Buy Alaskan? How about Shop Shareholders
From buying coffee that supports military veterans and law enforcement to wearing clothing brands that benefit Ethiopian former sex-trade workers, the choices for conscious consumerism are dizzying. “Buy local” is another way shoppers can support their beliefs, supporting friends and neighbors. The state-run “Made in Alaska” program provides a relatively easy way for makers to promote the Alaska authenticity of their goods. How about getting even more local?
Alaska Native corporations have launched shareholder directories that allow members and nonmembers to look up and support businesses owned by other corporation shareholders or descendants. Unlike the consumer-focused mindset of purchasing goods, the directories let service-related businesses tap into the “buy local” mindset—not just offering handmade items but also directing users toward Native-owned lawn services, event planning, accounting: everything under the Midnight Sun.
Member directories aren’t a new idea; following the advent of the telephone came the yellow pages, city business directories, and collections such as Dun & Bradstreet’s Reference Book of American Business.
Alaska Native corporations (ANCs) offering searchable directories for shareholder businesses and their descendants is a relatively recent addition to the “business directory” format.
Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) is a pioneer in the field. Prior to 2021, BBNC offered a list of shareholder businesses on its webpage, says Carmell Engebretson, BBNC’s director of communications. There wasn’t much to it, she says; it was a list of shareholder business names and contact information. BBNC significantly revamped the webpage in 2021, allowing users to search by keywords, locations, or business category.
“It really started as part of a larger strategy to elevate our shareholders and the influence they have, not only in Bristol Bay but beyond,” Engebretson says. “Our ongoing priority is to support our shareholders, and this seemed like a natural fit to help promote the great things they are doing across Alaska and beyond.”
The idea is pretty simple, and similar, across the board for other ANCs: fill out a short form listing the kind of information that might be found on a business card, attach a brief description of the business and a few photos, and submit it to the corporation. Staff check out the submissions, verify that the business is owned by a shareholder or a shareholder descendant, and the business is added to the corporation’s online directory. Most directories include shareholder descendants and spouses, not just limiting it to shareholders.
It’s simple to add to and update, Engebretson says. That’s the point.
“We get submissions pretty regularly. Right now we have more than 150 businesses on our site,” she says. “We get pretty constant submissions. It doesn’t take much work on our end or their end, really, to get their business listed.”
Engebretson says there are no plans to add a printed directory; the online directory offers a much more updated—and updatable—format.
Working Together for Individual Success
Thom Leonard, vice president of corporate affairs for Calista Corporation, says Calista launched its online shareholder and descendant directory in December 2022 after a suggestion from a regional economic development group of which Calista is a member.
“Small businesses can really drive communities,” he says.
Taking tips from established directories, such as those operated by BBNC and Bering Straits Native Corporation (BSNC), Leonard and his team developed an attractive directory featuring thumbnail photographs of each business which, when clicked on, take readers to another page for more information.
Calista’s directory, Calivika, which means “my workplace” in Yup’ik, currently includes nearly sixty businesses, including shareholder businesses in six other states.
“It’s fun to see that broad reach,” Leonard says.
Leonard says the corporation hopes to quickly grow the number of businesses represented. Information about Calivika was available at Fur Rondy and Bethel’s Cama-i Dance Festival, and it will likely be available at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference. Calista also placed advertisements in The Delta Discovery newspaper.
Rolf Christiansen, a carver from Old Harbor, sells artwork from his Red Raven Creations through retailers like the Alutiiq Museum Store. He’s also the face of koniagbizdirectory.com, the top image on the corporation’s website.
“We have plans to do a lot more campaigns to encourage others to sign up,” Leonard says. “We developed a QR code, so when we hand out postcards, people can go right to the website and enter information that way.”
Leonard says Calista wants the directory to be as dynamic and useful as possible.
“Being able to provide for yourself is something that is very culturally strong,” he says. “Being able to support [shareholders] in different ways, like doing this website, is very important.”
The BSNC directory is also used to find businesses that might place young shareholders as summer interns. “In these mentorship activities, business owners provide valuable information on business ownership and entrepreneurship to our interns,” says associate communications director Ana Grayson.
Koniag, Incorporated has offered two pages promoting shareholder businesses for at least eight years, says Stacey Simmons, senior director of shareholder services. It wasn’t as searchable as BBNC’s, so Simmons recently decided to revamp the listings, bringing two pages together and giving the Koniag directory a more functional spin.
Koniag partnered with public relations firm Strategies 360 to create the new website, which features stunning photography for each business category.
“I said, ‘I wanted to reflect our people and to be a useful resource,’” Simmons says. “We have beautiful vibrant photos that really represent our home.”
The website also has a link to the Alutiiq Museum, which sells shareholder art. In the future, Simmons says, Koniag will have a “featured business” area. For now, she’s focusing on growing the directory beyond its current twenty-five businesses—and doing so in a particularly Kodiak fashion.
“We’re using all forms of communication to get our shareholders and descendants to register their businesses. We did a piece in the Kodiak Daily Mirror recently, there was a radio piece, and we’re using our social media,” she says. “Now we’re getting creative, whether it’s cold-calling shareholders or having our team call their family members to get them registered. A core goal of Koniag’s is to improve economic opportunity for shareholders, descendants, and more broadly in our region; the business directory is one way to advance that goal.”
It’s not just for Alaskans, she points out; it is open to businesses owned by shareholders and descendants in Alaska and the Lower 48.
“We hope joining the business directory will help some shareholders and descendants become more engaged in the corporation they own,” Simmons says.
As the Christmas shopping season nears, Simmons says she hopes to highlight two or three businesses from the directory online and promote them in Koniag’s shareholder newsletters.
BBNC also features shareholder businesses monthly on social media and in its quarterly newsletters and runs online ads during the holidays to boost directory visitors.
Shareholder spotlights are something many directories do—and even several ANCs without directories feature shareholder businesses. Boosting Alaska Native craftspeople is a natural thing during Christmas, when many Alaskans want to send handmade, uniquely Alaskan items to friends and family. Engebretson says BBNC’s website has seen 22,000 unique page visits, and during the holiday season it saw a boost with each visitor spending an average of two minutes on the page—an eternity in internet time.
Nick McDonald, whose Kraken Shirt Company is listed in the Koniag directory, says an article in The Aleut Corporation’s “The Aleutian Current” newsletter in July provided an unexpected result: his friends and family members flooded him with calls to say they liked the article, in which he shares some of his personal struggles that led him to become a screen printer in Anchorage.
Nick McDonald’s screen printing machine, with several appendages and cords spilling out of its core, became known as The Kraken, which suggested the name for his business. Kraken Shirt Company is listed in the directory for Koniag shareholders; however, McDonald is reorganizing to become Alyeska Outfitters Inc.
It’s difficult to identify exactly where customer traffic comes from, McDonald says. In the thick of tending to customers, it can be difficult to remember to ask how they heard about his company, so it’s difficult to say if he’s received business as a result of the Koniag shareholder directory listing. “That’s one of the toughest things, is trying to make sure I ask, because it’s important to know where [customers are] coming from,” he says.
One thing is for sure: no matter how a customer finds a business, treat them right and they’ll likely come back for more. The story in “The Aleutian Current” mentions a client in Unalaska who, unhappy with an out-of-state printer, tried McDonald’s business. Happy with his work, that’s where she returns, job after job.
In the summer, McDonald was in the process of moving his shop and partnering with another business to become Alyeska Outfitters in Anchorage.
Listings for Koniag’s business directory include fly-in lodges, an auto repair shop, and resources for training phlebotomists, all owned by the corporation’s shareholders. Also there is Jeff Peterson’s seafood retailer, Peterson Plus, which sells his Kodiak Combos brand.
Promoting shareholder- and descendant-owned businesses is definitely one function of directories, but they also support ANCs themselves. The bigger corporations need goods and services, too—office artwork, a plumber, someone to help coordinate a conference in a village. The directory is where ANCs turn.
BSNC has a procurement preference policy for companies that are shareholder-owned or employ a large number of shareholders. In October 2021, BSNC’s Shareholder Development Department began collecting data on shareholder-owned businesses to support this preference, Grayson says.
For example, BSNC connected with Fish On Camp Grill, which has operated a salmon bake at the Alaska State Fair, to cater a corporate picnic. And when the snowfall got deeper and deeper in Anchorage last winter, Grayson says BSNC shareholders reached out to Xavier Topkok, owner/operator of Plow Now AK, after seeing his business in the corporation’s February newsletter.
Topkok, whose business is also listed on Facebook Marketplace, says it was an unexpected blessing to be highlighted by BSNC. He’s tried other promotional methods before—radio ads and different media—and wasn’t sure it paid off. “I didn’t really believe in the positive reaction from word of mouth, but it is really reactive, especially with social media,” he says.
Topkok prides himself on being a lifelong Alaskan, having grown up in Spenard. It’s not easy to find lifelong Alaskans, he says, and many of his competitors have deep pockets and are financed Outside. The boost from BSNC helped.
“The highlight from Bering Straits was really nice. It does go a long way,” he says. “It gives small non-corporate businesses a chance to shine. You never know what kind of residual work you can get out of it. For seasonal operators like me, every little bit can help.”