Small Native-Owned Business Expands, Seeks Indian Country Partners
Gale Courey Toensing
Francella Giatrakis knew from the very beginning of her work life not only that she wanted to own her own business one day, but also that she wanted it to enable her to help Indian communities develop sustainable economies. Recently, her dream came true.
Last year Giatrakis, a citizen of the Pueblo of Isleta near Albuquerque, New Mexico, bought out her business partner and is now the sole owner, president and CEO of Tribal Solutions, Inc. The company provides engineering, manufacturing and MRO services‚—that’s industry lingo for Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul—to the global aerospace, defense and oil and gas markets. The business is located in North Dallas, Texas, with a facility for parts and logistics in Frisco, Texas, and another facility for its precision, machining and manufacturing group in Louisville, Texas.
Currently, Giatrakis is the only Native employee in the company. “Unfortunately, the Dallas area is not overflowing with Natives, but one of my strategic goals for Tribal Solutions for me on a personal level is really to contribute to sustainable economic development within Native communities. I look at this [business] as my opportunity and kind of my platform to go out and do that,” she said. “That’s really where my passion lies and if I can use Tribal Solutions to do that it will satisfy a couple of needs.”
In April Giatrakis got the good news that Tribal Solutions received certification from the Federal Aviation Administration to be a Part 145 Repair Station. That means a big leap forward in her company’s expansion plans and also the ability to move forward on forging partnerships in Indian country. “Here we are a Native-owned and Woman-owned small business that provides new and legacy parts for the aerospace oil and gas industry. We’ve got precision machining in house. We’ve got engineering, design and support services in house and also manufacturing and assembly capabilities for a variety of components and products. And with the new certification we’re authorized to repair and overhaul within the aerospace and aviation industry,” Giatrakis said. “It’s been about a two-year process for us and it’s critical as far as helping us grow and get to the next level. It’ll help us achieve yet another milestone in our strategic plan to expand our capabilities so we can better serve our customers in the commercial and military side of our business.”
Giatrakis could not have come better prepared to business ownership. She started out her work life in the Department of Defense (DoD) “world,” she said. “My first grown up job, if you will, was with Texas Instruments Defense Systems and Electronics Group.” This is where Giatrakis honed her negotiating skills in procurement. “I worked as a small order buyer and it was interesting because we had to report how much money we were spending with Native companies. I was in my early twenties and trying to put myself through school at the time and I knew immediately that my desire was to start my own business at some point in time, knowing that Native-owned companies, at least in the DoD world-federal space, was very desirable and very difficult to find.”
Giatrakis later worked at McDonnell Douglas and Martin Marietta, then spent 17 years in finance with diverse companies such as MBNA Information Services, Alcatel, Bayer Consumer Care, and PepsiCo. At PepsiCo, she further broadened her business knowledge and gained valuable experience in Customer Supply Chain & Logistics and Category/Space Management. And she also served as president of RISE, PepsiCo’s Native American employee resource group—a role that dovetailed with her idea of one day helping Native communities through her own business. As president of RISE, she raised the awareness of the organization’s 500-plus members about Native Americans as a key demographic.
Now the Tribal Solutions web site has an entire page dedicated to “Giving Back” . “Airplanes aren’t the only things we help to get off the ground. Tribal Solutions is committed to giving back on both a local and national level. At a Native American Reservation in Montana we are developing a program to provide vocational training and employment opportunities for members of the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes. In this area of traditionally high unemployment and limited opportunity, Native Americans can establish careers in welding, metal fabrication and aircraft maintenance. This assistance will bring economic stability and a renewed sense of pride to disadvantaged communities. These dedicated workers will fulfill contracts for the US Navy, US Army, and US Air Force; as well as other federal and state government agencies. The success of this partnership will become a model for assisting other Native American communities around the country to provide skilled workforces into the future.”
"Got any jobs?" was a logical question to ask at that point, and the answer is yes. “We’ve expanded. In 2011 we had 11 employees, now we’re at 55 so we are growing and continue to grow. But it’s difficult to find Natives in Dallas so my ultimate goal is to partner with various tribes. We have a partnership with that one tribe up in the north. We’re helping them from a manufacturing standpoint to really get to a point where they can competitively play in the DoD world. They’ve taken some of our advice and they’re in the process of getting some of the quality certifications that are required and really needed to place in this space,” Giatrakis said. “Because of that I’m hoping we can bring in sustainable work over the next however many years they choose to keep going.”
Giatrakis said she’s like to partner with some of the tribes just across the border in Oklahoma or with any of the pueblos near the Pueblo of Isleta where she grew up. “I think there’s a large population there not just from Indian country so we’ve got a large labor pool to pull from and there’s also access to military bases in both Oklahoma and the Albuquerque area.”
Tribal Solutions also supports organizations dedicated to honoring and empowering America’s injured service personnel. One of the projects it contributes to is Ride 2 Recovery, a nonprofit organization that helps physically injured veterans in rehabilitation process or who need mental/emotional recovery from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury and physical disabilities. “We think it’s important to honor and empower America’s veterans,” Giatrakis said.
As successful as Tribal Solutions has been, it hasn’t been a complete smooth path. Like all small businesses there are hurdles to overcome. The current hurdle is finding additional funding to match the pace of the company’s expansion. Dallas is not one of the big hubs for DoD work and combined with the sequestration, banks are hesitant to loan money right now. Giatrakis has pushed to diversify the company as much as possible, she said, “so we don’t have to have all our eggs in one basket. So we pursue the military aviation sector but also commercial aviation which again is why he FAA certification is so important to us.” The company is also expanding into other sectors, including communications. “We’re really trying to diversify as much as possible so we’re not dependent of federal contracts coming in,” Giatrakis said.
The scarcity of additional funding has put some restraints on the company’s expansion. “We were up 33 percent in sales last year; I’m expecting a minimum of 30 percent and really hoping for 40 percent for this year, but with that being said our cash flow has put some restrictions on our growth,” Giatrakis said. But she’s open to investors, she said. “I’m in the process of talking to commercial financial institutions, but I’m very open to investors. We’ve got a very aggressive five year strategic plan and really without an investor it’s going to be difficult for us to get there. We are looking,” she said.
Along with running a rapidly expanding company, seeking funding to support the expansion, diversifying the company’s products and services, and forging partnerships in Indian country, Giatrakis is a mom to three “very active” children aged 12, eight and six. “Running a small business and being a mom — that can be the biggest challenge,” Giatrakis said, laughing.