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S&K rides wave of the future with the wisdom of past

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PABLO, Mont. ? Taking the wisdom of the past and combining it with the vision of the future in today's technology is proving a recipe for success for a tribally run industry in Northwest Montana.

Greg DuMontier, president and general manager of S&K Technologies, said the goal is to provide a sustainable business that brings employment to the Flathead reservation.

S&K Technologies specializes in providing information technology solutions, including a wide range of software solutions, to a lengthy list of clients looking for cutting edge software and electronics.

The company was formerly a division of S&K Electronics Inc. which was established as a manufacturing concern in 1984 and formally incorporated under tribal and federal law in 1985 by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation. The tribe is its sole shareholder.

Headquartered on the reservation just north of Missoula, the company has offices in Houston, Texas, to serve NASA and the space alliance, in Warner Robins, Ga., to serve Robins AFB; in Dayton, Ohio, and on the reservation.

Sales last year were $16.9 million, making it a giant of a tribally run interest.

The company, spun off of its manufacturing concern, continues to grow and is preparing to move its offices from a building next to S&K Electronics Inc. to The Medicine Tree, a 12,500-square-foot building it will share with health care professionals.

S&K Electronics, the circuitry and cable manufacturing company that fueled the technology arm with a long list of government and private sector contracts, will expand its facility.

DuMontier said the information technology solutions business, now only 3 years old, employs 134 people, many of whom carry their offices with them using laptops. About 10 percent of the labor force is American Indian.

When preparing to start the software and design company, DuMontier said he had to look for people who understood computers and people, as well as a team that could be cross-trained. The philosophy continues to be an important element, he said.

'A few years ago, when we first started, there were two types of people ? those who knew how IT worked and those people who knew how the world worked,' DuMontier said.

'We looked for both.'

Starting with just three employees, DuMontier set out to find the right set of people with the overall skills necessary to step onto the playing field against hefty competition. He said it was a challenge, with each decision about adding to the team a carefully considered move.

Both groups landed large government contracts that have paved the way for research and development as well as allowing the two companies to expand into the private sector.

In a very competitive field filled with hundreds of companies with dot coms, S&K officials continue to keep a step ahead of technology.

'We probably have the brightest and the best out there,' DuMontier said. 'In order to apply IT solutions, we have to be ahead of them. What we're really about is innovative solutions to problem solving.'

However, the business is far more than technology.

'We can say we are in high-tech business, but we are really about people.'

When the U.S. Air Force needs to repair a part on one of its aircraft anywhere in the world, more than likely someone on the Flathead reservation will fix it.

S&K Technologies landed an eight-year, $325 million contract to provide information technology to track parts for owners of F-15 fighter aircraft to keep planes in good working order. When the Air Force sells F-15 fighter aircraft or puts one into service anywhere in the world, the price includes a service contract. S&K Technologies will be in charge of that contract.

The contract specifies $25 million to develop and maintain the information technology needed to track the repair of parts and the other $300 million to pay for the repairs. S&K Technologies will act as brokers in the repair process.

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Its federal clients have included the Navy, U.S. Forest Service, Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

Software engineers provided scanning and digitizing support to the Bonneville Power Administration and the Smithsonian Institution.

Information technology is not very widespread on the Flathead reservation, the business is booming worldwide.

'We're using the Internet to reach out to a market that is otherwise inaccessible. If we were gong to participate, we needed to go where the work is. The actual location of the worker is not critical. Most of the work can be done online,' DuMontier said.

With each new contract comes the prospect of more high-tech jobs, he said, adding that about 10 of the 40 jobs for a project go back to the reservation.

Without advertising, at least 25 prospective tribal workers applied for a job in the last three months. As the company prepares to hire, it has found at least one applicant, a tribal descendant, with skills for one of the more technical positions.

The company is focused on adding more American Indian employees to its work force by recruiting at job fairs and working with the Salish Kootenai Community College to collaborate with other schools and companies with computer classes.

While the company is becoming better known for its reliable reputation and innovation, getting the younger generation to embrace a career will take time, he said.

'We think we can offer anyone who wants a career that career opportunity ? not just a job.

'We chose challenges we can excel in and we are now getting the reputation of excelling. The Air Force would not contract with us if we couldn't excel in this,' DuMontier said.

Larry Hall, spokesman for S&K Electronics, said the company has proven itself in it terms of commercial viability. Its employees routinely work on circuit boards, cables, the design and manufacturing of electronic control equipment for industrial applications. It has also worked on retrofitting parts based on a client's demands.

A staff of 10 includes electrical, mechanical aerospace and software engineers designing control systems that serve as miniature brains for a variety of systems.

'Contract work is a good business and steady work,' Hall said. 'We can do a whole lot of it and we're not even close to operating at full capacity.'

Hall estimated the plant uses only 10 percent of its ability to produce products.

At least 80 percent of its work force are certified solderers with most certified as Class III, the highest level. Employees are offered an on-the-job training course over six months, giving them a level of certification that allows them to use their technical skills anywhere in the nation, Hall said.

That certification gives the company a leg up when competing for contracts.

'To be competitive, you must have the quality and the price. We have to compete smarter with higher skill levels. We are competitive in the U.S. There is no doubt about it.'

Despite high quality, the company faces challenges in its buying power for the components employee place on the circuit boards. Larger companies can purchase billions of dollars in small parts that are more costly for the small tribal company. Still, the electronics firm has held its own.

'We haven't had to go back to the tribe since 1993 when the tribe invested $3 million into the company. We've internalized our growth and we've grown a whole new company,' Hall said.

The company offers employees profit sharing and it pays a small dividend to the tribe, but largely uses profits to further growth.

The two companies are part of a group of Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal businesses recognized for their success through numerous Small Business Performance Awards including the U.S. Small Business Administration Administrators Award for Excellence in 1997; the DCAA Small Disadvantaged Business of the Year Outstanding Achievement Award in 1993; Small Business Administration Minority Small Business of the Year Award in 1994, and the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development Tribal Enterprise of the Year in 1994.