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Business expo to focus on opportunities amid economic challenges

DENVER – A proactive economic theme drives the 4th Annual American Indian Business Expo April 7 – 8 in Denver: “An Extreme Makeover: The Power of Innovative Solutions in a Challenging Environment.”

“Every time there are challenges, there are opportunities,” said Dee St. Cyr, Winnebago, chairwoman of the board of the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce, which is presenting the expo at the Doubletree Hotel Denver.

Expo organizers are forging ahead with the networking event “not in spite of the economy, but because of the economy,” she said.

The two-day expo is focused on providing small businesses the right environment to network, learn and exchange ideas that lead to business opportunities. Speakers and workshops are organized under three tracks: Business Financing, Procurement and Nonprofit Excellence. Through the procurement marketplace, attendees will have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with federal, corporate and state buyers to market products and services.

Organizers anticipate 200 attendees in a climate that has discouraged other business organizations from planning expos this year.

The expo aims to “show not only Native businesses that we can thrive, but also to prove it to government and government contractors,” St. Cyr said. “It’s amazing the groundswell that we are getting because we are doing this. We are taking advantage of a very unique opportunity.”

“Because of the economic situation right now, I think small business owners and American Indian businesses have to become more innovative in creating our own opportunities,” added Jackie Francke, expo coordinator. Francke, Navajo, is president of Geotechnika, Inc. of Longmont, Colo., a woman-owned corporation.

“We’re focusing on thinking of out-of-the-box solutions. … those areas that are not so straightforward, but require more partnerships and thinking of new ways to do business,” she said.

“When you’re a small business, opportunities far outweigh the challenges if you’re smart,” added St. Cyr, who is director of corporate development for Caddo Solutions, an eco-driven office supplies firm based in Denver.

Several company operators attending the expo said it is especially vital in tough economic times to keep a close watch on budgeting, and balance that with efficiently providing quality products and services. After that, “it’s all about relationships.”

Caddo Solutions, headed by President and CEO Don Kelin of the Caddo Nation, has one edge by selling an always-needed commodity: pens and paper. The company also provides office furnishing, printing and hospitality procurement, all operated with “little or no bank debt,” said St. Cyr.

“We are quick; we can turn it around, we customize programs – we say ‘tell us what you want. … and oh, by the way, we are going to save you money.’ And it’s fun.”

Arrow Technologies, LLC, won the contract to design and install high-tech information technology systems, including security, at the Sky Ute Casino in Ignacio, Colo. The Internet protocol-based casino, with its digital gaming machines, is considered so state-of-the-art that Las Vegas firms have taken notice, according to Arrow President and CEO Bill LeCaine. Arrow partnered with Audio Visual Innovations, Inc. for the audio, video and communications component.

Budgetary oversight and cash flow management are given close attention in all phases of the company’s projects, LeCaine said.

Arrow was started in 2002 by LeCaine’s daughter, Michelle Barker, who is a registered member of the Wood Mountain Reservation in Saskatchewan and the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Husband, Jim Barker, brought expertise in building Qwest CyberCenters across the country.

LeCaine was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he rose from a childhood in an orphanage and foster homes to a 40-year career in banking, finance and marketing. He also played professional hockey in the International Hockey League and spent the 1968-69 season in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Michelle began her career as the executive assistant to the managing director of the five-star Phoenician Resort at Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz. Later, she became a regional president of a Fortune 500 company in Denver and was responsible for a $20 million budget.

LeCaine credits weekly progress reports for sound budgeting of projects, among other close monitoring. “We pay in cash when we can and we’re really proactive with our clients to make sure their payments are timely. Another step we’re doing now that we never did before is to do a background check on new potential customers for reliability and credit potential. It’s very critical in this climate.

“We buy our products and materials as close to the start time as we can, which helps on the payment terms. We reinvent ourselves just about every month. We double check our product orders and our material orders so we don’t have delays on our materials and wrong items that we have to return – that costs time and money.”

Yet another aspect to business success is building and keeping relationships, said BearKing, LLC owner/principal Ken Szeliga, Standing Rock Sioux.

BearKing, based in Denver, provides professional consulting services for the construction industry. Szeliga holds an MBA in engineering and is board vice chairman of the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce. He was selected as a featured speaker at a recent national construction management conference in Las Vegas hosted by the Falmouth Institute.

“It’s really all about relationships,” he said. “Usually if people have a good sense of who you are, if you’re credible and trustworthy and you do good work, that’s your best calling card.” Clients have included the city and county of Denver, and ConocoPhillips.

Another key to success is that “you’ve got to work for it. Anything of any substance comes with hard work – and sometimes you do get lucky.”

Native-owned businesses can benefit from obtaining certifications such as small business enterprise, minority-owned or women-owned enterprise, Szeliga added. “It’s another tool in the tool belt that gives you an opportunity to market yourself.”

An example of workshops in the making for the expo include: “A Buyer’s Perspective on Small Business Marketing,” “How to Start a Nonprofit” and “Small Business and Micro Lending.”

Register for the expo.