Jamie L. Fullmer, chairman and CEO of Blue Stone Strategy Group, discusses his new venture's goals, as well as hurdles that remain for Indian gaming and Native American tribes.
You recently formed Blue Stone Strategy Group. Tell me a little bit about the venture and its goals.
When I was in my term in office, I saw that a lot of tribes, including my own, were working on development in the communities. One of the struggles we have always faced has been the ability to mobilize good support mechanisms that would be culturally sensitive to our governmental systems or the way that we do business as tribes. With that said, when I got out of office, I thought that because there was a gap there, and it was something I was very interested in, economic development would be a fun area to get into. And so Blue Stone Strategy Group was actually formed to provide growth and development strategies, government strengthening and tribal leadership training and development. And also real estate development on tribal lands, as well as economic development and entrepreneurship development programs for tribes. Those are all areas that I felt were underutilized or being underserved in Indian Country and Indian communities. Having a background in business administration and tribal leadership, I could try to bridge the gap which was the private sector corporation and business world.
What are some of the key issues or situations that Blue Stone Strategy Group would be involved with in consulting tribes directly?
One area would be economic development diversification or growth strategies. A lot of tribes, those that either have gaming or have developed strength of business in an industry, are looking to diversify for a couple of reasons. One is to create job opportunities for their community members. Another, obviously, is to generate more revenue streams to run their tribal government systems. With that, we can do a couple of things. We can review and analyze existing systems and enhance them through our consulting services and research. We can also assist tribes in growth strategies in acquiring businesses or evaluating business opportunities that have been presented to them so that they have some research tools when they make their decision. It’s always good to get a second opinion or take a more critical look at business opportunities.
What about political or regulatory issues?
When tribal leaders get into office, they have so much on their plate. There is such a diverse set of priorities that they have to deal with. From social programming to educational programming, healthcare to working with and dealing with outside agencies … the federal government, the state government, the local municipalities ... It gets to be very overwhelming right from the start. One of the things I think is helpful is that we do strategic planning with government leaders to help them develop and prioritize the systems that they’re dealing with. We also can work with tribal leaders in development of their board, and help them develop government structures, and to clearly identify their policy issues that they need to focus their attention toward in order to expand their business opportunities. For example, commercial codes, corporate codes, zoning codes, etc. We help to define what those areas of priority should be.
What is your company’s reach? Is it limited to gaming tribes?
No. We work with all tribes. Our main emphasis is in the West, basically because that’s where we’re located. But we definitely have no problem working with any tribe. I think the key is that they really need to be in that position to make the advance to taking on, critiquing and moving toward developing structures and formalizing systems in a way that will benefit their communities. They just need to be in a position to be ready, willing and able for us to do that. With that said, some tribes, because of their proximity, they have different sets of concerns and obstacles, and it’s our responsibility to sort that out to see if we could be beneficial to them. Our main role is really to impact in a positive way when we work with tribes. Not to work with the tribe for the sake of working with them, but in the sense that we could do something that they feel confident is going to help with the process.
As a former chairman of the Yavapai Apache, you and your tribe were able to develop very significant economic independence. What do you attribute to those successes?
I think the successes are because of a consistent mindset of leadership and a commitment of the people to work toward being self-sufficient and self-governing. By exercising our sovereignty and really focusing on our community priorities, it really helped us as leaders to see that we needed to develop economic opportunities that provide for our citizens. Job opportunities, education, housing, the fund-amental basic needs of citizenry, really drives the idea and the expectation that we should be committing to a long thought of development in our community. I won’t take credit for any of that. It has been passed down from generation to generation. I was just happy to play a part in keeping that process moving forward.
How large of a role does gaming play in helping tribes achieve economic independence today?
For those tribes that have casinos, it is a huge impact on their independence because there is no other industry that I know of that can provide consistent revenue streams that gaming can. Because more tribes don’t have taxing, it’s difficult for them to generate a constant or annual revenue stream without having some kind of ongoing commercial profits. I think that gaming has been a huge impact and that it has provided the revenue stream needed to become independent.
How about the tribes who choose not to enter into gaming? What are some of the more successful efforts tribes can take?
(Many of) those tribes are in unique positions because they might have physical resources such as water or other opportunities. They might be in an area that’s ideal for manufacturing or some kind of other resource for the local community, but they also may be able to acquire businesses that are off reservation that can generate revenue for the reservation. They may not be in an area where gaming can make as large an impact as an urban area. But they still have some competitive advantages, such as tax incentives and no-tax zones on tribal land that provide incentives for joint venture opportunities or partnering opportunities, and they can do business off the tribal land that can bring revenue back to the tribe.
Has there been a significant role that gaming has played in improving tribal culture and customs?
I’ve always been a firm believer that economic development strengthens our ability to advance our cultures. Even though we are completely committed to our culture as tribes, the growth of programming and hiring staff, hiring experts and researchers to preservationists and archaeologists and folks like that, that’s a huge financial cost to the tribal system. So again, when it comes right down to it, the economy that is created from gaming has provided us the opportunity to utilize and hire the resources we need to preserve and maintain culture. That is from the governmental side. Within the community, culture is preserved because people have a sense of pride of being a successful tribal nation because there is an economy. It maybe develops a sense of pride where people are more likely to want to get involved in cultural priorities.
There is more public recognition of tribes as well.
Sure. The tribe becomes not only a player in a region but sometimes the top employer or the most giving donation contributor. Through being a good neighbor, people become interested in the culture. It provides us an opportunity to promote that level of awareness internally as well.
As tribes become increasingly successful, they seem to find their sovereignty under attack. What examples have you seen of this and how can these issues be addressed?
There are always going to be attacks on sovereignty, but with our resources, we can make certain we have the legal support services that we need, hire the best lawyers that we can to stand our position. We can internally develop strong, formal governmental structures that acknowledge us and protect us as sovereign, self-governing nations. We also can make assurances that we have fair and equitable systems because we have taken the time to make formal structures and pass laws of self-governance that can assure those who fight against our sovereignty that we do have strong systems, and we can defend against those who are adamant on taking away our sovereignty.
How can tribes better present themselves in the political and socially- conscious arenas?
Each tribe is unique in its own world view, and I respect that. Some tribes are more isolated on purpose. I do think that the best thing we can do is educate folks about why we have the unique relationship with the United States and where it stems from. There is always the confusion that we have special advantage in America, but the reality is we have a disadvantage because we’re the only ones that really have to answer to the United States for making decisions on our best interest. I think when people think there is some sort of racial advantage, that’s not the case. The case is that there is a constitutional and treaty history between tribes of the United States and the United States of America. In my experience, I don’t think a lot of people generally know that. It’s a topic that still requires more attention. It isn’t taught in the history books. They mention Thanksgiving dinner, but there isn’t a discussion of why that dinner happened and what its purpose was.
Is it important for tribes to diversify beyond gambling as quickly as possible?
I think it’s always been important. We have more opportunities than we’ve ever had, basically because there is more willingness on behalf of financial institutions to lend to the tribes; there is more willingness to do business on tribal lands than there has historically been. I think tribes themselves are better equipped now with capable staff and experts or the resources to bring in experts to get things accomplished. I believe that diversification is a necessary movement for tribes. I also think there is another piece of diversification: developing entrepreneurship on tribal lands. There needs to be more attention on developing small business so that the tribal government isn’t the sole responsible party for doing development on tribal lands.
What areas of partnerships and business opportunities are proving the most fruitful for the tribes today?
I think that it’s such a diverse area - you’ve got some tribes that have developed further along in the hospitality arena because they’ve learned a lot from gaming, and they’re able to take that hospitality business off reservation. We’ve seen some tribes that have done a great job of developing manufacturing partnerships where a nontribal partner is able to bring some value to the table and the tribe itself is able to use its land base or resources as its own tribal value. I’ve seen some tribes move into the high-tech arena. One thing that has been attacked lately, but there is not enough of, is federal government contracting by tribes partnering with the federal government.
Isn’t there some energy development going on right now in that regard?
There is a lot of discussion about energy, and I think it’s probably one of the things that will be the next movement early in the 21st century here. We see oil prices going up, the cost of electricity, natural gas … our reliance on outside resources for that is a huge opportunity. I don’t think it’s fully matured yet, from my point of view, but I’m fortunate that I at least get a good snapshot on some of the boards that I’m on that it is ripe for moving forward that way.
Can you give me some examples on some tribes that you’ve seen that have had real success in diversifying their economies?
Some of the tribes that are well established and are really leaders on the forefront are obviously the Seminoles and their diversification into the hotels; the Mississippi Choctaw are well known for their manufacturing and development diversification; Chickasaw Nation has CNI (Chickasaw Nation Industries) which has done some great things with mergers and acquisitions. I could speak of a whole host of others. Every tribe is doing something that is adding value to their system. I’m seeing a lot of different growth in a lot of different areas. Tourism is an area that’s being advanced in Arizona by some of the tribes. There’s also industries like forestry and fishing up in the Northwest.
There are some American Indians that have criticized gaming as being an affront to tribal culture and tradition. How would you respond to that?
I don’t believe that at all. I think tribal traditions and customs are passed down in the family. The tribal government’s responsibility is to protect that right by the family to pass those down. The best way we can do that and protect that is by generating resources to educate our people, provide healthcare and housing, opportunity for jobs, to ensure that our younger generations have a place in our societies. I do think there is, in some cases, an effect of moving into a middle class nature that you take on some of the middle class values that are more Western in their thought. A lot of times, people confuse traditional thinking with historical ways. For example, traditionally we lived in wikiups. I don’t think people today would choose a wikiup over amenities like indoor plumbing and cooking. Some people would argue that was a cultural value, but I think it was a necessity. The cultural value is that we are adaptable people. I can only speak to my own heritage, of course, but we have the ability to adapt in the face of adversity and to learn and grow from those things.
What is your end goal with Blue Stone Strategy Group? What do you hope to achieve?
For the company, we’d like to be the advisor of choice for Indian Country economic development. But from a more humanitarian mindset, I hope we can impact economic development in Indian Country in a way that benefits and bridges some of the historical gaps between mainstream business and business on tribal lands so that we can create opportunities by having strong planning and development and reaching out to financial opportunities that have historically not been available to tribes.
Jamie Fullmer is chairman and CEO of Blue Stone Strategy Group, a consulting firm dedicated to the on-going support of Indian Country economic advancement. He is dedicated to a powerful belief: clear vision guides the leadership and development that is essential to fueling strong Native communities now and into the future. Fullmer founded Blue Stone Strategy Group to provide business consulting to tribal leadership and enterprises working with tribes. The company’s focus is on sound analysis and strategic planning for economic growth in Indian Country. Prior to starting Blue Stone Strategy Group, Fullmer served as the chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, located in Camp Verde, Ariz., for two consecutive terms. During his tenure there, Fullmer had oversight responsibility of the tribal government and all business holdings of the Yavapai-Apache Nation and initiated a comprehensive tribal government strategic plan that encompassed key areas of sustainability, including economic development and diversification, education, fiscal planning and community development. Before becoming tribal chairman, he worked for the tribe as its director of health and human services and directed all of the Nation’s social and health programs. He was instrumental in starting up the tribe’s Yavapai-Apache Health Center. Fullmer also served for two years as president of the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, and he is currently on the boards of the National Inter-Tribal Economic Alliance, the Northern Arizona University Native American Advisory Council and Native Home Capital. In June 2007, the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) honored Fullmer with the First American Tribal Leadership Award, which recognizes outstanding leadership and contributions to American Indian economic and business development. Fullmer recently took time to speak with Casino Journal Editor Andy Holtmann about his new venture with Blue Stone Strategy Group.
Executive Q&A: Jamie l. Fullmer, Chairman and Ceo, Blue Stone Strategy Group
April 25, 2008