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Becoming an economic guru

Former tribal chairman explains business strategy

Jamie Fullmer has been there. As the former chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, he knows exactly what it's like to try to strengthen a tribe's economic future while coping with the constraints of tribal leadership. During his term in office, he helped create a strategic plan focused on diversification, education, fiscal planning and community development, which resulted in lowering the tribal government's expenses while increasing productivity and maintaining member services.

''I've walked in their shoes,'' Fullmer said of tribal leaders. ''And it's not always an easy path to walk.''

Balancing cultural needs with business development is an issue facing more tribal leaders than ever before. Fullmer believes there's a need for Indian-owned firms to help out where they can - which is why, soon after his term ended with the tribe in October 2007, he decided to found Blue Stone Strategy Group, a company focused on providing growth strategies, economic and tribal government development expertise to Native clientele. The group currently has five in-house strategists and 37 subject matter experts. In this interview with Indian Country Today, he shared his vision.

Indian Country Today: Why did you start your own economic consulting business?

Jamie Fullmer: The Blue Stone Strategy Group was founded with an idea that came up when I was still the chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation. During my leadership tenure, I recognized that most of the work we were doing in economic development required that we would bring in consultants and experts. The problem that I saw, at times: there wasn't an opportunity to bring in one single group that could help in several different arenas of planning and growth. ... Tribes need to have the same kind of expertise and information and research that a lot of the top corporations are getting. I really see tribes as being worth that same kind of knowledge.

ICT: What goals are you trying to achieve?

Fullmer: My main goal when working with tribes is to provide them with top experts that are available to help with growth and strategy. Our teams are led by Natives ... As we build and grow, all of our leaders will be Native. Not to be separatist or anything like that, but my goal is to bring tribes the best expertise that we can, but we present it to them in a way that is understandable to their systems. The best way I feel like that can happen is by having leadership on my side that has a complete respect and understanding of working with tribes.

ICT: Many times tribes bring in non-Indian consultants, and a lot of times that works for tribes, but what is different with working with a Native-owned firm?

Fullmer: It's powerful for me because as a former tribal leader, I understand the challenges of leadership. You're exposed to so many different issues, whether it's community issues, or social issues, or health care issues, or basic educational issues ... the list goes on and on. Because you have so many local issues, and then you also have to work with the federal government and the state government and the various groups involved with your system, it is often challenging to carve out priorities when it comes to economic development ...

Regarding non-Indian firms, I think that there are a lot of quality groups out there, and there are some that are not so high quality. I do know, from my perspective, we must bear in mind that tribes are sovereign nations, that they're governments, and that also they have unique cultural circumstances that we need to account for in the delivery of our services. Those are principles engrained in how we do business.

ICT: With so many tribes having varying levels of economic development, do you find it difficult to serve such a diverse field?

Fullmer: When we work with a group, we're not bringing cookie-cutter approaches. We're bringing best practices based on mainstream economic and business development strategies, but we are tailoring those best practices to fit within the cultural systems that we work with ... Even though it is more challenging, that's something we accept as a firm. We believe that if we take the time to do that front-end work, the benefits will be had by the tribe.

ICT: Your group recently partnered with the National Indian Gaming Association - what does that involve?

Fullmer: NIGA has retained Blue Stone Strategy group to help them develop an ''American Indian Business Network'' structure. NIGA is making a major initiative toward a ''buy Indian'' mindset for tribes. What that means is that Indian- and tribally owned companies are really promoted in Indian country. Our ambition is to develop a system whereby tribes are committed to buying Indian services and products when they're available. By doing that, we create more jobs in Indian country and we help to keep the Indian economy strong. It's a major initiative.

ICT: Have you been able to begin working with many individual tribes yet?

Fullmer: We already have a handful of tribal clients, and we have the ability as a company to work with 16 different projects at a time. We also have as a target to work with companies that want to create a presence in Indian country.

ICT: How do tribes go about working with you?

Fullmer: We really focus on working at the leadership level - meeting with tribal leaders, chairmen, presidents, governors - to get a good idea of what the needs are. Then we do an initial assessment and develop a specific scoping document of what we could help with. If a tribe wanted to go further than getting our recommendations, we could actually help develop a strategic or action plan and help walk a tribe through a business development process ... We're a firm believer in providing the expertise, but in that same breath, we understand that it's important to leave behind some knowledge.

ICT: Can less-well-off tribes still take advantage of your services?

Fullmer: Oh, sure. We recognize the importance of all tribes - whether you're a wealthy tribe that's ready to progress to diversification, or a tribe that's working to start building a system. The tribe just has to be willing to move forward with the steps. We really want to provide value.

ICT: What's it like having been a tribal chairman looking at these issues from the inside out to now looking at these issues from the outside in?

Fullmer: It's definitely been a big transition to become a vendor, so to speak, as opposed to being the one listening. From a growth and strategy point of view, I just understand that tribal leaders have so much on their plate - that it's really hard to put a lot of intensive attention toward one area. As a strategist, I'm now able to put a lot of time and energy into finding best practices, creating networks and researching areas that I think can be helpful to tribes. That's been a powerful change for me.