The devastatingly beautiful landscape of Eastern Greenland’s ice caps struck that familiar yet mysterious chord within Niels Crone’s core—the kind of feeling that people travel to the ends of the Earth to experience. He did this kind of thing often, spearheading the organization of a team of around 15 people in their twenties in his home country of Denmark and making the voyage into the wilderness to explore the caps.
Years later, on a different expedition, he found himself hiking up a steep mountain peak in South America, emerging at the summit to see a grand expanse of endless green. “There are few places on Earth where you can walk around and find no sign of human activity,” he says. “There are few places where the land looks as it has for thousands of years. It’s amazing to see that there are still places like that. It’s very spiritual and adds a crucial dimension to the daily life we live in cities.” Now the COO of Conservation International, Niels Crone has committed his professional life to protecting these sweeping natural landscapes—not only for the spirit-lifting experiences they impart, but also for the economic vitality and future security of the people and communities that rely on them for natural resources, food, shelter, and tourism.
For the past decade, the concern of global climate change has brought these aspects of conservation back into focus, yet given the tumultuous state of the global economy, going “green” has become more of a luxury for businesses, taking a backseat behind efforts to simply keep a company alive for the betterment of its employees, clients, and the community it serves.
While most business leaders still feel this is the only mode of survival, Conservation International has dedicated itself to changing the way most businesses and people view the problem. Niels believes that if more attention is placed on conserving nature, humanity will ultimately benefit more in the long run as well. “We really try to demonstrate that conservation and human development are actually complementary,” he explains. “It’s not one or the other. If you think about developing people to get a better life, you realize that you don’t have to trash nature to get there. Rather, it becomes clear that protecting nature inherently leads to a sustainable economy, which ultimately provides more benefits in the long haul.”
Twenty-five years ago, the now-thriving company of Conservation International (CI) was simply a hopeful idea of Peter Seligmann, a visionary who was running land deals in California and the West Coast as a field scribe for The Nature Conservancy at the time. A graduate from the Yale School of Forestry, Peter was eventually chosen to build the international program within the company, but after running into some ideological differences with the management, he decided to venture out on his own with thirty other people to create a new organization from scratch, with no money and no donors. An innovative and forward-thinking entrepreneur, Peter was able to transform those meager beginnings into a vibrant, dynamic, robust team of a thousand employees working in about 30 countries worldwide.
While CI might be the descendent of The Nature Conservancy, Niels sites many differences between the two, particularly from a managerial standpoint. “Conservation International is reminiscent of an entrepreneurial-based, family-owned organization,” he notes. “Even though we have over 900 people, the original CEO is still here after 25 years, acting as a father figure to many.” The Nature Conservancy, on the other hand, is close to 75 years old, and has experienced various management changes. “There’s a marked difference in how we do things and how we make decisions,” Niels explains. “Neither is better than the other, and each has its own strengths, but they are fairly different in terms of culture, approach, and the method in which decisions are made.”
One of the most recent and impressive endeavors of CI was catalyzing the Pacific Oceanscape together with the country of Kiribati, a nation of a hundred thousand people spread across several islands that owns a substantial amount of Ocean territory. In the past, foreign fishermen would come in and exploit the natural resources of that marine territory, giving little pay in return to local people. It became Cl’s goal to help the people of Kiribati take better care of their marine resources by helping to create marine protected areas and areas for sustainable marine use, where only the locals are permitted to fish using sustainable methods. At the same time, CI raised money to create trust funds to help offset the initial loss of funding once provided by the small fees from the foreign fishers. Kiribati now not only has a more sustainable fishing industry, but is also substantially more self-sufficient as a result of the protected natural resources, and is better equipped to preserve its fishing resources for future prosperity as well.
The success of CI’s efforts with Kiribati caught the eye of other island leaders, and like a chain reaction, the Pacific Oceanscape was endorsed by the Pacific Island Forum. With members like the Cook Islands and New Zealand, each of the 15 countries belonging to the Forum claims roughly 200 miles of Ocean off its respective coast, and because the islands are so spread out, the total territory of ocean adds up quickly. “The combined dry-land itself may be smaller than Delaware, but with all these little island countries, they own an area of marine territory five times the size of the United States,” Niels explains. “We help them conceptualize that space and manage it better, planning for the future and balancing the various factors that go into making a good decision. And through these analyses, our ideas show that conservation actually works. It’s amazing to see people feeling the pride of their resources and seeing how much more self-sufficient they can become.”
For Niels Crone, hard work for the betterment of humanity as well as nature has always been in his blood. Born in Denmark and raised in the suburbs of Copenhagen by his mother, a dentist, and his father, a civil engineer, he became estranged from his father at the age of ten in the wake of his parents’ divorce. He was never in want of companionship or leadership, however. His mother was first and foremost a role model, working full-time to care for Niels, his older brother, and his younger sister. “She was incredibly strong and always plowing ahead,” he recalls. “She taught me to never give up. When you face a challenge, you can sit back in self pity, or you can set out and make a path for yourself. Through her, I was ingrained to never be a victim and to always be proactive.”
Niels recalls having a far less structured childhood than his own two children recently experienced, which ultimately may have led to his leadership and deep respect for nature. “If I wanted to play soccer, there wasn’t a soccer club with scheduled games on Saturday mornings,” he remembers. “We would take a soccer ball down to the field and just play. Maybe life was simpler and less scary than it can be today, but it gave you that freedom and opportunity to be independent and go out into nature.” That deep sense of independence led to his first job, at age 11, which consisted of biking around town to deliver bread from the local baker to the elderly. His pay was one kroner (the equivalent of 20 cents) an hour, which rewarded him with the luxury of being able to buy a burger in town, rather than bike all the way home for lunch.
Along with his mother, his childhood friends played a major role in his upbringing. The tightly-knit group of friends he’s known since the age of five made up for any family he lacked. Additionally, the parents of his friends exposed him to businesses that sparked his professional interests. From a young age, Niels was fascinated with numbers. One friend’s father was the head of the Danish Weather Service, and, being interested in numbers as well, demonstrated how data and information could be translated into visible, tangible, real world results like weather predications. Another friend’s father was a CPA, which cultivated in Niels an interest in accounting as well.
Thanks to this early-life exposure to the power of numbers, Niels earned his Bachelor’s degree in Denmark in business, with a focus toward becoming a CPA. He soon realized, however, that he was less interested in the ordered side of “how things add up” and more interested in how to use the numbers to make decisions. After college, he worked at a Junior College in Denmark teaching accounting, finance, and marketing while simultaneously working on his Masters Degree. He was quickly promoted to assistant principal of the college and realized that he thoroughly enjoyed the administrative side of his work.
In 1976, Niels participated in Camp America, a program in Europe that finds camp counselors from around the globe and sends them to the US for a summer experience. He was placed in Santa Cruz, California, where he spent two months working with kids. “The experience was very exciting, and I found myself falling in love with American culture,” he affirms. As a result, he chose to attain his MBA from UCLA, where he met the woman who is now his wife, Michelle. While he wanted to remain in the US, however, he was unable to work due to his lack of citizenship, so the pair returned to Denmark, where he worked for the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. After two years, he was transferred to McKinsey’s New York office, where his wife worked as an editor for the New York Times.
Not only was McKinsey his first professional business experience, but also in that capacity, Niels had the opportunity to work closely with senior director John Sawhill on projects concerning energy and electric utilities. From the work, he learned the technical aspects of the business, and from John, he learned leadership—a powerful combination that would serve him well throughout his career.
One day, in the midst of a client meeting, John announced that, much to Niels’s surprise, he would be leaving McKinsey to become CEO of The Nature Conservancy. “I said that if I would ever leave McKinsey, it would be for the same reason, since I love the outdoors so much,” Niels explains. Then, almost immediately, John offered him the job as CFO. “It was a hard choice because I was reluctant to leave McKinsey, and it was such a different line of work,” he notes. “But I followed him because he was such an inspiring leader, and I was always attracted to leadership.”
With that, Niels and Michelle moved to Washington D.C., where he worked for the next six years. Wanting to return to the “for-profit” side of business, however, he returned to McKinsey to do consulting for three years and then joined Capital One for two years to work in risk management. From there, he moved to Chicago to join another director and friend from McKinsey at the Global Steel Exchange, a new internet based organization, where he worked as COO. Unfortunately, the company failed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. At that time, Niels realized he wanted to return to value-based organizations, which prompted him to contact Peter Seligmann about the position of CFO at Conservation International, where he has been since 2003.
In 2008, Niels then made the gradual transition from CFO to his current position of COO, where he works on the problematic and programmatic side of the company. “Peter has been a great leader and a tremendous influence,” he affirms. “He’s the type of person who can really sell a vision. This is essential, because Conservation International is a young, entrepreneurial organization with plenty of challenges to address across the world, such as how to raise money and how to spend it wisely, so there’s a nice problem solving approach to the work we do. Every day and every problem is different. You never think it’s routine, to promote conservation of nature while helping people live a better life. Our work is constantly evolving to address the obstacles of our time, and to me it’s endlessly rewarding.”
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Niels stresses the importance of creativity and perseverance. “No matter how dire a situation may look, there’s always a solution,” he affirms. “Don’t be afraid to delve into a given problem, because there is always a productive and useful way out.” Additionally, he emphasizes the advantage of learning from leaders. Rather than positioning yourself as a subordinate, offer a more reciprocal relationship,” he suggests. “Provide something that leaders can also learn from. Share ideas as equals, even if you are not, because it gets the right dialect going.”
Niels believes his own willingness to conquer fear and carry himself in this manner have allowed him to live his life with so much richness and variety. “It was incredibly hard to leave Denmark, with all my family and friends,” he observes. “But I try to return at least once a year to maintain those relationships, and I have built new relationships here in the U.S. that are wonderful as well.”
While leaving Denmark may have been one of the hardest things he’s ever done, Niels also takes pride in it. “All my friends thought I was out of my mind to quit the teaching job, since it was so well funded by the government and with such good pensions,” he recalls. “But the risk paid off. I’ve had a rewarding life, rather than being stuck because it’s familiar or comfortable. I haven’t been afraid of going out on a limb.” After all, it was through this willingness to venture far and wide that Niels met his wife and started his family, with two teenage children who already exhibit a rare wisdom and independence for being so young.
Beyond this, Niels reminds us that approaching problems from the highest altitude possible can give one the perspective necessary to enact solutions that will be best in the long run for everyone involved. “Global problems like environmental degradation and climate change do not have quick fixes,” he affirms. “Integrating conservation and development will require decades of work. But these sweeping problems, if dealt with correctly, can yield sweeping triumphs. If I am lucky enough to be 90 years old and I’m able to see that what we started at CI has taken hold, and that people of developing countries have better lives and healthier environments because of it, I would call that a legacy worth working for.”