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From selling companies to selling Girl Scout cookies, banker found a new measure of success

Sue Perles, photographed on April 14, is the CEO of Girl Scouts of Alaska. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

When the hiring committee for the Girl Scouts of Alaska opened applications for a new leader, one resume was simply too good to be true.

Education: Princeton and Harvard; also a Rhodes Scholar with a Ph.D. in economics from Oxford.

Job history: Arranging major deals with the world's business and financial elite.

Current position: Managing partner in an investment banking firm, buying and selling famous consumer product companies.

"I thought it was a mistake. No one with that background and those credentials would be looking to come to work with us," recalled Jane Angvik, a member of the committee more than four years ago.

Sue Perles was asking to move from a stone-and-glass office tower in Los Angeles to a low-slung wooden building off Spenard Road. She would be responsible for girls selling cookies rather than for selling the kind of companies that manufacture them.

The application wasn't a mistake. After 30 years in corporate mergers and acquisitions, Perles had long since made all the money she would ever need. That competition didn't have many more rewards left. But she still wanted to work with children. And to do it in the place that got her started.

"There are lots of children to help almost any place, but Alaska has always has had a special place in my heart," she said.

Perles came to Alaska as a teen when her father joined the faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She was never a Girl Scout herself but she worked one summer in a Girl Scout program teaching rural Alaska children to swim.

She loved it. And she loved the whole idea of after-school programs.

"That was where you got to think about what you wanted to be when you grew up," she said.

Perles expected to be a mathematician when she went to Princeton University but got interested in economics and public policy. A congressional internship with the late Rep. Nick Begich, D-Alaska, pushed her on that path. She was in the Capitol when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed in 1971.

After college she worked in the Congressional Budget Office in its first year of operation and came back to Alaska to study the implementation of ANCSA at the university's Institute of Social and Economic Research.

She was the first Alaska woman to win a Rhodes Scholarship, which sent her to Oxford University for her Ph.D. Her dissertation also took an Alaska topic, oil lease sales, which helped her later in analysis of complex business deals.

A series of jobs led to founding a firm in Los Angeles that specialized in selling companies, often businesses being spun off after the merger of two larger companies. For example, she once managed the sale of a frozen pizza company from a soap company to a food company.

Perles loved the excitement of the work, with high intensity, crazy hours and a competitive drive to get a closing done. She would earn a percentage of the sale price but no compensation at all if a deal fell through.

"The reason that these folks work those crazy hours and lead the lifestyle they lead is the closing fees for a successful transaction," she said. "I looked at investment banking like being a fireman, that when the bell rings you just work as hard as you can until the fire is out."

But even while working those hours, she found time to volunteer for children.

Rusty Smith first met Perles at a Long Beach ice rink. A preteen at the time, he had shown aptitude on in-line skates, so his mother brought him to try ice skating and speed skating. Perles was at the rink that day and helped him learn.

Perles volunteered in the skating program for low-income kids and built it up into something larger. She won a grant from the organization that ran the 1984 Olympics to buy expensive speed skates and lend them out. The program also subsidized ice time, down from $25 to $5.

Smith said: "I came from North Long Beach. It was a tough neighborhood. My family struggled to survive. Twenty-five dollars never would have happened in my house."

The skills Smith learned in the program eventually took him to the Olympics three times, with bronze medals in 2002 and 2006. Although Perles primarily aimed at giving low-income, minority kids a chance to skate for fun, her program produced several more Olympians after Smith.

Smith thanks Perles for his sports success and for his current success as an industrial real estate broker.

"Changed my life isn't even a good enough statement for it," he said. "Sue is an amazing person. The things she has done for other people her whole entire life. When she told me she was going up there and taking this position, it didn't surprise me at all."

Perles takes obvious pleasure in her job running the Girl Scouts of Alaska. She enthuses about the 20 staff members and 1,500 volunteers in 90 communities across southern Alaska. The girls have fun, attend camp, meet role models, learn independence and realize how much they can accomplish.

A map full of dots sits on her desk, each dot representing one of 6,000 Alaska Girl Scouts.

"At some point, making money is not the point anymore, and probably never was in the first place. It's more a way of keeping score," she said. "My way of keeping score is how many dots do we have on the map. So I look at our membership numbers as if it's our stock price."

It's worth thinking about how to measure success in your career. A bigger house or another toy probably won't make you as happy as finding a new way to keep score, one that measures what you give back to the place that made you who you are.

Sue Perles is really smart. She figured that out.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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