By David Melmer -- Today staff
ABERDEEN, S.D. - Richard Tall Bear really wanted to be a school teacher and basketball coach; but instead, he is the CEO of a business that supplies furniture to tribal offices, casinos and organizations.
His career path was changed after he spent one year teaching in a tribal school. Tall Bear then returned to past experiences in furniture sales. With a loan from his district, the Veblen District on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation, Tall Bear launched Red Nations Furniture.
''I paid off the loan in one year. I'm one of the few people who paid them back,'' Tall Bear said. ''Business loans are supported by gaming funds. That's one of the positive things [about gaming]. You hear about the negative aspect but, if done right, people can make a living.''
The Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribe owns casinos in North and South Dakota in remote areas. A portion of the profits is given to the reservation districts to help entrepreneurs start businesses. Tall Bear took advantage of a $30,000 loan and turned his company into a million-dollar business.
Red Nation Furniture just received the contract to supply all furnishings to the Sisseton-Wahpeton's new Dakota Sioux Casino in Watertown, S.D. Tall Bear said he outbid some of the bigger furniture suppliers.
Red Nation Furniture works directly with quality manufacturers and can supply any furniture product needed by casinos, restaurants, tribal offices or organizations, he said. ''I'm only selling selected manufacturers and I can bring in factory-direct prices to Native American businesses.''
While growing up near Minneapolis, Minn., Tall Bear worked for a company specializing in office supplies. After college, he met some manufacturers while attending a gaming conference and he began working on his business plan.
''I was also a realtor in the Twin Cities. I've always been kind of a salesman. I guess I might was will go with it.''
Tall Bear started out with one line of slot machine stools from one manufacturer and now represents 25 manufacturers.
''I can offer a single-source supplier for furniture products; a lot of people have several different suppliers. Whatever the tribe needs I can supply it,'' he said.
Tall Bear said when he first started out he would go to a casino and offer slot machine stool only to find out the casino needed other furniture. ''I thought I should cover all the markets,'' he said.
He relies on the network of manufacturers to acquire more merchandise and act as the representative for the company. ''The manufacturers I have now are pretty solid with me. I'm really leery of taking on other manufacturers. Now, I'm going after bigger jobs and new construction.''
Tall Bear said he also passes business on to other American Indian-owned companies that supply business cards, hand lotions and other items that could be used in casinos.
It is difficult for an American Indian-owned business to succeed in the Midwest and Great Plains, he said.
''I have to say in the Midwest, a lot of the problem is that people are leery of Native businesses. We have to be twice or three times as good and provide more customer service and more input than required by non-Indian businesses.
''On the East and West coast they are very open to work with Native businesses and they treat us very well,'' Tall Bear said.
''Native businesses have had a bad rap in my part of the country. I'm not different than the non-Native guy selling furniture. I have a nationally known line of furniture.''
Now, after the two year mark, Red Nations Furniture is attracting queries from the government. Markets with the IHS and the BIA are now opening up, he said.
Tall Bear is the only sales person at present, but a larger force will be needed to take advantage of the opportunities.
Tall Bear grew up in an entrepreneurial family in the Twin Cities. His mother, Leann Tall Bear, created her own business consulting with tribes and writing grants. Tall Bear's father is the nationally known actor and activist, Floyd ''Red Crow'' Westerman.
Tall Bear said he has used his parent's contacts to acquire business.
Tall Bear is asked to speak to schools and other groups about business. He said the most important element is to create a foundation, a basic structure with a business plan.
''A lot of businesses waste time and money without following plans. I have kind of gotten lucky with mom and dad's contacts and getting some mentorship, but I wouldn't have had a chance without the district. I would still have the dream and idea,'' he said.
''The only way to make a difference on the reservations is with entrepreneurship,'' Tall Bear said.
For more information, visit the Red Nation Furniture Web site at www.rednationgaming.com.