Navajo financial services exec offers assistance to tribal governments,
businesses and individuals
SEATTLE -- William "Mike" Lettig, national executive for KeyBank's Native
American Financial Services, didn't grow up learning about his Navajo
culture. He was adopted, and didn't really experience Indian life until he
met his wife following a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps.
In the early 1970s, the couple moved to the Yakama Reservation near White
Swan, Wash., where Lettig began his financial services career working for a
state bank that, ironically, is now owned by KeyBank. "I did a lot in the
agricultural sector back then," said Lettig. "I developed the agricultural
program for Key, in keeping with the value of our culture."
This experience gave Lettig the opportunity to witness the economic
challenges in Indian country firsthand. His career and Key's support of
American Indian economic development evolved together over the years.
Lettig reported that about three years ago he had the good fortune to
attend a leadership management course at Case Western Reserve University in
Cleveland. "From that experience, I developed a project compatible with the
financial aspirations of our company, which involved establishing a
relationship with Native America. I took my professional relationships that
were necessary to launch this new project to Key's management, and now here
KeyBank currently has a Native American Financial Services teams dedicated
to Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, Northeast and the Southwest.
Lettig said his idea is based on a simple model, a comprehensive financial
services plan that will meet the needs of three crucial entities within any
tribe: governments, including their aspirations for social services,
generating revenue, etc.; business enterprises (including gaming), energy
and natural resource integration (lumber, hydroelectricity, real estate
development, etc.); and individuals for home ownership.
Lettig admitted that historically, the financial community doesn't have a
very good score card in the area of providing access to capital for home
ownership for American Indians. His goal is for individual members of the
Native community to have an application turned around within 90 days,
making it compatible with balance of the United States.
"In Indian country, the turnaround is more like 36 months or sometimes not
at all," said Lettig. "This is what the ordinary citizen uses to build
personal wealth, but that's almost non-existent in Indian country. A Native
could live in a rental environment, continuing to pay rent for 30 -- 40
years for an asset that never exists. So that's our aspiration.
"As a financial organization, we're very good at delivering products and
services to governments and are equally good on business services side.
We're currently building an infrastructure that now allows us to
participate in [Housing and Urban Development] and Fannie Mae mortgage
Lettig pointed out that "what the financial community has not done a good
job of is understanding the nuances of each particular tribe -- ensuring
that there are processes in place to get a higher approval rating. What
happens to folks that don't meet the minimum criteria? How can we get them
to come back after meeting those criteria? We need to help them with these
issues, and give them the opportunity to come back."
He suggested that more investment has to happen between the banking and
American Indian communities to give these individuals an opportunity to
access that capital, while still being responsible to the financial
institutions -- and the three main stakeholders in individual homeowner
lending: the tribe that is looking to provide access to its members; the
bank; and the program being leveraged to access the capital (e.g. HUD,
Fannie Mae, etc.).
"Our primary objective here at Key is to become more user-friendly," said
Lettig. "If we can get that accomplished, we will have earned a stripe as a
major provider. The economic opportunities in Indian country are
"Some of the good things that have happened are enabling these tribal
leaders to become economically independent, charting their future. Take a
look at what's happened in last 10 years. Economic progress has been
significant. At the same time, the Native American community has been
dealing with all the legal and political differences that are necessary to
build their sovereignty ... The economic progress Native America is making
is a positive influence. Now the glass is more half-full than half-empty."
Another component Lettig feels is essential to delivery of the full
spectrum of financial services to the Native community is innovation.
At KeyBank, a minors' trust is being developed. Tribal entities are
building wealth for their minors; a trust allows tribes to leverage the
total investment, while keeping individual trust accounts separate. This
way, minors or their guardians can track their specific results. The Key
plan is to initially educate parents, then target minors in middle school
and later, as they get to the age of withdrawing the funds. They are
encouraged to think of education and home ownership, and then retirement.
"If we do this and do it effectively, the score card's still out there,"
said Lettig. "It's too early to see how we're doing."
Today, Key does business with more than 50 tribes and Alaska Native
villages, showing more than $600 million in commitments. Lettig pointed out
that the lessons to be learned as a financial provider is that nothing can
be taken for granted. Listening is important. "Just because we've done
business with one tribe, we can't assume that those solutions will
translate to another tribe."
Lettig added, "Here's the message: This is a mutually beneficial