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Native Corporations ‘Pass the Torch’

Rising leaders of the new generation

Forty years after regional and village Native corporations were created by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971, the mantle of leadership in those corporations is being passed on to the next generation.

“You see it within the regional corporation structure, this passing of the torch,” says Bristol Bay Native Corp. president and chief executive officer Jason Metrokin. “At the village level there has now become a passing of the torch, but the pool of ready-made recipients is not as great as it could be.”

Metrokin, who was hired on to the corporation’s top leadership position in 2009, replaced retired president and CEO Hjalmar Olson, who had led the company in that role for roughly three decades. Metrokin was the first Alaska Native leader born after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to step into the top position at a regional corporation.

“I was this young punk a few years ago and somebody said, ‘Hey let’s give this guy a chance—he has potentially the makings of a leader,’” says Metrokin, who was BBNC’s public relations director before he was president and CEO. “You don’t know until you put a person in that leadership position; there’s always a risk. And somebody was willing to give me that chance. I think we need to do more of that.”

 

Leading a New Generation

As the next generation of Alaska Native leaders steps into their role at regional and village corporations, the shareholders they serve are increasingly comprised of the next generation as well. Sophie Minich, who will become Cook Inlet Region Inc. president and CEO in January 2013, says the number of shareholders in the regional corporation has grown considerably in the last 40 years.

At CIRI’s inception, it had 6,278 shareholders, says Jim Jager, director, corporate communications. As of July of this year, that number had grown to 8,102.

He says that, while original shareholders each had 100 shares, younger shareholders who have received shares through gift or by will of shareholder relatives tend to have fewer shares. That’s because original shareholders often distribute shares to multiple relatives. It means that younger shareholders are likely to have 10 or 20 shares in the company rather than 100.

“Several shareholders own a small number of shares in the company. We will work hard to make those shares meaningful to them,” Minich says.

At the same time, the number of non-Native shareholders in CIRI has increased in 40 years from zero to 555. Non-Native shareholder receive dividends the same as Native shareholders, but do not vote to elect board members at shareholder meetings, Jager says. Shares must go to Native relatives if they are gifted during the shareholder’s life time, he says, but in a will they could be bequeathed to anyone. Some of CIRI’s shareholders are even nonprofit organizations, Minich says, because original shareholders have bequeathed shares to charities they cared about.

Originally, Alaska Native people were eligible to become shareholders in their regional and village corporations if they were born before Dec. 18, 1971. People born after that date typically receive shares only by gift or inheritance. The issue of whether and how to open any given corporations’ stock to the next generation is one that all Native corporations must face, Metrokin says.

“Some of the impacts to our financial wherewithal need to be considered, but ultimately our descendants of original shareholders are very important stakeholders for us,” he says. “We have taken our time to figure out the enrollment of new shareholders, but I’ve told our staff this needs to be a year where we educate our shareholders on how this can be done.”

Some Alaska Native corporations, such as Doyon Ltd., have already opened enrollment to younger eligible shareholders.

Connie Downing, Tyonek Native Corp.’s new director of lands and operations, has been in her position just two months and is also a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She says it’s important for the younger generation of leaders and shareholders to have an understanding of the history behind ANCSA and how Alaska Native Corporations were developed.

It will be important for new Native leaders at the village and regional corporations to keep in mind the concerns of shareholders and descendants living in rural Alaska, Downing says.

“Balancing healthy lands with other business, being able to provide business opportunities for shareholders,” is important, says Downing, who grew up in the village of Tyonek. “There are a lot of shareholders who live in the village, and we need to do what we can to help them.”

 

Forging into the Future

The changes ANCSA corporations have weathered in the short 40 years since their inception are extraordinary, Metrokin says.

“In 1995, (BBNC) had $100 million in revenue and one subsidiary company,” he says. “Today, in FY2012, we had almost $2 billion in revenue, with over 40 subsidiary companies. The sheer growth is significant, and to manage a business based on all its successes, to grow into a $2 billion company with as many operations as we have all over the world, is no small task.”

Minich says CIRI has also seen a great deal of change in its size and business activities.

“We’ve had tremendous growth, which has required a lot of learning of new industries and the various complexities that come with those industries and the people,” Minich says. “We’ve changed from an investment company to an operations company. It’s been a challenge to keep up with that.”

Part of keeping pace means making sure there are enough training and education programs for shareholders, descendants and other employees, Metrokin says.

“We need to work smarter at finding opportunities for more shareholders to be employed with BBNC,” he says. “We need to build a better shareholder development system by increasing our investments locally in Bristol Bay and other parts of Alaska.”

Downing, another rising leader, has similar goals. “I want to build up shareholders to be able to take my position and other positions within the company,” she says.

A new step in that direction is a first-ever training program that Tyonek Native Corp. will host this fall at its headquarters in Anchorage, in a partnership with Alaska Pacific University. The series of classes will provide training in writing and office skills, and be made available to Tyonek Native Corp. as well as staff at Tyonek Village Council via videoconference.

Downing says the corporation will invite other ANCSA corporations to participate as well, if the classes don’t fill up with Tyonek employees and shareholders.

“Whoever hasn’t been to college before can benefit from working in a group,” Downing says.

Thom Leonard, Calista’s communications manager since December 2010, says that creating a track for young Alaska Native people to become the corporation’s workers and leaders of tomorrow is vital for steering Calista into a successful future.

“One of my strong beliefs is to support and help grow future Native leaders,” Leonard says. In particular, he says, he thinks it’s important to hire more people who are from the Calista region and speak their Native language.

“I would love to be able to train and hire my replacement who is a Native speaker,” he says.

Leonard says it’s also going to be a challenge to communicate to the wider public about how greatly Alaska Native Corporations benefit those shareholders and descendants, in the midst of recent attacks against ANC’s 8(a) status.

“One of the biggest challenges Alaska Native Corporations are going to face is the unnecessary attacks on the 8(a) program,” he says. “The various contracts that not only Calista but the other regional and village corporations provide, those profits go back into and affect the lives of Alaska Natives all across the state.”

Minich says maintaining CIRI’s growth while also continuing to provide services under its nonprofit agencies will be a major challenge going into the future. CIRI started numerous nonprofit agencies, such as Cook Inlet Housing, Southcentral Foundation and Cook Inlet Tribal Council, which provide services to all Alaska Natives and some non-Natives as well, Jager says.

“At the end of the day, we’re always going to be an Alaska Native Corporation,” Metrokin says. “We can use conventional wisdom to support our business decisions, which we very much do. But we also keep in mind that uniqueness of being an Alaska Native Corporation. We’ll never lose sight of that.”

 

 

Mary Lochner is a journalist living in Eagle River.

This article first appeared in the September 2012 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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