CEO Interview with Bob Perkowitz, President of ecoAmerica

Published in citybizlist DC.

Redeploying management skills for a different kind of income.

Bob Perkowitz ‘retired’ when he was 50 years old, but he hasn’t slowed down.  After a successful career in the consumer products, equity investing, and direct marketing fields, Bob shifted to the non-profit world and now works to build leadership to address climate change and sustainability at ecoAmerica.  He quips, “I used to sell people things they want but don’t need, now I sell people things they need but don’t want.”  The management and marketing skills he used most recently as President of Cornerstone Brands, the parent company of Frontgate, Garnet Hill, Smith and Noble, Travelsmith and four other retailers, instilled a focus on customers, service, and results that serves him well as President now of ecoAmerica.

“People are conflicted about climate change,” Bob says, “because it is a huge, critical issue fraught with economic and political implications.”  That challenge motivates him.  Bob and his team are working with a diverse coalition of over 150 leaders of national organizations including the United Church of Christ, the American Public Health Association, the American Sustainable Business Council, the Salt Lake City and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities to build leadership on pragmatic climate and sustainability solutions that will grow our economy and provide our children with a healthy and secure future.   Through it’s flagship initiative, MomentUs, ecoAmerica provides them with the programs and resources they can use to make a difference, including Solution Generation, Climate for Health, and Blessed Tomorrow.

We caught up with Bob at his Washington, DC office and asked him a few questions.

Q. Why do you do so much research at ecoAmerica?  What does it tell you about how to frame discussions about serious environmental issues?  Words are powerful, but can changing words and phrases be that pivotal?

At Cornerstone, we were mailing out over a million catalogs a day and had dozens of market research tests going on at any given point – products, pictures, prices, colors, words.  If we want to be efficient and effective in relating to our customers, everything matters.  It’s the same with climate change.  We need to connect clearly, and on values not just science.  For instance, does a phrase like “alternative energy,” include hydro, fracking or nuclear?  Our research indicates that we should “describe not label” when we talk about energy – say “clean energy from the wind and the sun” instead of things like alternative or renewable energy.

Q.  Are we making progress on climate change?  Are people and organizations changing the way they think about climate issues? 

Absolutely.  A decade ago, almost none of us were thinking about global warming.  It was in the distant future.   Now people are seeing unprecedented changes in temperatures, seasons, and weather all around them, and they are seeking answers.  At the same time, we’ve made amazing progress in clean energy.  Solar panel prices have fallen literally 99% in the past 25 years and by next year utility scale solar will cost less than even natural gas in 36 states.  All the big, energy intensive tech companies have already gone 100% renewable, hundreds of American colleges and universities, and communities across America are moving that direction.

Q. How is ecoAmerica’s research utilized?

ecoAmerica research focuses on people.  Our values research helps us target and connect with people who are concerned about climate, but unsure about what to do.  Our communications research helps us make climate and sustainability understandable and relevant.  We use it to create brands and framing.  The website is a good example.   We also use it to create guides our partners need to communicate on climate, like the new Connecting on Climate guide produced in partnership with the CRED center at Columbia University.

Q. When was ecoAmerica founded?

We launched ecoAmerica in 2006.  We knew we had to get the messaging right, but we really wanted to work to change institutions and behavior.  The concept worked well and even the programs we started back then, like the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, the Sustainable Education and Economic Development (SEED) Center and Nature Rocks are still going strong.

Q.  Your flagship initiative “MomentUs” is characterized as “a new way of supporting people and organizations who want to lead on climate solutions.” Can you give us a specific example of MomentUs in action?

We have programs for leaders in five sectors – health, business, faith, communities, and higher education – who want to take action on climate change.  We give them information and resources they need to make a difference in their organizations, and engage their stakeholders to do the same.  ecoAmerica’s Climate for Health program is a great example.  From the “Why health and climate” and “Get Started” guides to the resources, success stories and community, Climate for Health makes it easy for leaders to act on climate in their organizations.

Q. We’ve read that ecoAmerica’s most recent research reveals racial and cultural values and viewpoints on climate change.  Can you share what research ecoAmerica is preparing for next?

We have two major objectives for ecoAmerica’s research in 2015.  First, we will produce comprehensive guides for each sector to communicate on climate.  The best frames and messages for business versus say faith, are very different and they need specific resources.  Then, because climate change is shifting from an abstract phenomena in the future, to something that’s impacting business and consumers today in many ways, we need to explore those connections more.  What are organizations and people most concerned about now, and how do they want America to address those concerns.

Q. What in your background inspired and prepared you best for your entrepreneurial non-profit environmental work, i.e., migrating from marketing in the private sector to “marketing the environment?”

Quite frankly, it was my wife, Lisa Renstrom.  She is a big leader in the conservation and sustainability movement and was President and Chair of the Sierra Club among other things.  Climate and nature were not high on my priorities, I wasn’t even paying serious attention.  But over the years with her, I came to realize from her that climate was an over-arching issue that impacts everything, and that I had the capabilities and responsibility to do something about it.

Q. How do you and Lisa complement each other in terms of your professional roles?

Lisa’s sensitivities and sensibilities about all living things influences my data and management science driven, hard-core, results-oriented style.  She’s beautiful inside and out.  And my management skills have helped her be more effective in here work.  We’ve been quite the complimentary team.

Q. When you’re not distance cycling, or training, what do you do to decompress?

Decompress?  Why would you want to do that?  Seriously though, my family including my delightful new granddaughter Ellie, are the ultimate thing that really distracts me from my work.    Cycling is great fun and keeps me in shape and focused on everything else.

Q. How would you describe your personal brand?

Passion about the fusion of a mutually successful relationship between people and the planet.

Q. How do you think your executive team would characterize your leadership style?

Maybe sometimes a little bit too passionate about our work.  But they too are all engaged at ecoAmerica because we have such a creative, dynamic, meaningful, and interesting mission.

Q. Where and when did you become such a passionate extreme cyclist/adventurer?

We sold a large business I was running in 2001, and part of the transition to new management was a one year consulting agreement that kept me busy only half time, but prevented me from taking any other work assignments.  I needed something big and interesting to occupy me the other half the time, and decided to start riding my bike across all the continents on the planet.

Q. We’ve read that you’ve ridden your bike across North and South America, Australia, Europe and most of Asia, and you’re currently trying to figure out how to ride across Africa and Siberia. Do you have a plan?

I do.  I’m almost ready to go.  I just need to find the time.  In the meantime I’ve been able to fit in other great shorter rides, like from Vienna to Istanbul, Beaune to Florence, or in America the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Pacific Coast Bikeway.  It’s a great way to explore the world!


Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Subscribe to email updates from Bob