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Cayuga chief tracks corporation trucking with 'Native Vision'

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ITHACA, N.Y. - Portraits of painted war ponies line the hallway of Frank C. Bonamie's Ongweoweh Corp. - until you reach the heart of his operation, a computer room running his own "Native Vision" software with double and triple back-up.

This sophisticated tracking system is making Bonamie, a former chief of the Iroquois Confederation's Cayuga Nation, a leader in cutting costs for some of America's biggest corporations.

The software was designed to follow wooden shipping pallets used in bulk deliveries by Fortune 500 companies like Eastman Kodak, IBM and E.I. Du Pont and corporate printer R.R. Donnelley. When enough of these unglamorous but essential items pile up at a destination, the computers direct Ongweoweh Corp. to arrange a pickup. Bonamie's company returns the pallets to the original shipper, repairing them when necessary along the way. The savings are so substantial his $40 million company is growing like Topsy.

"We've grown 20 percent a year for the past four years," Bonamie said. "I anticipate our business doubling over the next five years."

Now 72, Bonamie spent years of trial and error in business to reach this level of success, but he hasn't let anyone forget his Native background along the way. The walls and bookshelves of his boardroom display a hide painting, a wampum belt and several pipes, including an ancient Cheyenne pipe with an antler bowl. One shelf features a Mohawk sweet grass basket, woven by the mother of an employee.

"We want people to recognize when they walk in the door that this is an Indian-owned business."

In 1970, when he was building his construction company Cayuga Industries, he was chief of the Wolf Clan. He was called to become a chief of the Cayuga Nation as it prepared to launch its land claims suit. Bonamie was deeply involved in the negotiations for a settlement with the federal government. "I did a lot of traveling."

The talks broke down, "but I hung in there until the suit," ultimately was filed in 1980. But Bonamie's success as a businessman led to tensions with other tribal factions, he said. "I would drive up to meetings in my Mercedes."

Several of his fellow chiefs died and the opposition grew stronger. "All of a sudden I was on the outside looking in.

"So I just dropped out of the picture. I didn't want to fight my own people."

He said he decided he would make a better contribution by concentrating on his business. In 1981, he started the Ongweoweh Corp. which means "The Original People" in Iroquoian.

With his construction background, he began building wooden pallets. But the company really began to take off in 1997 when he developed the Retrieval for Reuse Program. His recycling is so efficient, he says he can make money by picking up as few as 20 pallets from any location in the lower 48 states and Canada. This year he plans to expand into Mexico.

The secret of his success is the high cost of building a new pallet. The wood and labor costs about $10 a unit, but he said he can recycle a used one for about $5, in addition to saving the retailer the cost of trashing it after a delivery. Now that he has developed software to track retrieval, he has phased his company out of pallet-making altogether.

Large maps in his headquarters near the Ithaca airport show the collection centers where he ships used pallets for cleaning and repair. He works with a network of more than 350 small- and mid-size lumber and pallet mills to provide new ones when needed.

His largest customer is Eastman Kodak, the Rochester, N.Y., film manufacturer. He retrieves pallets for the company from more than 150 customer locations. He has targeted a client list of the 500 largest corporations for future expansion.

Bonamie's success is a boon for the Indian community at nearby Cornell University. He donates 10 percent of his profits to Cornell's Native American Program, which provides grants and housing for Native students.

In fact Bonamie was instrumental in setting up the program, going back to the '70s. When he moved to Ithaca in 1969, the Rochester native said, "I went to a couple of events at Cornell and found only two Indian students." He was shocked there were so few at the university. "It was not only a land-grant university but one built on Indian land."

He wrote a letter to Cornell's president and in 1976 was asked to serve on a trustees' committee on the status of minorities. They finally persuaded the Agriculture School to sponsor the program.

"When it first opened its doors, it started with 10 students," Bonamie said. "Now we're up to 100."

Even though he can look back on a full life, Bonamie has no wish to retire. "I'm having too much fun."