If you were running a business and over time the U.S. government systematically took your assets, forced you to relocate to a very undesirable location and took away traditional means for your company’s survival, could you survive?
That’s precisely the story of the Forest County Potawatomi Tribe. The tribe’s history of business innovation and coming back from economic extinction is a story that all business leaders can learn from and appreciate. Business innovation helped the Potawatomi survive a neardeath experience and now prosper.
The Potawatomi name is a translation of the Ojibwe name meaning “keepers of the sacred fire.” At one time, the Potawatomi occupied and controlled much of the land around the Great Lakes in Wisconsin, Illinois, northern Indiana and even parts of Michigan. Many of the cities, towns and counties in southeastern Wisconsin have names derived from the Potawatomi language, including Milwaukee, Waukesha, Kenosha and Ozaukee.
The Potawatomi survival and growth was never a problem for centuries. However, we all know the story of Native American tribes being pushed off their lands as American pioneers started moving west.
Due to a series of treaties with the United States government spanning the 19th Century, the Potawatomi tribe was systematically disenfranchised of almost all its land. Most of the Potawatomi were forced to relocate west of the Mississippi on the infamous Trail of Death. Those who refused to leave Wisconsin were eventually forced onto a reservation in Forest County that had been stripped of most of its trees by logging companies.
Fast- forward to the 1960s when the federal government began to recognize the importance for making up for its past injustices. Federally subsidized programs such as Head Start, which helped impoverished and poor children on reservations to have access to quality education from an early age, helped many children to become leaders of Indian nations today.
By the late 1980s, the government adopted legislation regulating Indian gaming, which permitted the tribe to develop a new source of revenue. With virtually no business experience or training, the Potawatomi opened a bingo hall in Milwaukee in 1991, which proved successful.
The bingo hall’s success led the Potawatomi to expand the facility into a $120 million full-scale casino. That bold decision proved incredibly successful and eventually they added a $240 million expansion.
Today, the Potawatomi are building a $150 million hotel next to their Milwaukee casino.
What’s amazing about the Potawatomi’s recovery is the fact that they are now one of the most important drivers of economic development in southeastern Wisconsin. They currently employ approximately 2,600 people, ranking them among the top employers in the area. Today, the Potawatomi are expanding and diversifying their businesses and investments.
They launched the Potawatomi Business Development Corporation (PBDC) as the investment arm of the Forest County Potawatomi Community. The goal of the PBDC is to strategically diversify across a number of industries while at the same time generating revenue and improving the quality of life for the Potawatomi community. Some of the PBDC’s ventures include:
» One Prospect Technologies: One Prospect is a technology solutions Potawatomi Casino Hotel provider. Currently they work with Native American tribes, schools and companies through Wisconsin providing IT management and service programs. Future plans include development of strong business relationships with private industry clients and other tribes around the country.
»»Greenfire Management Services LLC: A wholly-owned construction management company that participates in all phases of the construction process from conceptual planning to project completion.
The tribe recently launched several new business ventures and construction projects in Milwaukee totaling more than $200 million of investment.
»Construction of a $150 million, 20-story hotel immediately adjacent to its casino. This will be a welcome addition to the skyline and attract new visitors to Milwaukee. It is expected to open summer 2014
»A $36 million data center being developed on Milwaukee’s near west side at the site of the former Concordia College. It will be leased to tenants needing secure, high-end data center space to store their critical information and data. There is currently no wholesale data center operation in the Milwaukee- area that has the level and scale of technology that would be utilized in
this project. The project is expected to be complete sometime this May.
»A $19 million bio-gas renewable energy facility that will convert liquid waste from restaurants and other commercial establishments to electricity. The facility will produce enough green energy to power about 1,500 homes and will be completed in fall 2013.
The Potawatomi’s single greatest lesson is: never to give up. As a business leader, you will never know what particular innovation will actually work.
By looking inward to your values and experimenting using a lean startup approach, you can discover new opportunities.
Passion and true belief alone will not ensure success. It must be coupled with true humility to learn a new business starting from scratch. The Forest County Potawatomi literally reinvented themselves.
As a result the Forest County Potawatomi people are thriving today, and they’re having a positive impact on their communities from southeastern Wisconsin to Forest County. And even more, the tribe has been able to keep their heritage alive and ensure it is passed from generation to generation.
What is critical to the survival of any company is to be able to answer the question: Why do you exist? Once you understand that, you can innovate around those core values.
America truly is a land of second chances.
A once defeated Indian nation is now contributing to the vitality and strength of our economy.