and deploys financial resources to get the job done. So I would say, ‘all of the above’.
Who finances the Nature Conservancy?
Our principal financial support comes from individuals who make generous philanthropic gifts. Historically, most of our donors were U.S. citizens, but increasingly they are based all around the world – and the projects they support are located all around the world, too. We also receive great support from mission-aligned organisations, big and small, who want to see a world where people and nature thrive.
Do other global NGOs regard TNC as a competitor or partner?
I can’t speak for other NGOs, but I can speak for myself and for TNC. I have enormous respect for other environmental NGOs. I know most of the big ones extremely well, and also many of the smaller ones. They are generally led, staffed, and supported by extraordinary individuals who want to do everything they can to protect the health of ecosystems. We sometimes disagree on methods or priorities, but that’s a good thing. Our work isn’t easy, and a diversity of approaches is beneficial.
What led to the decision to bring TNC to India?
India’s leaders, its people, and its culture have shown a great commitment to conservation and have a built-in conservation ethic. Yet, India also faces many challenges as it goes through rapid economic growth to achieve an equitable society where both people and nature can thrive. There is also clear need for applied science to support sustainability efforts.
We felt that TNC’s strong scientific background and more than 67 years of boots-on-the-ground experience could complement the work of local organisations who are committed to India’s conservation goals. We were encouraged by Hemendra Kothari, chairman of DSP BlackRock and committed conservationist, and others in the country to expand our presence to India. Our India programme is the newest country programme for TNC, and it is off to a very strong start, thanks to our managing director, Seema Paul. She leads a team on the ground of 17 professionals, all from India, who are dedicated to bringing conservation projects to scale.
Has the Rejection of the Paris Accord By THE U.S. made it tougher for TNC to win support for its agenda in developing countries?
TNC disagrees with and is disappointed by the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. We see this agreement as an unprecedented commitment to address climate change and we continue to feel this way.
The political outlook on climate in the United States is not as polarised as headlines make it appear. We’re encouraged by the strong support from U.S. states, cities, and businesses who remain fully committed to achieving these goals. In fact, TNC has a ‘50-State Strategy’ on climate, with every state actively participating in efforts to address and curb the effects of climate change. We have also continued to be engaged with city and business leaders – in the U.S. and all over the world – who are taking bold steps to reduce emissions and do everything they can to address climate challenge.
What are your dreams and ambitions for your children... for all children?
My hope for all children is that they can live in a world without poverty or human rights abuses; that they can all be treated equally and with respect; and that everyone has the opportunity to live a good and healthy life. I want the children of today, and all future generations, to have the same opportunities to explore the natural world like I did.
As for my kids, the same answer applies. I also hope they’ll come around and visit me, if and when I become an old man.
Photo: Johny Vinoth
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is advancing nine initiatives in India aligned with the government’s goal of developing without destruction. These initiatives support Central and State priorities around conserving iconic rivers, restoring urban wetlands to build sustainable cities, advancing renewable energy and reforestation goals.
TNC’s goal is to complement the extensive conservation work being undertaken by India’s civil society, government and businesses with its expertise in applied conservation science and ability to take pilot initiatives to scale. The organisation strongly believes that collaboration and collective action is key to providing the range of environmental solutions needed for India to achieve the much-needed economic growth and human development. It works collectively with diverse stakeholders towards a common goal of building a vibrant and healthy India that is guided by sound science to manage its natural resources.
TNC India’s initiatives
* Restoring the Ganges river
* Restoring the Narmada river by reforesting its riverbanks
* Restoring Chennai’s wetlands
* Renewable energy and reforestation by design
* Addressing air pollution from crop residue burning
* Promoting drought resilience in water-stressed Maharashtra
* Water Trust: conserving watersheds
* India Centre for Applied Sustainability Solutions (ICASS)
* Advancing nutrition and ecology through fruit tree/agroforestry
For more information, visit www.tncindia.in
Author: Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 8, August 2018.