CEO of outdoors giant REI visits Boston, talks sport

Sally Jewell, CEO of REI, took a break during a recent visit to check on stores in Greater Boston to kayak around Hingham Harbor.
Jesse Stansfield
Sally Jewell, CEO of REI, took a break during a recent visit to check on stores in Greater Boston to kayak around Hingham Harbor.

Sally Jewell has been described by friends as a tough, smart, no-nonsense boss . . . except when she’s climbing a mountain or in a boat. And on that note, when the 56-year-old CEO of outdoor retail and activities giant Recreational Equipment Inc. (better known as REI) came to Greater Boston recently to check on local operations, she made sure to surprise a handful of the co-op chain’s “owners” by taking them on a kayaking jaunt around Hingham Harbor. She also took a few minutes to share with the Globe what makes her tick.

Q. How long have you been with REI now?

A. Twelve years.


Q. “Family friendly” is a phrase that gets tossed around loosely. And I hear it used in reference to REI all the time. Justify it for me.

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A. Well, I think that one of the things that bonds families together is time away in the outdoors, whether it’s taking your child into the park. You know kids have a way of seeing fascination in something that’s one square meter and then as their world expands, finding opportunities to connect kids to the natural world just makes us whole as human beings.

Q. You’ve seen every major metro area in the country that has an REI store. So at a minimum you have an informed anecdotal take on what parts of the US are most active. What are those areas and where does Greater Boston stack up?

A. Boston’s a very active area. I think that people who are well educated tend to maybe appreciate the balance that nature provides. And when you combine that with an urban area, sometimes you feel the need for breathing space even more. So that could explain partly why Boston’s so active outdoors. Also being on the water the way Boston is, and oriented inland too with hundreds of beautiful peaks and trails for hiking, helps. I’ll tell you wherever we are in the country, people find a way to find nature and get to it.

Q. Your favorite outdoor activity is . . .?


A. It depends on the season.

Q. OK, we’re in the fall now, so?

A. Hiking in the fall is great. You tend to get blueberries and other ripening berries. The colors start to come out. The trees mature a little bit. A little Christmas in the air, I love hiking in the fall.

Q. What is your favorite non-sports leisure activity?

A. Most of my life revolves around the outdoors, so there’s not a lot else. But I do enjoy plays.


Q. What was the last good play you saw?

A. We saw “Henry the Fifth” at the Ashland, Ore., Shakespeare Festival.

Q. Since you prefer to be outdoors, where are your favorite spots?

A. One of them is Mailbox Peak, a 4,100-foot mountain we hike in North Bend, Wash.

Q. What is something about you that might surprise fans of REI?

A. That I spent 19 years in banking. It’s a profession that I’m happy to leave behind. I love REI, missing all the craziness in financial services. And I have to say there’s a lot of my former profession that has been a bit disappointing over the last decade. And I often wondered if I’d stayed there could I have made a difference.

Interview was condensed and edited. James Burnett can be reached at james.burnett@
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