Published in Economic Development
M&A Awards: Mitchell helms Waséyabek through  M&A-fueled growth spurt COURTESY PHOTO

M&A Awards: Mitchell helms Waséyabek through M&A-fueled growth spurt

BY Sunday, February 27, 2022 06:28pm

Deidra Mitchell looks back on 2021 as a pivotal year in many ways for Waséyabek Development Co., the Grand Rapids-based investment arm of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi.

Following some board turnover and internal repositioning during the first nine months of the year, the tribally owned company stacked three deals into the fourth quarter that proved meaningful for very different reasons.

The accelerated pace of dealmaking in the tail end of the year “was definitely a heavy lift,” especially when combined with the company’s typical year-end audits, said Mitchell, who has served as president and CEO of Waséyabek since April 2016. 


Deidra Mitchell

President and CEO of Waséyabek Development Co.

Annual sales: Did not disclose

Company description: Grand Rapids-based Waséyabek Development Co. serves as the non-gaming investment arm of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi. The holding company’s portfolio includes a commercial division, federal contracting, and real estate holdings. Across all divisions, Waséyabek employs 400 people.

Advisers: Dickinson Wright PLLC, BDO USA LLP, Huntington Bank

“I have to brag about the staff because we had a conversation that started like, ‘Well, about the holidays: We’re going to be really busy at the end of the year,’” Mitchell told MiBiz. “Everybody just really stepped up to the plate and we were able to roll over some vacation time so people could then, after the first of the year, take a little breather and recover from that. But everybody just did a great job and gave their very best and we got a lot of things accomplished.”

For the first time, Waséyabek moved up-market to acquire Safari Circuits Inc., an Otsego-based middle market electronics manufacturer that serves the medical device, military and automotive sectors, in a deal that closed Dec. 31. Mitchell said the middle market shift, piloted by COO Rabih Jamal, serves as a key milestone in the maturity of Waséyabek, which is now poised to go after larger deals as it continues filling out its portfolio. 

As well, Waséyabek filled a white space identified in its four-year strategic plan by making its first passive investments. They included a co-investment with Gun Lake Investments and DWH LLC into the related trucking and logistics companies Zip Xpress and Green Transportation. As well, Waséyabek invested $3 million in Series B funding in BAMF Health, a Grand Rapids-based firm that’s pioneering a new cancer treatment in the United States. 

Both the BAMF Health investment and the Safari Circuits deal also helped Waséyabek further develop a medical vertical in its portfolio, while the deal for Zip Xpress and Green Transportation fulfilled a desire to get into the trucking and logistics industry, Mitchell said.

Additionally, the co-investment with Grand Rapids-based Gun Lake Investments, the non-gaming investment arm of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi, continues to develop best practices for tribes to work together on deals. Previously, Waséyabek and GLI partnered to acquire McKay Tower in downtown Grand Rapids, “but that’s very different from an operating business,” Mitchell said. Having DWH also take a piece of the deal provided “a somewhat neutral third party that’s managing and running the operations day to day.” 

Mitchell said the long-term goal of the multi-tribe partnerships is to demonstrate that the co-investment model works as a means to encourage additional tribal partners to get involved in deals. 

“Sometimes in Indian Country, you have to establish a workable model and prove it before you can start gaining trust,” she said, noting that Waséyabek and GLI also had presented the opportunity to the Potawatomi Economic Summit, a group of economic development organizations from Potawatomi tribes from across Michigan, the U.S. and Canada. 

“Now that (the Zip Xpress/Green Transportation deal) has been closed … there was a lot of conversation about, ‘Hey, this makes sense, and you guys got it done,’” Mitchell said. “We’re really hoping with the next opportunity that comes along that we can get some other tribes involved.”

The three deals last year came during a period of rapid growth for Waséyabek, which has gone from three employees to about 400 people in the last four years. The growth comes as Waséyabek has executed on its multifaceted acquisition and investment strategy aimed at diversifying revenue streams and creating a self-sustaining economy for the sovereign tribal nation. 

Mitchell credited the stability of the tribe for positioning Waséyabek for success, while praising the flexibility and adaptability of the team during the growth spurt. It also helps that the team works well together, she said, chalking it up to Waséyabek’s focus on creating a strong culture.

“We have a motto that we don’t hire competent jerks, so you have to be a nice person,” she said. 

It’s a philosophy perhaps informed by Mitchell’s biology background. 

“In biology, you begin to understand that everything is connected in a broader ecosystem. I think the same applies to business,” she added. “The more we can understand and support the inter-connectedness, the more successful we’ll be.” 

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