Debbie Welch is an up-and-coming award-winning business woman, who says her work ethic came from her grandmother, an elder of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, a Northern Michigan band.
“I watched her work non-stop taking care of us kids and instilling in us the value of hard work,” says Welch, a principal of Welch Electric, a Native American, woman-owned electrical construction firm—recognized as Minority Construction Firm of the Year amongst minority-owned business enterprises in Arizona by the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA).
“God created Native Americans for a reason and a purpose and I found mine in business by being in the right place at the right time and working both hard and smart,” says the University of Michigan graduate who is also of Chippewa heritage from the Bay Mills Indian Community.
“I became one of those Arizona transplants, escaping gray skies for sunshine and opportunity. And when signs of a pending state economy crash began to appear, husband Tom and I stuck to our basic business plan by taking advantage of my birthright as a woman-owned Native American business. We dug out of that economic hole by focusing on federal contracting and utilizing my leverage in Indian preference contracts.”
Welch also excelled by doing what other successful folks in the construction field did—establishing partnerships with non-Native firms. “It’s a competitive advantage, and it works for both large and small contractors when they view each other, not as competitors, but as potential team players. Our participation opens doors for them as well because we bring them new Indian preference markets.”
Welch Electric earned its recognition partly by employing Natives to work on large construction projects. In Navajo country, the company hired local for an Indian Health Services renovation project in Chinle. “We employed 85 percent of our work force out of the local economy,” Welch says.
Other projects involving big-name partners and Tribal hires include the first baseball facility in Indian Country: the 11,000 seat Salt River Fields at Talking Stick Resort. Billed by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community as “Two Tribes, Two Teams, One Home,” the site is shared by the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies. “It’s a one-of-a-kind complex, the Disneyland of all spring training facilities throughout major league baseball,” says Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall.
The Welch firm also partnered with national electric and construction firms to bid successfully on a project at the Nogales International Port of Entry in Southern Arizona, a contract that both created and sustained jobs in an economically-depressed county. “Our teaming relationships made all the difference,” says Welch.
These and other projects have garnered plenty of recognition for the firm, which continues to hire Native when possible. Welch Electric was recipient of the 2010 National Congress of American Indians Economic Development's First American Entrepreneur Award “for outstanding leadership within the American Indian Community." The accolade was followed by yet another: 2011 State of Arizona Minority Enterprise Development Indian Business of the Year, which honors and the Arizona MBDA Construction Firm of the Year. This series of kudos spotlighted their successes.
Debbie and Tom Welch, their employees and their partnerships have quickly built the firm into one to be reckoned with, now and in the future. “We’ve grown exponentially and are at about the $15 million level now,” she says. And because success tends to begat more success: “In 2012, we should double our run rate easily within the next year.”
With the getting comes the giving. “We should always give back and I’m mindful and purposeful about that," Welch says. "We’re a Native American company and hiring Tribal is a core value, a passion of mine,” she says of her company's expansion and continuing growth.
“What pleases me most is creating and sustaining jobs and helping to turn the economy around—not only for the state of Arizona, but for Native American communities. I want to add more jobs in Indian country. Beyond that, my goal is to be a mentor for other small Native businesses where hopefully I can impart some wisdom to folks just starting out.
“It takes people who have achieved our positions to look out and mentor those coming behind us. It’s a blessing and an obligation and Welch Electric will work with national/international partner companies to grow our firm—and share our methods of success with others.”