Warren Adams combines conservation and capitalism in Patagonia

The club's Valle California property named "La Estrella" is in a picturesque valley near the Argentine border. — Photo courtesy of Warren Adams

Warren Adams wants to do for conservation what he did for social networking when he started an Internet company he later sold to Amazon — that is, bring an innovative idea with social benefits and profit potential to fruition.

In the process, the Martha’s Vineyard resident expects to create a business model that can be used to protect and conserve vulnerable natural areas around the globe, beginning with Patagonia, Chile. His concept and the business are off to a good start.

Patagonia Sur LLC, a joint Chilean-U.S. company he started with four partners, has attracted millions in capital and purchased more than 60,000 acres in Chile. The company’s operations include a limited membership outdoor resort and the sale of carbon offsets.

The corresponding nonprofit Patagonia Sur Foundation has begun laying the groundwork to provide inhabitants of the isolated region with enhanced opportunities for English education, preventable medical care, and sustainable economic development.

The project has close Island ties. Members of the Vineyard’s seasonal community are among the early investors, and Islanders are involved with various aspects of the project, from website and brochure creation to infrastructure development.

Valuing conservation

Unlike the traditional approach used by nonprofit conservation organizations that rely on the outright generosity of donors and benefactors to donate cash or land, Patagonia Sur’s business model and conservation strategy is to identify the conservation value in a piece of property and then develop that value.

The money fueling the fund used to buy land in Patagonia has come from investors who are attracted to the idea of making a return on their investment and helping to conserve natural areas.

“Our objective and goal is to have $30 million of capital in this for-profit conservation fund. Underscore for-profit,” Mr. Adams said in a recent interview with The Times at his Edgartown home. “We call ourselves a conservation company and we are marrying conservation and capital,”

Mr. Adams is not the first person to see profits in land and conservation. His said his company is unique in its scope.

Where others may sell a conservation restriction or carbon offsets, his plan is to utilize all the conservation attributes the land has to offer. “We are a sustainable land management company and we look at as many of those things as make sense,” he said.

At present that includes recreation, eco-brokerage, “ecologically-friendly” aquaculture, agriculture; and the sale of carbon offsets.

“We think it’s an innovative model for conservation,” he said. “Compared with most conservation projects where people donate money and the organization uses that to buy and protect land and people get a tax break — and those are all good — we think our model uses capital more efficiently. We are able to attract capital from people because we say, ‘invest a million dollars with us instead of donate.”

Still dreaming

By his own admission, Mr. Adams thinks big. In 1996 the Harvard Business School graduate was living and working in Cambridge on a startup company, PlanetAll, generally regarded as the first social networking site on the Internet. In 1998, the 33-year-old sold his company to Amazon.com for $100 million in Amazon stock.

In a recent conversation with The Times, Mr. Adams described what led him to Chile and his new company.

“Entrepreneurs can’t stop dreaming,” he said.

Mr. Adams worked for Amazon for a few years after he sold his company. In 2000, and before he and his wife Megan, also a Harvard graduate, had children, they set off to travel the world.

“And that’s when we fell in love with Patagonia,” he said. Land was $100 an acre in one of the most undeveloped and beautiful parts of the world. In the next seven years Mr. Adams was involved with nurturing other start up companies but he could not shake the idea of doing something in Patagonia.

“There is just something about your own baby even though I was working 25 hours a week then, and I am working 70 hours a week now, I am so much happier professionally,” he said. “And when you can marry profession and hobby like I did with social networking: I loved to stay in touch with people. How do you make a business out of it? I love nature. How do you make a business out of that?”

Ultimately, his business skills, imagination, and love of Patagonia led him to a new venture, Patagonia Sur. “I’d say three years in, we are halfway there.”

Mr. Adams and his wife Megan live with their three young children in an expansive home complete with alpacas in the Oyster-Watcha section of Edgartown, a limited development subdivision with large conservation areas that provided some of the inspiration for his current project.

The Adams family spend several months in Patagonia and Mr. Adams travels there frequently.

Capitalism is okay

The term conservationist generally evokes an image of an individual in a plaid shirt, not a three-piece suit. Mr. Adams acknowledges that within some conservation groups, capitalism is a dirty word.

“That is what handcuffs them and initially made it harder for us to work with some organizations,” Mr. Adams said. “But three years in they have seen what we have been able to accomplish in terms of land protected, what we are doing with the land management and we are now very much collaborating with conservation groups.”

Mr. Adams said they were not so much suspicious of his financial motives as they were of his concept and ability to make it happen. “I think they thought these guys don’t know what they are doing. But that is what people said when I invented social networking 15 years ago. What is this, you don’t know technology,” he said. “And I think there are lot of analogies with that and this. Because it’s a new model, first of all we had to convince investors that we were going to make money.”

Mr. Adams said he sees a symbiotic relationship between capitalism and conservation. For example, his company could partner with a conservation organization to conserve land that might be financially out of reach were they to try and go it alone.

“We put in 50 cents on the dollar and they put in 50 cents on the dollar. They are able to protect twice as much as they would have otherwise. We are able to protect and manage twice as much as we would have otherwise and we go in with an agreed set of covenants that we are thrilled with and they are thrilled with.”

That could include an agreement that allows the company to generate profits through sustainable forestry or the planting of native species in order to sell carbon offsets.

Join, Protect, Explore

The plan for Patagonia Sur envisions nine profit centers of which four are up and running. The most visible is the 100-member Patagonia Sur Nature Reserve Membership Club, which invites members and their guests to “join, protect, and explore” more than 100,000 acres of some of the most undeveloped and scenic areas of Chile, while enjoying access to first-class amenities and accommodations.

White water rafting, kayaking, fishing, horse back riding, hiking are among the activities offered. Mr. Adams likens it to the “legacy” clubs of the Adirondacks in the 19th century.

The membership price of $40,000 reflects the exclusivity. Almost half of the memberships have been sold. Club members can sell their memberships and enjoy any profit the exclusivity might generate in the future.

The price of a vacation stay is relatively reasonable when compared to similar vacation packages at far more developed resorts. The daily rate for meals, lodging, beverages and guided activities for a couple is $300 per person, $375 for guests, exclusive of airfare.

The company is also selling carbon offsets. In the era of “cap-and-trade,” capping emissions and trading credits, there is money to be made.

In the past, vast swaths of Patagonia’s forests were burned to create pastures for cows. Those pastures will be replanted with trees and generate a commodity, carbon offsets, that can be sold around the world to companies and individuals.

That is not a lot of hot air. The company recently signed a contract to sell carbon offsets to a major university for all their reunions. Attendees pay $20. Patagonia Sur plants four trees and agrees to take care of them for 50 years.

Collectively, Mr. Adams said, the university will one day be responsible for creating a forest with more than 20,000 trees. A printing company recently bought 1,000 tons of carbon offsets for $15,000.

Ultimately, he said the purchase of carbon offsets spurs companies to conserve if for no other reason than to reduce costs, he said.

Patient strategy

The economic crisis that circled the world one year after Patagonia Sur was launched, slowed but did not derail the company’s plans. Mr. Adams said his company has no debt and takes a long haul approach.

“Our investors are patient capital,” he said. “They do this because they expect a competitive market return. We target 15 percent or more of a return and so we sailed through the crisis in terms of operating our business. Raising capital was frozen for a while.”

The company has raised $20 million from individual investors in Chile, the Unites States and around the world of a $30 million target in the first phase. The amounts range from $125,000 to $2 million. Of the approximately 45 investors, ten are seasonal or year-round Island residents.

The business side supports the foundation. Investors must contribute going in and coming out. The current business plan would generate approximately $25 million for the foundation. “It is all very synergistic with the for-profit side,” Mr. Adams said.

Mr. Adams stresses that the company is firmly rooted in Chile. He said a third of the club members and a third of the investors are Chilean as are two of the five principals.

The investors share a confidence in Mr. Adams and the concept. “They see this as a chance for a good return on investment. It’s an asset-backed investment. There’s land behind the value. It is not like it’s a software company that does not really have a hard asset. And that helped us through the crisis because if you are worried about things that disappear, land doesn’t, and we’re buying it at $150 an acre and you can compare that with land on Martha’s Vineyard.”

The next step will be to raise $100 million at which point the company would be relying on institutional investors, Mr. Adams said. Further down the road, his dream is to go public.

“The third and real dream is why don’t we IPO conservation?” he said. “Because if we can get $15 from someone buying a share and you get millions of people that want to buy one share of this because we’ve proven that it is going to have a nice return, whether it’s a dividend stream or stock going up, wouldn’t that be a great way to draw billions of dollars into conservation?”

For now, Mr. Adams is focused on the current plan but with his eyes on the horizon. “My specialty is to keep focused but dream big. You always have to be thinking next, but blocking and tacking to get the first part right.”

Right person

That first part relies on investors who believe that the company will be able to add value to the land that protects their investment and makes it grow. Fred Khedouri of Chilmark, an investment banker, is one of those investors.

In a telephone call from London, England where he is working, Mr. Khedouri said he approached Mr. Adams.

He points to Chilmark as an example of how value can be developed. Real estate in Chilmark is more valuable on a relative basis than the rest of the Island he said because it has relatively strict zoning and large lot sizes.

In the case of Patagonia Sur, protecting the majority of the land makes the rest more valuable. “It is not by any means a traditional approach to development, which is to extract the greatest possible profit,” Mr. Khedouri said. “That is not happening, and all the investors I think understand that is not happening and they are all fine with it because they don’t want to be extracting the most value, because then the conservation part would not be as large as it might be.

“And that is why to me it is quite appealing, and I know some of the others investors have the same view. It is in fact a good balance.”

Mr. Khedouri and his wife visited two of the club properties last February with two friends. “It was terrific,” he said.

“I seem to spend my life being places where a lot of times I wish I had been there 30 years ago, or I was there 30 years ago, and it is no longer the same. We certainly have that experience (on the Vineyard).” Patagonia is that place 30 years ago.

“It just struck me as a really good idea. And something that should be encouraged, and I thought that Warren was the kind of person whose involvement would be making it a success.”

Mr. Khedouri said he contributes to conservation causes. This he views as an investment.

Patagonia Sur boasts an impressive list of board members and advisors that includes academic and conservation leaders. Mr. Khedouri said board members only provide one indicator of an organization’s merit.

“What really matters is who is really involved,” he said. “With Warren, he really is involved. You are getting Warren, and to me that is worth more.”