An interview with David Bonderman

  • David Bonderman is one of the best known figures in private equity, having made his name by taking over undervalued companies and turning them around. His lifetime of investing has made him a billionaire.
  • But Bonderman’s interests aren’t limited to the world of business — he’s also a philanthropist who has put tens of millions of dollars via his Wildcat Foundation into anti-poaching and wildlife conservation efforts in Africa. This support has gone to groups working to combat ivory and rhino horn trafficking, develop and deploy technologies to empower wildlife rangers, and create sustainable livelihoods for local people who are directly impacted by wildlife.
  • Bonderman has also applied his interest in sustainability to his business strategy, seeking out investments that have “measurable positive impact” and working with portfolio companies reduce waste and improve water and energy efficiency.
  • Bonderman spoke about these issues and more in a December 2020 conversation with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.

David Bonderman is one of the best known figures in private equity, having made his name and fortune by taking over undervalued companies and turning them around. Bonderman, the founding partner of TPG Capital (formerly Texas Pacific Group) and its affiliate Newbridge Capital, has bought and sold companies ranging from Continental Airlines to Petco to J. Crew. His lifetime of investing has made him a billionaire.

But Bonderman’s interests aren’t limited to the world of business — he’s also a philanthropist who has put tens of millions of dollars via his Wildcat Foundation into anti-poaching and wildlife conservation efforts in Africa. This support has gone to groups working to combat ivory and rhino horn trafficking, develop and deploy technologies to empower wildlife rangers, and create sustainable livelihoods for local people who are directly impacted by wildlife. Bonderman says this portfolio of interventions is needed to address the complex array of issues that underpin poaching.

“The anti-poaching approach has changed with the advent of some kinds of technology,” Bonder told Mongabay during a December 2020 interview. “But these are human issues too because the animals and local people who live in close contact with each other. And if you can’t make things work for the people, you won’t make things work for the animals. So, you have to deal with both, the human side and the poaching side.”

Bonderman has also applied his interest in sustainability to his business strategy, seeking out investments that have “measurable positive impact” and working with portfolio companies reduce waste and improve water and energy efficiency. On this front, Bonderman sees rising interest in the investment community in environmental issues, especially around risks associated with climate change and opportunities as we transition to greener forms of food and energy production.

“The investment community, especially pension funds in the U.S., and Canada, have become interested in environmental and political causes of the sustainable sort,” Bonderman said. “I think that people, including businesses, will pay attention to issues beyond carbon as they get more familiar with what’s going on.”

But he adds that politics are going to be an important factor in how quickly we make progress in addressing challenges like climate change.

“The Trump administration has been notoriously anti-environmental and is trying to do some anti-environmental things as it staggers out of office, which the Biden administration will have to deal with in some fashion,” Bonderman said. “But this is only the start of what’s going to be generations long battle in favor of keeping the environment stable.”

Bonderman spoke about these issues and more in a conversation with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.

AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID BONDERMAN

Mongabay: What originally inspired your interest in conservation in the environment?

David Bonderman: It started when I was in college and I was working as the temporary archeologist for the UCLA Archeological Survey in Northern Arizona. And I kind of fell in love with the landscape.

Mongabay: And then you transitioned into finance and business essentially from there?

David Bonderman: That was like five years later. I worked as a lawyer for a while, for 10 years, before I went into business.

A white rhino in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Photo by Rhett Butler for Mongabay.

Mongabay: As the founding partner of TPG Capital, you are best known for your success in business and investing. On that front, are you sending a shift in the way financiers and investors view environmental issues like climate change and biodiversity loss?

David Bonderman: Well, it’s certainly true that investors are much more concerned with environmental and similar issues than they were historically. We’re just at the early stages of this.

Mongabay: And what does that look like? Do you see these concerns as being priced into risk and more interest in “green” investment opportunities?

David Bonderman: Well, certainly priced into risk and this whole idea of ESG. It’s also emerging as a kind of moral compass.

Mongabay: With the pandemic, it seems like there’s been a huge increase in interest among investors in companies like Tesla, battery technology, smart grids, and things like that. Do you think COVID has helped accelerate a trend that would have otherwise unfolded over a much longer period of time?

David Bonderman: I think that’s hard to judge. There was quite a bit of interest starting three or four years ago with some of these issues and COVID may have exacerbated people’s interest, but it didn’t create it.

Wind farm. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Wind farm. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Mongabay: Changing gears a bit, how do you apply your business experience in the conservation space? And what do you look for in the types of initiatives that you support?

David Bonderman: Well, some of it is environmental-related impact investment and some of it is just a personal interest. I do a lot of support for anti-poaching in Africa, for example, which is not a business issue at all, at least not for us. I spend a fair amount of time in philanthropic issues where I think that I can be helpful, not because it has some impact on the business side of life.

Mongabay: Are there things that you look for in business, like investment opportunities or ways of operationalizing things, that you then try to apply to your areas of interest in conservation?

David Bonderman: Well, I guess around the edges, the answer to that is yes. For example, via one of our partnerships, we bought the largest group of Safari camps in Southern Africa. This business may have the same conservation issues as we do in the philanthropic side, so there’s overlap.

Mongabay: How is that business doing given COVID?

David Bonderman: Well for that particular business, since it relies on tourists for Central and Southern Africa, business was impacted like all other similar consumer businesses. And yet you had to keep paying attention to the conservation side because if the animals and people were not surviving, then you are not going to have a business.

Wild elephant in South Africa. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler
Wild elephant in South Africa. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Mongabay: Have they tried to adapt their business or are they trying to wait it out?

David Bonderman: Well, fortunately, they have owners who have some capital and could put it to use to, as you put it, just wait it out.

Mongabay: So, on that front, has the pandemic affected other initiatives you support? And has the pandemic altered your philanthropic strategy?

David Bonderman: Well, the pandemic has made bits of it much more urgent. If you disrupt society entirely, it’s going to be a long time coming back. We’re seeing that in the Western countries. And so, you have the same kinds of issues in places like Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa. So, in the case of those businesses, they reacted by keeping everybody on the payroll, keeping up the conservation effort, and putting in more capital to make sure that somebody survived and came out the other end. It’s no different than what you’d expect in an environmentally-oriented business in the United States.

Mongabay: Taking a step back a little bit, do you think we’ll learn anything more broadly from the pandemic when it comes to humanity’s relationship with nature? Beyond just this knee jerk reaction, that is. And then do you see an opportunity for conservation be part of a post COVID economic recovery in some geographies?

David Bonderman: That’s a piece of a big question because climate related issues have come to the fore here. We see the Trump Administration making last minute anti-environmental actions which will have to be dealt with, and we see the Biden administration talking about green issues, creation of jobs, and the greening of the society.

California redwood trees
California redwood trees. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Mongabay: I wanted to return to your earlier comment about wildlife poaching in Africa. I know you’ve supported the development and deployment of innovative technologies: What do you see as the biggest gaps and opportunities in that space? And since you’ve been doing this for a few years, what have you learned from your support so far? Both in terms of generally combating wildlife poaching and specifically on the tech side of combating poaching.

David Bonderman: Well, on the tech side, one example is learning to use drones to survey what’s going on in the national parks. But most of what is happening on a day to day basis isn’t technologically oriented at all, like where people are doing patrols on foot. Can that be better melded that with technology?

In the West, we are having a big shift towards greening of the society. And you’re going to see a lot more to come once the administration has changed.

Mongabay: Going back to the poaching issue in Africa specifically, have you noticed any changes in terms of how funders and conservationists are trying to get at the root issues behind poaching in Africa? Or do you feel like it’s pretty similar now as to where it was say five or 10 years ago?

David Bonderman: Well, the anti-poaching approach has changed with the advent of some kinds of technology, like the drones I mentioned. But these are human issues too because the animals and local people who live in close contact with each other. And if you can’t make things work for the people, you won’t make things work for the animals. So, you have to deal with both, the human side and the poaching side. It’s a conundrum.

A panel of images showing effective elephant identifications by the WildEyes system, a collaboration between the environmental organization RESOLVE and software developer CVEDIA. The system uses artificial intelligence (AI) to recognize Asian elephants, African forest elephants, and African savanna elephants. Image by RESOLVE.

Mongabay: You’ve talked a little bit about the politics. Historically, here in the U.S. conservation has been a unifying issue, but today it seems much more politically divisive than it used to be. Do you have thoughts on how the constituency around wildlife conservation can be restored?

David Bonderman: It’s a political issue in the States as you point out. And there’s been lots of efforts from lots of people, doing lots of good things and fair amount of effort by some people doing some bad things. And the Trump administration has been notoriously anti-environmental and is trying to do some anti-environmental things as it staggers out of office, which the Biden administration will have to deal with in some fashion.

Mongabay: Do you think “business” could eventually help bridge political divide?

David Bonderman: There’s a whole political issue around that starting from when the Trump Administration decided to put its weight behind an exploitation of coal, which is a truly bad idea and that has caused the reaction on the other side. So, you’ve had the whole discussion of the so-called Green New Deal, which some of the Democrats embraced and the Biden administration is not fully supportive of, but supportive of the general direction. And you’re going to see much more of that.

But this is only the start of what’s going to be generations long battle in favor of keeping the environment stable.

Mongabay: What would you say are like the biggest challenges to scaling impact? Obviously, you’re supporting these really important causes, but we still have these problems. What do you think it would take to like get us to the next level of doing more and really addressing these critical issues? Is it money, time, expertise, political will, something else?

David Bonderman: Some of all of those, but the investment community, especially pension funds in the U.S., and Canada, have become interested in environmental and political causes of the sustainable sort. My firm, TPG, started an impact fund and raised a few billion dollars for investments which have a measurable positive impact, not just by providing funds for the pensions, but through the businesses that they invest in. So, we’ve invested in dairy modernization in India, in education in Africa, and other projects. There’s plenty of opportunity to be on the business side of conservation as well.

Zebra in Rwanda. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Pair of zebra in Rwanda. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Mongabay: To me it feels like there’s been a lot more awareness in the finance community around carbon emissions and climate change, but biodiversity has been something that’s kind of more esoteric or less connected to financial decisions. Do you see a way to bridge that gap where the finance community would become more interested in biodiversity, going beyond carbon?

David Bonderman: Well, carbon is the right place to start because it’s the major problem. And there are plenty of opportunities there, but I think that people, including businesses, will pay attention to issues beyond carbon as they get more familiar with what’s going on and as the political issues become clear.

Mongabay: Changing topics completely, in mid-1990s you established the Bonderman Travel Fellowship at the University of Washington, which provides students with the opportunity to travel the world independently for a year. Why did you start that program and have there been any outcomes that have particularly moved you?

David Bonderman: Well, the origin was when a law student at Harvard many years ago. They had a fellowship called the Sheldon Fellowship, established around 1900 by a Harvard alumni who had the idea that people would broaden their impact if they went out of the country and saw other cultures. I was a recipient of the fellowship and spent a year in Africa and India. I thought the program changed my life.

So, when I had the wherewithal to do so, I established a comparable fellowship at the University of Washington. We send about 20 students a year, not this year, obviously, to travel the globe and learn by participating. It’s not an academic fellowship. It’s not about writing papers. It’s not about doing research. It’s about immersing yourself in other cultures and, almost uniformly, the students who’ve had these fellowships have said it changed their worldview and made them different people. So, I think these fellowships have been a great success and the folks at the university who administered them say they get hundreds of applications for the 20 slots we have. Obviously this year nobody was going anywhere, but it will be resurrected when the time comes.

Baobab trees at sunset in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Baobab trees at sunset in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Mongabay: On a related front, do you have any advice for young people who want to have a positive impact on wildlife conservation or more broadly environmental progress?

David Bonderman: Well, a good place to start is one of the innumerable conservation oriented non-profit entities ranging from the Nature Conservancy to the Wilderness Society. There are plenty of opportunities to participate. They don’t pay very well generally, but there’s plenty of opportunities.

I encourage people to leap into the fray and work with a group in whose mission they are interested. As I said, there are plenty of opportunities for all different types of people from different backgrounds and with different areas of expertise.

Image: David Bonderman outdoors. Photo credit: TPG Capital

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