NIBA in Washington: Quality is the first preference at tribal casinos

WASHINGTON - Tribal casinos won't deal from the bottom of the deck to favor Indian business contractors, according to National Indian Gaming Association President Ernie Stevens Jr.

In a speech at the well-attended conference of the National Indian Business Association Sept. 10, Stevens called for quality and work ethic as high cards in the competition for casino vending contracts among Native entrepreneurs. He applauded NIBA and its Chief Executive Officer and President, Pete Homer, for expertise in the process of what it takes to become a business contractor to government agencies, corporations and tribes. This seasoned expertise is sorely needed, Stevens said, because too many Indians think they deserve a business from tribal casinos.

"No one deserves a business because of who they are," Stevens said. "? Quality business, good business ? we have to teach that to our people."

With a $14.7 billion "ripple effect" reaching Indian country annually from tribal casinos, according to NIGA estimates, Native entrepreneurs who can ride that ripple to new revenue streams can also provide for future generations, Stevens noted. Revenue streams can come from any of a casino's needs that can be supplied by a contractor, from major construction to janitorial services to groundskeeping at golf courses to the provision of gift shop apparel and arts, as well as many standard office functions. But in all cases, Stevens urged that the first preference must be quality.

"All of our children can be entrepreneurs in this industry if they understand the work ethic and the quality."

Stevens had been expected to announce a collaborative effort of the two Washington-based organizations, NIBA and NIGA, on behalf of an Indian preference for casino vendors. But at a conference replete with cautions against bidding for business contracts without having the capacity to fulfill them, it was clear that Stevens meant to emphasize quality as the first step for anyone thinking of a future as a contracting entrepreneur.

This NIGA emphasis should solidify a formative alliance with NIBA, whose recent materials have highlighted quality as an integral counterpart of Indian preference in enterprise. A National Indian Business Association pre-conference release details some finer points of the argument for quality in Indian enterprises that hope to contract with casinos:

With tribal gaming sweeping the country, not only is more revenue generated for tribes, but also more opportunities emerge for private Indian businesses that are either owned by a tribe as an enterprise, or by an individual tribal member. A tribal gaming preference program for all tribally owned casinos would benefit the tribal business and the tribal casino.

In any given casino, numerous vendors operate in conjunction with the casino. Many of these vendors are not Indian-owned businesses, at present. The goal of a preference would be to encourage more Indian-owned businesses to step into the gaming market as vendors, to increase the number of Indian-owned businesses seeking contracts with tribal casinos, and to increase the success of these businesses.

But an Indian preference would only be as good as the quality of the Indian-owned business that sought it. Indian-owned businesses seeking to use a tribal gaming preference incentive should expect to follow guidelines in order to get the contracts. Contracts would be awarded based on past performance, the number of contracts, and the size of the business. This means that the Indian business must have the capacity to carry out the contract, the forethought to do preliminary research on the casinos to determine its mission and whether it buys the Indian-owned business' product, the resourcefulness to coordinate with suppliers for Indian sub-contractors, the focus to develop a discussion in its area of expertise based on contract requirements, the professionalism to be cognizant of schedules and not prolong the discussion past due date, and the discernment to avoid unrealistic expectations based on Indian preference alone.

Tribally owned casinos, for their part, must clarify the depth and breadth a contract entails. The casino must make it known to Indian businesses whether the Indian business matches the casino's needs, and provide an estimate of its chances of winning a contract. There are competitive contracts that would add a 20 percent preference bid price under an Indian preference incentive. The casino should explain the relevant policies regarding set-aside programs, sub-contracting and training, or detail how Indian businesses can use casino contracts and sub-contracts to maximize contract opportunities. The casino must also inform Indian-owned businesses about the market available to them within the gaming industry, and the kinds of products casinos buy and need. It will also be helpful to inform these businesses as to who their competition is, where potential for growth lies, and where the future long-term strategic opportunities can be found.

Tribally owned casinos and Indian-owned businesses must work together to make a program like this a success. A network that would include a Web site and database listing all tribal casinos incorporating this incentive program, and a listing of Indian-owned businesses that might match the casinos' needs, would benefit both parties. Tribal governments have the opportunity to support Indian-owned businesses that meet a casino's needs and possess the capacity to fulfill a contract. In order for this to work, it has to be a coordinated effort between gaming tribes and Indian-owned businesses. Success would build an economic base through job creation and channel money back into the community and among community members.

Homer has estimated that it would take a year to get an Indian preference in casino vending off the ground.