Koniag, Inc.’s CEO Dr. Elizabeth Perry
‘Sharing the catch’
Dr. Elizabeth Perry in Koniag’s Anchorage office; in the foreground is a beaded headdress made by Alutiiq artist and Koniag descendant Kayla Christiansen.
@ Judy Patrick Photography
In May, Koniag, Inc.’s Board of Directors added to their existing core values—planning for the long term, celebrating our heritage and culture, embracing diversity, being open and honest, and having pride in our work—the newest core value: sharing the catch. The Summer 2017 Quliyanguapet, the Native Regional Corporation’s newsletter, explains, “‘Sharing the Catch’ is a core value rooted in the act of sharing. Sharing embodies the Alutiiq cultural values of generosity and selflessness. In Alutiiq communities, providers share their catch with others, and all community members are valued for the various ways they do so. As a community, Alutiiq people celebrate the sacrifice and commitment of our providers, honor our interdependence on each other, and remember that resources must be sustained to catch—or provide—for future generations.”
A Social and Cultural Mission
Elizabeth Perry, PhD, explains it was the company’s values that drew her to her current position as Koniag’s CEO, which she took on in March of 2014. “I was delighted to be able to do this work on behalf of a higher purpose. Giving back to the Alaska Native community and the Kodiak community is inspiring. Being able to work for a corporation with a social and cultural mission is truly energizing.”
Perry is originally from the Seattle area of the Pacific Northwest. As a child Perry and her family moved to Arizona, where her father worked as a professor. After graduating from college, Perry went on to earn her PhD in Anthropology. While gaining her doctorate in Arizona, she worked with many Native American communities in the Southwest and Western United States. “I fell in love with working for indigenous communities,” says Perry. “I found that these communities shared my personal commitment to cultural preservation, servant leadership, and giving back.”
From there, she says, “instead of taking an academic route, I chose to take a consulting route. There was a fair amount of demand for scientific consultants to perform work to help comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. So I turned my education more to a business focus, working in anthropology and archaeology in support of regulatory compliance. We worked with tribes, we worked with Native American communities, we worked with industry, and we worked with government agencies.”
It was in that capacity that Perry moved back to Seattle, and from there her work gradually expanded into Alaska. “We worked on a number of airport expansion projects in Alaska, and I began to become acquainted with the Alaska business community—of course Alaska Native Corporations—and formed many relationships and friendships in Alaska. When the Koniag opportunity came up, I was really excited to join the team.”
Perry says that when she began in 2014, her first priority was to continue the financial turnaround initiated by the Board. She says she was hired to “drive performance in our operating companies and create financial strength and stability.” And she did just that. Fiscal Year 2017 will be the fourth consecutive year for which Koniag reports net earnings growth. Even more impressive is the fact that Koniag’s growth has taken place during a period when Alaska’s economy has been optimistically described as uncertain. Many companies are looking to diversify and expand; conversely, Perry says one of the keys to Koniag’s turnaround was taking a hard look at their diversification. While diversification can provide stability when one market fluctuates, Perry points out that too much diversification can be expensive to maintain. “The challenge was making choices to divest of some assets and invest in others so that our overall portfolio of companies and other investments was well-balanced and had a reasonable amount of risk, but not too much,” Perry says.
“Moving forward, our goals are about continuing to grow profits, continuing to invest so that we can grow financially, sustainably, and predictably,” she says. “Ultimately, we need predictable financial growth to be able to fulfill the social and cultural aspects of our mission. We need to protect our lands, advocate for our communities, and provide benefits to our shareholders and descendants,” explains Perry. “All of those things require a stable and continuous earning stream.”
One example of Koniag’s forward movement is their expansion of services through a new subsidiary. In the Summer 2017 Quliyanguapet, Koniag announced that its newest subsidiary—Kadiak LLC, established in March 2016—was awarded its first contract in spring 2017. Kadiak is the newest addition to Koniag’s government services sector and provides federal contracting compliance and management, tribal sovereignty and law, and cultural and environmental resource management. “We’re impressed because their first contract was $3 million to conduct tribal court assessments in rural Alaska for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We’re pleased because Kadiak’s business focus aligns with our corporate values,” says Perry. “Most importantly, Kadiak’s President, Gordon Pullar, is a Koniag shareholder who understands the important work tribal courts do across rural Alaska.”
Shareholder and Region Support
“At the end of the day, we do what we do for our shareholders,” says Perry. “They are the reason we get up in the morning.” To this end, in 2016 Koniag donated $374,000 to The Koniag Education Foundation, which provides student scholarships. Koniag has also donated to the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository, the Alaska Native Heritage Center, tribes in the Koniag region, and other organizations that work to support the Koniag region. Two new programs have been initiated at Koniag this year: the Richard Frost Youth Scholarship Program provides shareholder and descendent K-12 students with funding to attend training or camps, and a burial assistance program helps offset burial expenses for Koniag shareholders. Perry’s commitment to Koniag’s higher purpose doesn’t stop at shareholder benefits.
“I believe the best leaders enable the next generation to lead,” says Perry. “We have enormously talented shareholders and descendants who contribute to our success now and will continue to do so as our future leaders.” Within the parent company, 63 percent of Koniag’s employees are Alaska Native and 57 percent are shareholders or descendants. “We have a strong bench of Alaska Native and shareholder and descendent leadership,” Perry says. “At the executive level, shareholder Shauna Hegna leads our shareholder services and lands departments and shareholder Tom Panamaroff leads our regional and legislative affairs.”
“Koniag has a responsibility to care for the economic, cultural, and social well-being of our shareholders,” says Hegna. “Providing jobs and scholarships are just some of the ways we do that. Ultimately, our goal is to provide benefits for our shareholders from birth to death.”
Perry explains that regional advocacy is another priority for Koniag and a part of their corporate mission. According to the company, “Koniag’s lands are spread across the archipelago from the Sturgeon River Basin and Uyak Bays in southwest Kodiak Island to the northern peninsulas of Afognak Island.” Shareholder and Koniag Executive Tom Panamaroff says: “When we look at challenges in our region, we look at them from the perspective of our village communities. There are six villages on the island with populations ranging from under 100 to approximately 200. The biggest challenges facing these communities are their viability and sustainability. As the regional ANCSA Corporation, Koniag has a responsibility to support and enhance the lives of our shareholders in the villages, and we do so by being a leader in advocating on their behalf on issues important to them.”
The company also launched a Regional Advocacy Plan to support initiatives that will positively impact Koniag shareholders, such as ensuring access to subsistence resources and access to the Alaska Marine Highway System. “Our shareholders are at the heart of why we do what we do at Koniag,” says Perry. “We are honored that we are in a financial position to provide more programs for them.”
Perry says, “My favorite part of this role is the impact that we can potentially have on our Kodiak community and on current and future generations of shareholders and descendants. Being able to engage face-to-face with our shareholders and talk to them about their vision and hopes for the corporation and for future generations—being able to really have that personal connection is what I like most.”
This isn’t surprising because Perry believes that the purpose of leadership is to serve. She says, “Humility is an important quality of servant leadership, as is pride in the mission and the purpose of the organization… If as a leader you’re not showing trust and empathy and a sincere desire to collaborate, I don’t think you can expect that from everyone else in your organization. I’m always amazed by how much people are willing to reciprocate and devote their time and energy and their heart to their work if they feel like they’re truly being heard and understood and appreciated. A CEO should be a servant of their organization, its shareholders, and its stakeholders.”
Tasha Anderson is the Associate Editor for Alaska Business.
This article first appeared in the September 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.