SEATTLE - The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development just may be one of the best kept business secrets in Indian country.
Just how it's possible to keep the word from spreading about an organization that has helped more than 25,000 Indian business, trained 9,000 members and negotiated more than $620,000 million in sales contracts since 1969 is hard to say.
With an annual $2 million budget, three main offices in Mesa, Ariz., Los Angeles and Seattle and a subsidiary office in Atlanta, the National Center employs some 30 people and generates more than $40 million per year in contracts and financial awards for Indian businesses.
Whether it's small business development, hospitality, arts and crafts, retail, resorts, tourism or agricultural and fishing development, center personnel have the ability to assist with strategic planning, feasibility studies, long term business plans, marketing, bid preparation, site analysis, job skills training - you name it.
Since the non-profit organization's start in 1969, approximately 60 to 70 percent of its consulting services - which are free - has gone to assist individuals. The remaining percentage has gone to help tribes start up a wide variety of projects, from gaming-oriented businesses, hotels and restaurants, to housing projects.
Computerized bid-matching software allows center personnel to scan federal, state and local government databases to see what kinds of contracts are available to different Indian-owned companies. Center staff help write proposals and sometimes conduct joint meetings between Indian business representatives and potential clients.
"One of the things we're trying to do is encourage private sector corporations to mentor Indian businesses and help grow them into larger companies," says center president Ken Robbins. "They also help show them what they need as far as high-quality products so they can buy them from the organization."
For example the organization helped the Indian-owned Mandaree Corp. of North Dakota develop a mentorship with Northrop Grumman, a large aerospace company.
Northrop Grumman sent engineers to Mandaree and helped the corporation develop the kinds of high-quality products they needed from a subcontractor. They also helped the Mandaree corporation train people. The end result of upgrading Mandaree was creation of a viable minority business, plus the ample production of high quality products aerospace companies the world over could feel comfortable buying.
In addition, by tying the mentorship program in with government subsidies, the center assisted Northrup Grumman get reimbursed by Congress for monies extended in helping Mandaree.
"That was kind of a win-win situation for all concerned," Robbins says.
Annual events sponsored by the organization include the popular national Reservation Economic Summit, better known as RES. Last year more than 500 people attended the summit, which Robbins calls a kind of "support group" meeting for Indian business owners. This year the summit is expected to be larger than ever March 19-22 at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, Calif.
The center also sponsors the First American Leadership Awards, the Indian Progress in Business Awards and two annual fund-raising golf classics in the Pacific and Southwest regions. The tournaments generate funds for the center's scholarship and internship programs for American Indian college students majoring in business.
The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development has helped start American Indian chambers of commerce in Arizona, California, Washington and Kansas.
Because the center is subsidized by grants and contracts with the Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency, memberships are free.
Perhaps one reason the organization isn't better known is because its focus is on consultations, analysis, problem solving and networking rather than on training. Although the centers help even the smallest mom-and-pop operations get going, often smaller business entrepreneurs end up attending business training seminars sponsored by organizations such as the Tribal Business Information Centers and The Native American Business Network in Portland, better known as ONABEN.
Ralph Honhongva, the center's regional vice president in Seattle and former area coordinator for ONABEN, says training is a huge field that he would like to see the centers get involved in.
"One of the challenges I think we are looking towards is how are the tribes that are successful in gaming going to invest now that they've got revenues and resources," says Honhongva. "Where are they going to put that money?"
If the answer to that question is tribally owned businesses, Honhongva points out there will be an ever growing demand for human resources, on reservations and off.
"I think the next challenge is for tribes to train their people, their own labor, to eventually take over management. I think that's going to work for them."
Honhongva would like to see the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development continue to be there for tribes as needs change and they expand their horizons.
The National Center's vision has always been to see reservation economies flourish. To meet that goal, the founding members set down guiding principles to ensure that the centers always served the intent of the people, no matter where it leads.
"We work with the communities to help them fulfill their desires," says Robbins.