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They say all rivers lead to the sea.

If that is true, then it's only fitting that Andreas Merkl (MBA 1989) should find himself today at the helm of Ocean Conservancy (www.oceanconservancy.org), after a long environmental career that started on the banks of the Rhine River. Merkl grew up in Cologne, Germany in the 1960s—a time when the Rhine was so polluted that anyone even daring to wade into it risked arrest. "It stank, literally," recalls Merkl. "But then, around age 12, I became aware that there were people bold enough to suggest that investing billions to clean it up was a good idea. My whole worldview changed. I've been passionate about water resources and ocean issues ever since."

Merkl has never strayed from that passion, but recognized early on that he would need to be pragmatic to be effective. "When I graduated from high school," Merkl says, "my father gave me 3,000 deutsche marks and told me to leave from the front door of the house and return at the back door, taking the long way around. As naïve as it sounds, I started my 'walkabout' in the United States by sticking my thumb in the air outside New York City's JFK airport and eventually hitchhiked across the country."

Merkl fell in love with California and decided to stay. Enrolling at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he studied environmental science, regional planning and natural resource analysis. But an early job in the office of San Francisco's then Mayor Dianne Feinstein opened his eyes to the skills he really needed. "I was working on some complicated subsidized housing plans," he says. "It became shockingly apparent that I did not understand the ecology of money! I thought that if I wanted to understand how the world works, I'd better get a crash education in management and finance."

HBS professor Jonathan Tiemann's class in finance changed everything. "I was a total idiot, with absolutely no experience in finance," says Merkl. "With his great humor and energy, he made these difficult concepts come alive in such wonderful ways."

Merkl joined McKinsey after HBS, and got straight to work to bring "an environmental point of view to business." He cofounded the firm's Environmental Practice, which focused investment on environmental technologies, and later cofounded CH2M HILL, an environmental engineering firm. "It was tough in those early years," he says. "I learned that it's easier to bring sound business practices to organizations that have major environmental mandates and are facing really complex problems." As a principal at the San Francisco-based California Environmental Associates, Merkl has spent the last 16 years helping organizations and industries meet sustainability goals and regulatory obligations. During that time, he says, the firm was "able to tackle some really wicked problems, such as global overfishing and the philanthropic response to climate change."

Now, as he settles in Washington, D.C., for his new role as president and CEO of the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, Merkl is eager to bring his formidable experience to bear on several major global initiatives. "Ocean Conservancy has had a series of impressive marine conservation successes in the United States," says Merkl (who blogs at http://theblogaquatic.org/author/amerkl/). "My hope is that over the next decade, it will be a central player in figuring out how to manage the ocean towards its rightful, sustainable, and robust contribution to our many needs."

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1989, Section I

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