People - September 2005

She reaches peak of the Sierra Club
By Cindy J. Elmore

Asked to name environmentally friendly businesses, the new president of the 750,000-member Sierra Club rattles off a litany. General Electric. Bank of America. Lloyd’s of London. Missing from Lisa Renstrom’s list, however, are the two Acapulco hotels she ran from 1983 to 1993. “I would have had to have been really blazing new trails to be running my hotel with environmental practices in Mexico in the 1980s.”

Renstrom, 45, says her environmental awareness came after she moved to Charlotte 12 years ago. As executive director of the now-inactive Voices & Choices of the Central Carolinas, she tried to foster environmentally friendly development and preservation of open spaces. Elected to the Sierra Club board of directors in 2001, she was re-elected last year and chosen as the club’s 51st president in May.

She grew up on a farm near Omaha, Neb. Her father, Carl Renstrom, owned Tip-Top Products, a hair-care company that employed about 2,000 before he sold it to Faberge in the 1960s. A year after getting a bachelor’s in business from the University of Nebraska in 1982, she moved to Mexico to manage two hotels owned by her family. One had been the site of Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to Mike Todd, and Brigitte Bardot honeymooned there.

But the hotels, once haunts of the jet set, were struggling, mired in a land dispute with former managers. They filed civil litigation, then tried to pressure Renstrom by instigating a criminal case against her. Charged with fraud, she spent six months in a Mexican prison, without being tried or convicted, before being released when the evidence was shown to be false.

Her daughter, now 19 and a student at Tulane University in New Orleans, was an infant. The jail allowed conjugal visits and family picnics, but her confinement was nonetheless life-changing. “You face a finality of what’s important and what’s not important.” The family sold the hotels in 1992 and 1993, and she left Mexico so her daughter could attend U.S. schools. By then she was engaged to Bob Perkowitz, now her second husband, who was recruited to run a Joanna Western Mills plant in Charlotte.

Her environmental activism was more of a process than an epiphany. “Everyone is an environmentalist at heart.” During her year at the helm of the 113-year-old club, she will work to get community leaders engaged on environmental issues. An increased environmental awareness is essential, she says, to reducing dependence on foreign oil.

Many of the solutions to today’s problems can be found in technology and design, changing manufacturing processes and package design so that they waste fewer resources and spew fewer pollutants. “Companies are run by people with families. Yes, their job is to deliver a profit, but between business and government and people, we can solve these issues.”