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Wednesday, March 23, 2005 - Page updated at 01:34 p.m

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A profile of REI's Sally Jewell: Team player at her peak

Seattle Times retail reporter


Sally Jewel takes over Monday as chief executive of Recreational Equipment Inc., succeeding Dennis Madsen. The former banking executive has helped returned the outdoors powerhouse to profitability.

In 1959, Peter Roffey moved here from England to take a University of Washington Medical School fellowship.

The young anesthesiologist thought he'd try out camping and so became Recreational Equipment Inc. member No. 17249, purchasing his first tent at REI's original store.

If Roffey was one of the outdoor retail cooperative's earlier members, his daughter Sally Jewell is its future.

Jewell, a former banking executive, becomes REI's chief executive Monday at its annual meeting. She replaces Dennis Madsen, who spent his nearly 40-year career with the company.

Described by friends and colleagues as an intelligent, thoughtful, no-nonsense leader, Jewell takes the helm at a time when business is booming.

The company, which recorded its first loss in 2000, has returned to profitability. Last year, it posted $887.8 million in sales, a 10.2 percent increase over the year before.

Sally Jewell

Age: 49

Education: University of Washington, degree in mechanical engineering

Boards: Premera, parent company to Premera Blue Cross; University of Washington Board of Regents; National Parks Conservation Association. Founding board member and immediate past president for Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.

Favorite outdoor spots: Mailbox Peak for a workout; Rattlesnake Ledge or Twin Falls State Park to introduce others to outdoor activities.

Family: Husband and two college-age children

Favorite quote: "Never underestimate the ability of a small group of people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." — Margaret Mead

"Her banking experience has brought a real, top-to-bottom, accountable you-need-to-make-sure-you-know-exactly-what-you're-doing ethic to REI," said Michael Hodgson, co-publisher of, a subscription-based news service for the outdoor and fitness industries.

"I think that's been good for REI," Hodgson said.

If Jewell's banking experience helped to bring focus to the company, her childhood gave her equal fondness for the outdoors.

Her family, the Roffeys, often sailed an 8-foot dinghy across Puget Sound. "We used to camp everywhere we went," she said.

Jewell graduated in 1973 from Renton High School. She earned a mechanical-engineering degree from the University of Washington and, one week later, married Warren Jewell, a fellow engineer.

The newlyweds joined the profession during an engineer shortage and received nine dual job offers. They accepted positions with Mobil Oil, heading straight to the oil fields of southern Oklahoma.

Jewell stayed with the company for three years, but bigger opportunities lay ahead. The 1980s marked a boom time for the oil industry, with record prices fueling new exploration.

Engineering smarts

Banks began to hire engineers to understand the value of the collateral in the ground, and Jewell signed on as petroleum engineer for Rainier Bank. "Rainier wanted to participate," Jewell said, "but only if they could make smart loans."

Rainier became one of the few banks that didn't fold due to bad loans to the oil industry, and Jewell's job gave her added exposure, she said.

Rainier was eventually acquired by Security Pacific, and Jewell ran its business-banking activities.

An engineer by trade, Jewell began using PCs in the early 1980s, but her boss at Rainier told her to get rid of her computer. "That's her job," he said, pointing to Jewell's secretary.

Jewell stood her ground and kept her PC. Six months later, her boss flew in for a visit, toting a laptop.

She spent 20 years in the banking industry, her last role overseeing Washington Mutual's commercial-banking business.

In 1996, she became an REI board member. Four years later, she joined the company as its chief operating officer, just as Madsen became CEO.

Just as Jewell joined the banking industry during the oil boom, she went to REI when the Internet boom was in full swing.

REI had built a successful online retail site but faced a dozen competitors with ample cash. The company meantime tried to expand unsuccessfully into Japan. Both gave the company its first loss.

REI has since closed its unprofitable store in Machida City, Japan, sold stakes in former subsidiaries and returned to profitability. Of its $72 million in operating income last year, $44 million was returned to its members in the form of refunds on purchases.

Lessons in success, failure

"Banking gives you a glimpse into what makes companies succeed and what makes companies fail," Jewell said.

She said the company plans to focus on sustainability (such as reducing its energy consumption) and corporate social responsibility (including paying even closer attention to the overseas working conditions of those who manufacture its goods.)

REI also wants to move the meter on the number of kids who participate in the outdoors. "Our competitors are TV, video games and kids who are overscheduled," Jewell said.

Her philosophy on leadership is "transparency and openness and listening and that nobody lets their position go their head," Jewell said.

"It's not one person's vision," she said. "It's a team."

Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company



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