Collaborative article by Bree Bieber and Jon M. DeVore
Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot (BHBC) is starting a new series highlighting a few of the unique leaders and businesses with whom we have the pleasure to work, and have seen develop, grow, and create positive differences within their industry and community.
Our first spotlight features Deidra Mitchell, who has diverse experience working in Alaska with an Alaska Native Corporation and other businesses before taking the helm of the Waséyabek Development Company, LLC (WDC). BHBC has had the opportunity to work with Deidra for over ten years, with the past four years at WDC watching her steady leadership and a focused strategy come to fruition.
WDC is a 100% Tribally-owned holding company formed by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (NHBP). The Tribe’s reservation is located in Southcentral Michigan and WDC is located in a multiuse building in Grand Rapids. While many Tribes throughout the U.S. have experienced economic growth due to expansion of gaming, NHBP chose to broaden their economic development spectrum to avoid singular and long-term dependence on gaming alone.
In 2011, WDC was established with the mission to create a diversified portfolio consisting of commercial real estate, federal contracting, and commercial operating companies. Deidra Mitchell joined WDC in 2016 as President & CEO. Ms. Mitchell is a Kent State University graduate, has started multiple businesses, and held several executive level positions. Since Ms. Mitchell joined WDC, she has successfully aligned resources and stakeholders managing the acquisition of five income properties, one consulting firm, and a manufacturing / R&D company for the WDC business portfolio. Her leadership has resulted in a stronger internal and external business infrastructure, increased revenue, and produced a 375% increase in assets.
WDC has increased from three employees to 285, with tribal members holding several management positions, and they have deployed over $50 million of capital towards economic development. Their federal contracting subsidiary, Waséyabek Federal Services, LLC (WFS) received 8(a) certification by the Small Business Administration in 2018 and since formed five subsidiaries, three of which are certified 8(a).
Today more than ever, the financial strain during COVID 19 stresses the need to diversify tribal government income streams. WDC’s successful three-pronged buy-and-hold investment strategy provided financial stability during the unexpected closures by COVID of entertainment venues, casinos and hotels. We talked to Ms. Mitchell about the impacts that COVID has had on WDC, and how she, as a leader in tribal collaborations, foresees future changes within other tribal governments.
- How has COVID-19 affected WDC? In what ways has proactively diversifying WDC’s portfolio proven beneficial during these unexpected times?
Overall, Waséyabek has had no material impact from COVID to our revenue and cash flow. All of WDC’s companies continue to cash flow and our Federal contracts have been largely spared. At most, we expect to see a 10% negative impact, which is mostly due to WDC voluntarily working with our retail tenants to provide them 90-day rent deferrals to help them manage the effects of COVID on their operations. Our portfolio consists of Commercial Real Estate, Commercial Operating Businesses, and Operating Businesses offering goods and services to the US Government (largely through the (8(a) Program). This diversification strategy was part of our initial strategic plan, which was agreed upon by all stakeholders involved, including myself, the WDC Board of Directors, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi (NHBP) Tribal Council and the Tribal Members. Part of that initial diversification strategy also included avoiding investments in the hospitality industry to ensure, to the extent possible, that circumstances impacting the Casino/hospitality industry do not impact the WDC portfolio of companies in the same way. This diversification strategy has proven to be extremely effective during the pandemic.
- Do you foresee future changes to WDC’s business practices and procedures post-COVID?
COVID has certainly changed some of my personal philosophies about conducting business. Where videoconferencing was a rare and awkward communication choice for me before COVID, it is now common-place. We have adapted to new technology and methods of communication, and there are some things I really like about it. I think the change has also brought about a softer view from my standpoint on teleworking intermittently or when necessitated by geography; however, I feel that personal, face-to-face communication is still vitally important to key relationships and building energy around a business initiative and excitement in a team. I think there is room for a healthy balance of flexibility, technology and in-person interaction. I do think that there has been a healthy best practice that has come out of all this. By more strictly evaluating whether long-range travel is imperative, important, or discretionary, we can collectively make better choices for the environment, employee work/life balance, and business expenses. I think COVID has provided an opportunity for all of us to assess in our business practices and in our lives what we formally did out of habit versus what truly continues to serve all stakeholders.
- Understanding WDC has a strong desire to help tribal citizens who are small business owners, will this lead to different collaborations in the future?
NHBP and WDC certainly support career development opportunities for Tribal Citizens and utilizing Tribally-owned small businesses. I think the lessons that we learn from COVID will be applied to both of those initiatives. We will continue to apply a Tribal Hiring Preference in our portfolio companies and hopefully, there will be a broader realization among Tribal Members that it is important to personally gain all of the experience available to them and leverage some of the advantages provided by their respective Tribes in preparation for unprecedented times like we are experiencing now. We employ several Tribal Members across our portfolio, and they are supported through individualized Tribal Member Development Plans, mentors, training programs, etc. We also continue to apply a preference for utilizing Tribally-owned suppliers, vendors and contractors in our portfolio companies. COVID has emphasized the need for all of us to remain competitive, innovative and nimble.
- Do you think other tribal governments and Native American economic development companies will start to follow WDC’s lead of diversifying in the future?
There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to Tribal economic diversification. There are many Tribes that have very active economic diversification and development initiatives and those are based on that specific Tribe’s set of resources (financial, natural, and people), risk appetite, cultural alignment, etc. What I hope others can take away from WDC is the importance to be clear and to have alignment about what your mission truly is, to develop a written strategic plan that transcends Board and Council Member turnover, build a financial model that aligns with and supports your plan, and then execute on the plan and remain disciplined to it. For example, our mission was to diversify BEYOND gaming, and due to that, excluded hospitality and entertainment as it related to the casino industry. The WDC CEO and the Board, as well as the NHBP Tribal Council and Membership, all agreed and we then set about documenting our strategic plan, building a financial model that predicted the investment that would be required as well as expectations for returns. We have remained disciplined, aligned, and focused on implementing that plan. It’s worked for us; even during the pandemic crisis.
- What does WDC do to support other Tribes with their economic development activities?
An annual goal for me for the last three years as the CEO of WDC is to support the economic diversification of other Tribes. This will continue to be an important goal for us as we seek to help other Tribes in their journey.
True to Ms. Mitchell’s commitment of supporting collaboration and the economic development of other Tribes, she co-hosts a monthly podcast called ‘Tribal Talks’ alongside Erika Weiss of Barnes & Thornburg. Their goal is to bring relevant and actionable information to Indian Country regarding starting, operating, and governing an economic development and diversification strategy for Tribes, welcoming a guest speaker monthly. Tribal Talks can be found at www.waseyabek.com/podcasts<http://www.waseyabek.com/podcasts and available at no cost to all interested Tribes.
Earlier this year, WDC co-invested with Gun Lake Investments (the economic development arm of the Match-E-Bee-Nash-She-Wish Tribe in Michigan) to purchase the McKay Tower in downtown Grand Rapids, MI. The McKay Tower, a mixed-use building, was a combined investment between the two Tribes of $17.5MM and produces monthly cash flow.
Ms. Mitchell recently coordinated the cooperation and development of a Michigan Tribal Non-Gaming Economic Impact Study among 9 of the 12 federally recognized Tribes in Michigan. The 9 participating Tribes own 38 Tribal Business Entities (TBEs) and the results of the study show Tribes are significant contributors to Michigan’s economy. In 2019 TBEs created $288MM in economic impact and produced 1,847 jobs in the state of Michigan. The report was released on July 7. The study quantifies the benefits of non-gaming TBEs to Tribal leadership and the state of Michigan, and the results will be shared with all Michigan Tribes to support their economic development initiatives.
Additional articles, links, stats, that came out since the publication of the Non-Gaming Michigan Tribal Economic Impact Study:
Michigan Tribal Non-Gaming Economic Impact Study Media Coverage:
- MiBiz (7/8/2020): https://mibiz.com/sections/economic-development/michigan-s-tribes-add-288-8-million-to-state-economy-via-non-gaming-businesses
- Native News Online (7/7/2020): https://nativenewsonline.net/business/study-non-gaming-tribal-businesses-in-michigan-generate-288-8m-economic-impact/
- Native Business Magazine (7/7/2020): https://www.nativebusinessmag.com/study-non-gaming-tribal-businesses-in-michigan-generate-288m-economic-impact
- WSJM Radio – St. Joseph / Benton Harbor (7/10/2020)
- WJMN-TV – CBS Local 3 News in Marquette
- TribalHub – facebook only: https://www.facebook.com/tribalhubcommunity/posts/955251778249560
- Second Wave – Southwest Michigan
- Grand Rapids Business Journal Interview w/Deidra Mitchell held on 7/10 – to be published on 7/24