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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 18, 2005

Leadership Corner: Suzanne Case

Interviewed By Alan Yonan Jr.
Advertiser Staff Writer

Suzanne Case


AGE: 49



Previous position: The Nature Conservancy, Asia/Pacific/ Hawai'i regional counsel



College: Williams College; Stanford University, B.A. in history with honors; J.D., Hastings College of the Law

First job: Washing airplanes for Panorama Air Tours, Honolulu.

Breakthrough job: 1987, Western Regional Counsel, The Nature Conservancy. Handled conservation legal transactions for the Western United States, including Hawai'i, California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

Little-known fact: I get a particular satisfaction from chain-sawing invasive species on the weekends.

Mentor: My staff — they are remarkably talented, strategic, experienced and dedicated people who provide sound counsel on countless issues.

Major challenges: Invasive species, e-mail volume.

Hobbies: Studying Hawaiian language, 'ukulele, photography, gardening, hiking, snow camping, snorkeling, scuba diving.

Books recently read: "Guns Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond; "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; "The Magic Tree House Series" by Mary Pope Osborne; "The Tao Te Ching."

Q: What motivated you to leave the private sector and join the Nature Conservancy?

A: I always wanted to do something good with my life and do something in public service. I'm very drawn to the mission of the Nature Conservancy because I think that native plants and animals are so fundamentally important. So I'm very passionate about our mission. And accomplishing it in Hawai'i — I can't think of a better thing to do with my life than to help the Hawai'i that gave me so much when I was growing up.

Q: You started in the Nature Conservancy's legal department. Did you think then that one day you'd be in senior management?

A: I actually hadn't thought of it. I did the in-house legal work for 14 years with the Nature Conservancy and I loved it. I got to implement conservation transactions all over the Western United States (including Hawai'i) and in the Asia-Pacific region. It was fascinating work. When you're a lawyer, you implement for people. You see where they want to go and you help them get there. I didn't know if those skills would be transferable to a leadership position, but I just love it. I think it draws on a similar kind of skill, a problem-solving skill. You turn your attention to trying to figure out the solution and determine the best direction to take. Once you figure that out, you run the organization in a way that will best implement that strategy.

Q: You have several high-profile leaders in your family (brother is Ed Case, U.S. representative; cousin is Steve Case, co-founder of America Online and majority shareholder of Maui Land & Pineapple Co.). Is leadership something that was stressed when you were growing up?

A: I think we grew up with a strong sense of civic duty. So however that is expressed, whether it be public service or private enterprise, it's about taking our community and our world and trying to make it a better place. I think it's a common value we have.

Q: What are some of the differences in managing a nonprofit organization versus a private corporation?

A: A private corporation is fundamentally measured by its profits and how well it does servicing the public in its particular niche. A nonprofit is focused on a mission and our mission is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive. So everything we do is focused on accomplishing that mission.

Q: How do you measure success at the Nature Conservancy?

A: It's something we focus on a lot because we want to make sure we're doing the best job that we can. We measure on-the-ground results as best we can, checking periodically to see how the condition of the land that we're managing is doing. We have internal operating measures for our conservation activities — acres saved, acres managed, numbers of invasive species present. The return on investment for our contributors is how well we do our job. So that's why we measure our on-the-ground results. But it's not as easy as measuring profits. A lot of people make that comparison, but it's easier for private corporations to measure their success simply in dollars as opposed (to) nonprofits (which) measure their success in terms of accomplishing their mission.

Q: How does the work of Nature Conservancy in Hawai'i compare with what's done at Mainland chapters?

A: We have about 65 people in Hawai'i. It's a pretty sizable staff because we own and manage 32,000 acres of land here. In many places on the Mainland, the objective is to set aside land to protect it from changes in use. This will often do the trick because the threat is really conversion to another use. But here the threat is invasive species. So once you create a preserve you've only gotten your foot in the door in terms of your responsibility to taking care of that piece or property. So we have a pretty sizable staff that manages our preserves on all the main islands. Invasive species is our biggest challenge. With globalization and the movement of people and cargo around the world in airplanes and ships, we're getting a huge new influx — especially since World War II — of non-native species, some of which turn out to be invasive like miconia and coqui frog. We have a standardized conservation by design process we use to design our conservation work. And that's something that makes us consistent across the organization because its a very well thought out, scientifically based methodology for identifying key areas to protect, determining what the threats are and then strategies to address those threats.

For more information on the Nature Conservancy, visit www.natureconservancy.org.