Indian Business Can Be Successful

For years I have thought that most of Indian Country's problems would be solved if people had jobs. Lance Morgan is the embodiment of that concept.

For years I have thought that most of Indian Country's problems would be solved if people had jobs. I still believe that. Lance Morgan is the embodiment of that concept.

In a conversation I had with him recently, Lance confirmed what I have long suspected. The tribally owned company he runs, Ho-Chunk, Inc., is highly successful because it has toed the line and been committed to success. It has followed the capitalist line, to make money first. But it is more than that.

The non-Indian business is in place to make money, Lance says. The capitalists worship the dollar as their almighty Grail, he said. At Ho-Chunk, however, the emphasis is on affecting the community. Using that philosophy, he and his team have built Ho-Chunk into the largest company of the small tribes.

He says some of the larger tribes have larger companies. But Ho-Chunk grossed $259 million last year—a significant amount.

Their biggest business is dealing with the federal government. The second largest is housing, and their third is selling Native products. They do business with 50 different tribes. They also have businesses going in 10 states and four foreign countries.

They are into alternative energy, with the largest solar and ethanol business in Nebraska. Lance thinks the business will continue to grow for decades.

I asked him what their long-range goal is, and he said it is to take over the world. “We’re just smart Indians doing business,” he said. Their goal is to develop tribal self-sufficiency. They employ more than 1,000 people.

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They have just developed a large project building tribal housing. Some of it is on the Winnebago reservation, and some is off the reservation in urban areas.

I told him about being in a meeting in D.C. 30 years ago and asking the 30 Indian people there if they had mentors in high school and college. To my surprise, none of them said they did. These folks, including the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) chairman at that time, Reuben Snake, also included Pat Locke, Dave Risling, Michael Dorris, Dr. Cecil Jose, and Dr. Henrietta Whiteman. All of us came up the hard way; none of us had a mentor. It’s time we started some mentoring programs in Indian Country. I have not heard of one yet.

Lance said he had no mentors in high school or college either. His mentors were his father and his grandfather. He paid for college mostly through the Army Reserve, which he served in for years.

After finishing his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Nebraska, he won a full scholarship to Harvard Law School. He finished law school in 1993 and worked for the law firm of Dorsey and Whitney in Minneapolis for two years. He won a lawsuit for the tribe that brought them a large amount of money, and they used part of that money to start Ho-Chunk, Inc. Lance has been the head of it since it started.

They sponsor a scholarship program and hosted the Junior Achievement program. They also have a summer internship program for college students and graduates. The interns get real-world experience in the business environment, which is invaluable to them as they go to work in the business world.

The leaders of the company and its subdivisions are:

Lance Morgan, CEO and President. He has been with the company from its beginning, and still finds time to do legal work. I asked him how he could hold down two jobs, and he said he only works 20 percent for the law firm. The tribe used the money he won in that lawsuit 25 years ago to start the company.

Annette Hamilton is the Vice President and COO. She oversees all 30 subsidiary companies. She is a Kickapoo. She has an MBA from the University of Minnesota, and had a wide variety of experience before taking this position.

Dennis Johnson, Red Lake Chippewa, is the CFO. He has a master’s in accounting from the University of South Dakota.

Sharon Frenchman, Ho-Chunk, is the Chief Administrative Officer. She has a master’s in education from Briar Cliff University.

Lance’s dad was in the roofing business in Omaha, where Lance grew up. He finished at Omaha North High School before he entered college. He is one of three children. His brother Maunka works for the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe. His sister Altha lives in Omaha.

Lance and his wife have four children ranging from 25 years of age down to 8. He has lived at Ho-Chunk ever since he finished law school.

Many of the Indian businesses I have worked for over the years have failed. One of them was a shirt manufacturer using Indian designs on shirts and vests. They were beautiful, but they hadn’t sold any. I told them they had to go to New York and make some contacts. It was as if I had said, “Go to the other side of the moon.” No one went. The business went broke. Lesson Number One: You have to sell it.

Another business was a convenience store on a reservation. They had seven employees, and did not like it when I told them they had to cut back to four. They did not, and also went out of business a few months later. Lesson Number Two: You have to live within your means.

Lance has seen the corporation grow from a handful of employees to more than 1,000. The huge unemployment rate for the reservation has shrunk considerably because of the corporation. The rate of unemployment at Ho-Chunk used to be like the rest of Indian Country, in the 66 percent range. Now it is under 15 percent. That’s an economic miracle.

They own 10 grocery stores—where people used to have to travel off the reservation to buy everything they ate, they can shop close to home now. When I did a research project for one New Mexico reservation 25 years ago, they were spending 25 percent of their money running to Gallup and Albuquerque to buy groceries. In the cities, people only spent 8 percent of their income on transportation, including car payments, gasoline, tires, and insurance.

Ho-Chunk, Inc. has won the Honoring Nations Award from the Harvard Business School. Lance has testified on the Hill a number of times. He has also been presented with honors at the White House. He served as an economic development consultant for the Department of the Interior. People recognize what they are doing and appreciate it.

He does not go for gaming in a big way, but realizes it was casino money that helped the company to get started. “We see gaming as a means to an end, and that end is to create job opportunities that will lead to economic self-sufficiency for the tribe.”

They’re more flexible than most employers. “Your mom’s sick,” he said. “Go take care of her.” One of my Navajo friends who used to be a policewoman in Albuquerque complained to me 20 years ago how the department would not let her go for two days to a healing ceremony after she had touched a dead person. And she was having to touch them almost every month; the boss put her on the squad that had to investigate every death call. She finally quit.

“Growing up,” Lance told Julie Sloane of CNN Money, “I had a pretty simple career goal: I wanted to quit being poor.” He has succeeded royally.

“My mother says I am the necessary evil,” he told one reporter. Somebody had to be the corporate Indian, and Lance was happy to be the one. We need to clone him a hundred times over.

I see huge profits to be made from an Indian-owned slaughterhouse at Navajo. I see huge profits to be made from an automobile dealership in Gallup. I see tribes returning to their own economic self-sufficiency through business.

It can’t happen fast enough for me.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement organization in Albuquerque. CTD has made 165 reading grants to Indian schools since 1992, with great success. His next book will be The American Indian Dropout, to be published by Peter Lang.