13 Jul 2017
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Making Friends with Mother Nature

The driving force behind Upstate New York’s Wild Center hopes exposure to the natural world will help a new generation appreciate and protect his beloved Adirondacks
Re: Dick Cavanagh (MBA 1970); Al McDonald (MBA 1956); Dermot Dunphy (MBA 1956)
by Ralph Ranalli

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Photo by Chris Taggart

Donald K. Clifford Jr. wrote the book on how high-performance, midsize companies beat their competition, but growth in the world of nature has always been closest to his heart.

“The natural world was always my great interest,” says Clifford (MBA 1956), a former director of global management consulting giant McKinsey & Company, who coauthored the book The Winning Performance: How America’s High-Growth Midsize Companies Succeed.

“I long ago decided that the world has only two problems. The first one is people getting along with other people, which is hopeless. We just can’t seem to do that,” he observes. “The other problem is people getting along with Mother Nature. We are in the process of wrecking the planet.”

The second problem wasn’t quite as hopeless, in his opinion. In 1998, after reading a very short blurb in the local weekly Tupper Lake Free Press about an idea for a regional nature museum in the heart of his beloved Adirondack Mountains, he picked up the phone.

Clifford, who still goes by his childhood nickname “Obie” when he’s in Upstate New York, spent his boyhood summers at a compound on Big Wolf Lake that has been in his family for more than a century. He huddled with locals about the idea, then helped to convene a group of motivated backers, who ultimately raised $500,000 with one fundraising letter. He later agreed to be the project’s president and raised another $30 million over the ensuing eight years.

In 2006, the entire region celebrated the opening of the Wild Center, a 54,000-square-foot, interactive museum experience. The center includes live wildlife exhibits, a movie theater, an art studio, a large system of trails, and recreation opportunities that include paddle boarding and canoeing. Two years ago, the organization added a distinctive network of elevated walkways, known as Wild Walk, that gives visitors the unique opportunity to experience nature at treetop level.

“Everybody loves Wild Walk,” Clifford says. “It’s been a phenomenon. In budgeting for 2015, we estimated we’d get a 20 percent increase in attendance. We were only off by one decimal point.”


Photos courtesy of Wild Center

One decimal point: as in, attendance instead increased nearly 200 percent, to more than 158,000 visitors in 2015. It was a joyful achievement for Clifford, who calls the Adirondacks “the world’s best model for humanity and nature living together” and revels in sharing the region with visitors.

Adirondack Park is the largest publicly protected area in the continental United States, comprising 6 million acres, of which 45 percent is state-owned and protected in perpetuity under the New York State Constitution; the remaining 55 percent is privately owned but with usage regulated by the Adirondack Park Agency.

“It’s taken up much of my life for the last 18 years, and it’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done,” Clifford says of the Wild Center. “My hypothesis is that if people understand our relationship with Mother Nature, they are much more inclined to take care of it.”

Fostering coexistence and serving others have been themes throughout Clifford’s life. Born and raised in Bronxville, in New York’s Westchester County, he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University before heading to HBS. His business thinking was influenced by faculty giants such as Georges Doriot, who taught industrial management and is widely considered the father of venture capital, and commercial banking authority Charles M. Williams, who was renowned as a master of case-method instruction.

Clifford also forged friendships that he would maintain throughout his life, including with Al McDonald (MBA 1956), who would become the lead US negotiator for the 1977 GATT talks in Geneva and later White House staff director to President Jimmy Carter. He and McDonald spent the formative years of their careers at McKinsey & Company. Clifford says his natural tendency toward collaborating drew him to consulting as a career path after his graduation in 1956.

“What has mattered to me throughout has been what I can do to be helpful to other people,” he notes. “If I’d had my focus on myself, it would never work. But that’s what you do as a consultant—help other people improve their performance.”

At McKinsey, Clifford found himself attracted to hard-working midsize companies rather than big clients like General Electric. He set about studying what made them succeed: a sense of mission, a focus on the needs and aspirations of employees, and a well-defined industry niche. This interest led to his coauthoring The Winning Performance with Richard E. Cavanagh (MBA 1970), who later served as executive dean of the Kennedy School and is still a lecturer in public policy. Their book, first published in 1985, became a bestseller that went through 13 US editions.

Eager for a second act, Clifford retired from McKinsey in 1984 at age 51 and started his own consulting firm, Threshold Management. He also joined HBS classmates Al McDonald and T.J. Dermot Dunphy in launching two private equity firms focused on smaller acquisitions.

He also boosted his charitable and nonprofit endeavors. Clifford has been the president of the Harvard Business School Club of Greater New York, the chairman of the Yale Alumni Fund, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He also has been on the boards of Sarah Lawrence College (his late wife, Mary Lawrence Clifford, was Sarah Lawrence’s great-great-granddaughter) and the American Museum of Natural History, where, as a member of the Executive Committee and cochairman of the Planetarium Committee, he played a role in hiring astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson as director of the Hayden Planetarium.

Yet the Adirondacks had always been in Clifford’s heart as well as his family blood. His great-grandfather and grandfather founded the Santa Clara Lumber Co., which bought and sold as much as a million acres of forest in New York State before going out of business during the Great Depression. Some of his best memories are of idyllic summers at the family compound at Big Wolf Lake, which he still enjoys 80 years later.

“It’s been our Shangri La,” he says. “It’s one of the greatest privileges you can possibly have.”

Now one of his greatest joys is watching the next generation of youngsters at the Wild Center learn about one of the country’s great natural places and maybe starting on a path to helping solve one of the world’s big problems.

“I love watching the children,” he says. “Particularly when one of the children has a river otter push its nose against the glass, with the kid’s own nose right there on the other side. It gives me hope that I will see it become more and more a force for improving the relationship between humans and nature.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1956, Section E

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