“Every Sunday, the family would eat out at one of the Chinese restaurants that my great-grandfather had helped start with a small loan,” Haines says. “A lot of the little banks back then were doing the same thing I’m doing today. Only now we call it ‘microcredit.’ That’s pretty cool, supporting entrepreneurship where it exists.”
The young girl’s eventual husband, William Haines, took over the Pugh family banks early in the 20th century. His son, Woody Haines, sold them in the 1970s, becoming CEO of the state’s oldest bank, the First National Bank of Laramie, the town where John Haines was born in 1959. Although he graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in finance, Haines says he had “zero interest” in following in the footsteps of his powerful father, whose circle of friends included Republican Party politicos like Alan K. Simpson and Dick Cheney. Haines and his Laramie peers—among them legendary rock climber Todd Skinner, who died on Yosemite’s Leaning Tower in 2006, and National Geographic global correspondent and author Mark Jenkins—were far more interested in outdoor pursuits than climbing the corporate ladder.
“There’s something about growing up in a place like Wyoming,” says Haines. “You don’t go to camp; you make your own adventure. When you’re 14, your parents drop you off and you go ski, you end up building a snow cave and they pick you up three days later. It’s just you and your buddies, winging it.”
After graduating from college in 1982, Haines bummed around Europe and Asia without so much as a backpack at times (it was stolen three weeks after he arrived), rendezvousing with Wyoming pals for a period of “significant wanderlust” that lasted four years, ending with a high-altitude two-wheeled expedition across the Himalayas on bicycles snuck into Tibet from China. Finally, in 1986, to the relief of his parents, he moved to Portland (to be near the mountains) and took the first job he could find, settling behind a desk as an analyst at First Interstate Bank. He tolerated five long years on the 18th floor of the bank’s downtown tower, wearing a suit, compiling financial analyses on Oregon timber companies while gazing out at the shimmering peak of Mount Hood. As he ascended the ranks, from examination supervisor to corporate credit officer to commercial loan officer, he befriended an idealistic vice president named Bettina von Hagen, and together they formed a committee called the Environmental Task Force.
“We were excited about using the bank’s capital to create businesses that would have a positive environmental impact,” von Hagen recalls. Although the bank allowed the pair to improve its corporate recycling program and sponsor tree plantings around the city, but it wasn’t ready to invest in anything as radical as a “conservation economy.”
“It was made very clear,” von Hagen says, “that adopting such a position would be career-limiting.”
Haines took a sabbatical from First Interstate in 1991 to join his Wyoming friends on a risky expedition—kayaking the first known continuous descent of Africa’s Niger River. After four months and 2,600 miles of fending off malaria-ridden mosquitoes, swarms of killer bees, and herds of angry hippos among such wonders as mud-walled mosques with minarets crowned by ostrich eggs, the river spat the adventurers into the Gulf of Guinea.
Haines returned to Portland in 1992, but not to the bank tower. He wrote freelance articles for backpacking and kayaking magazines, then followed a girlfriend to Princeton University, where he helped expand nearby Trenton, New Jersey’s version of the Portland Development Commission, funding storefront makeovers in blighted urban business districts. In 1995, he moved to Prague to work as a senior financial adviser to the Czech Republic’s Ministry of the Environment. There, he began shaping his version of lending, leveraging $200 million in seed capital from the US Agency for International Development and from pollution fines to secure more than $1 billion annually in loans for antipollution upgrades at privately owned communist-era factories that fouled the air and waterways. On weekends he skied the Alps, floated the Labe, or kayaked off the coast of Croatia, writing about his exploits in Sea Kayaker magazine.
In 1997, his old friend Bettina von Hagen called. Now an ecological economist at a young, boundary-busting environmental organization called Ecotrust, she was helping founder Spencer Beebe launch the world’s first “environmental bank,” ShoreBank Pacific. It was exactly what von Hagen and Haines had envisioned six years before at First Interstate—a bank chartered to loan money to start-ups and established companies with business plans tethered to the tenets of environmental conservation and social equity. Beebe wanted Haines on board.