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Leadership series: Working in two worlds

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

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A Native American businessman blazes a path for tribal business that reaches beyond the reservation.

By Christina Williams

Lynn "Bear" Robertson is a Grand Ronde tribal member and co-owner of Spirit of the Bear, a McMinville-based wildfire and general forestry contracting business. He didn't come by his nickname in the way one might guess.


"I was one of those kids who didn't much like to wear clothes," says Robertson with a sly smile. "I changed the spelling of the name when I got older."

Robertson's build, however, suggests the animal, so the tag suits him just fine. It also suits the business he runs with the help of his wife and brother. Like a bear, Robertson isn't afraid of going his own way.

Spirit of the Bear is a small business with a broad reach. It was started in 2003, depleting the retirement accounts of Robertson and his wife, Jennifer Orlowski-Robertson (the pair met on a fire crew in 2000). With $250,000 they launched a sustainable forestry com-pany with a focus on forest management and firefighting. The business is based on expertise Robertson honed while working in the forestry department for his tribe, where managing the forestland through planting, maintenance and pruning, helped keep the land productive — before sustainability was a buzzword.  

"People say 'sustainability' in their cheek, trying to be popular," Robertson says. "I knew it growing up."

The Robertsons' intention is to build a business that brings a Native American timber management approach to jobs both on and off the reservation. It's a small operation — just 28 employees during last summer's busy season and revenue last year of about  $200,000 — and it's just one of dozens of forestry-related contractors out there. But Spirit of the Bear is a much larger statement about the future direction for tribal businesses.

"The Roberstons' business is a metaphor for our mission, for what we mean when we talk about private enterprise in Indian Country," says Tom Hampson, executive director of ONABEN (see THE TRIBAL APPROACH, above), a Native American entrepreneurial support and education group.

Hampson sees ONABEN's role as a bridge that provides a way for tribal businesses to grow beyond the reservation by serving a greater constituency and building a stronger economy for both the tribe and the region. The idea, Hampson says, is to bring tribal values — in Robertson's case sustainable forestry — along with them on the journey and to build up the confidence necessary to thrive in both worlds.

"It's fascinating to see the tribes wrestling with local and global economic issues," Hampson says. "They have to ask both what's profitable and what's consistent with the cultural values that they espouse."

The 41-year-old entrepreneur Robertson has worked it out pretty well for himself, helped along by the fact that sustainable forest practices are now in vogue well beyond tribal lands. "I walk in both worlds and we cater to both of them," says Robertson.

ROBERTSON GREW UP IN THE WOODS. His mother, a full-blooded Grand Ronde (Robertson is half), took the toddler with her to gather sword fern and moss that she picked with lightning speed and sold to florists. Later he worked with his father's logging company, learning how to take down trees with precision and grace.

As a child he grew up around plenty of tribal members, his mother's family, but without a formal tribe — the Grand Ronde was one of 62 Oregon tribes terminated by the federal government in the 1950s. He was a young man when friends and members of his extended family raised money through bake sales to send advocates to Washington to win tribal re-establishment in 1983. At the time he wrote a letter to then-Gov. Vic Atiyeh extolling the virtues of careful forest management as a way to preserve timber jobs.

In the mid-'90s, Robertson took a job at the tribe. He trained in firefighting and spent days on the forest crew and some nights and weekends dealing blackjack and waiting tables at the Grand Ronde's Spirit Mountain Casino. In his day job he worked his way up to contract officer representative, managing the tribe's forest contractors, but he knew his days working at the tribe were numbered. "My ambition was elsewhere," is how Robertson puts it.

His personality also wasn't suited to playing tribal politics. It may be easy to elicit a grin from Robertson, but don't mistake him for the kind of easygoing guy who will bite his tongue and go with the flow. Robertson says he was quick to call out the people he called "tribal brats," children of prominent tribal leaders, for not doing their share of the work. "That's just the way I am," he says. "I won't work with anybody who won't work."

When he left his job with the tribe to go out on his own, he knew enough about the forestry contracting business to know he could probably carve out a comfortable enough niche for himself just working with the tribe, but he quickly rejected that business model. "Do that and you're just getting by," he says. "For me, that's not exciting."

Instead, Spirit of the Bear works for all kinds of clients including the U.S. Forest Service, private landowners and Native American tribes in Washington and Oregon. When he does reservation work he usually cuts a deal with reservation leadership to put members of their tribe to work alongside his own crew.

And his crew? It's practically a Native American United Nations with employees representing the Grand Ronde, Colville, Warm Springs, Shoshone, Siletz and Quin-ault tribes. "We hire nontribal people," Robertson says mischievously, "if they can keep up."

Reverting to seriousness, Robertson explains his penchant for working with the region's tribes. "It's not a race issue for me. We can benefit each other so much more if we work with each other." Robertson says the tribes are eager to work with him when he's giving jobs to their members and not just showing up as a contractor to take money and move on. And for him, hiring local workers is just less overhead for his business.

ONABEN's Hampson likes to use Spirit of the Bear — Robertson took training classes through ONABEN — as an example of a successful business with ties to several tribes. He says intertribal trade, while it doesn't always make financial sense, harkens back to the days when tribes met at places like Celilo Falls and the huckleberry fields on Mt. Adams to trade with each other. "We've come to understand that these traditions and stories have importance and we see ourselves as a catalyst to re-establish some of those business contacts," Hampson says.  

Jeff Nepstad, protection resources coordinator for the Grand Ronde tribe's natural resources department, attests to Spirit of the Bear's advantage. All things being equal, the tribe would rather work with an Indian-owned company. And Robertson's business apparently has somewhat of a corner on that description. "We haven't had any other Native American companies bid on our jobs," Nepstad says.

Robertson's tribal ties and sustainable forestry practices are also attractive to Portland-based Ecotrust, which is considering Spirit of the Bear as a contractor to manage some forestland in Washington acquired by Ecotrust Forests, a new investment fund. (See INVESTING IN TREES, p. 14.)

"We want to work with him because we're building on our relationship with the tribes and how that relates to the land and good forestry," says Kent Goodyear, director of market connections for Ecotrust's forestry program.

THE WINTER AND EARLY SPRING MONTHS used to be quiet times at Spirit of the Bear, but on a recent brisk morning, Robertson was on the job with his brother Ken Robertson and son Brandon Robertson, logging trees on a patch of private land destined for development at the edge of Wilsonville.

Spirit of the Bear takes down the trees and hauls them to the mill, which then sends the land owner a check for the value of the timber and another check to the company for its cut, about 40% of the total.

Robertson knows which mills to send which kinds of trees to and can size up their value in a blink of an eye. "See that one over there with the nice column base? That will get $725 per thousand board feet," he says. "That smaller one over there will only get $650."

Robertson is wearing street clothes — jeans, a patterned polo shirt and hiking boots — but when his brother, suited up in cork boots, protective rubber pants and a hard hat, calls him over for some help in taking down a tricky, towering Douglas fir pitched back at a funny angle, Bear trots over. Ken has his chainsaw halfway through the tree's trunk. Bear picks up an axe and with the blunt end, drives an orange plastic wedge into the cut: womp, womp, womp, womp, womp. The axe flies, the chainsaw drones, the tree sways into a thundering crash and Bear walks away with a grin.

Robertson may be the operations and marketing face of his company — he plans to swing by another new development under way across town and pass out cards in case the developer needs help with the timber on a nearby plot of land — but he still loves the physical work.

"We do things in a little different way," says Robertson, describing how he walks among the trees on a site and then tells the client what he thinks should be done. "It's not something that's written down on paper anywhere. But you know people who know the woods when you meet them."

The tribal approach

Support for would-be entrepreneurs is available under numerous umbrellas around the state. From the small-business development centers run by the federal government, to startup support from groups like the Oregon Entrepreneurs Forum to business education resources at colleges and universities, the entrepreneur is covered.

But what about the Native American entrepreneur? That was the question asked by ONABEN, a Tigard-based Native American business network, which launched its own entrepreneur’s training curriculum late last year called Indianpreneurship.

Tom Hampson, executive director of ONABEN, says the training program has given new energy to the organization — “We’re more than a business plan with feathers on it,” he says.

Indianpreneurship is built around classes and workshops and a story-based curriculum that builds on the shared heritage of the thriving, trade-based economies that used to exist between tribes.

Hampson says ONABEN, which received an award in November from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government for its enterprise development work, is getting a lot of inquiries about Indianpreneurship from tribes around the country and will sell the curriculum as a product and service.

ONABEN (originally an acronym for Oregon Native American Business and Entrepreneurial Network) was formed in 1993 by four of Oregon’s Native American tribes with a focus on encouraging private-sector growth. Its formation was prior to the establishment of the reservation casinos that have become cash cows — and sources of employment — for Pacific Northwest tribes.

“We predicted that as a result of gaming, entrepreneurship would increase, that with steady jobs and steady incomes, latent entrepreneurial ideas would start surfacing,” says Hampson. He reports anecdotal evidence from the ONABEN entrepreneurial training classes, populated with casino workers who bring a desire to branch out into a new kind of business. “Because something Native Americans haven’t had prior to the ’80s was the promise of a good job,” he says.

But beyond the casinos, Hampson would like to see more of a private sector emerging from Northwest reservations. “Our role is to bring the marketplace to them and bring them to the marketplace.”

 


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