Growing up in the rural eastern Upper Peninsula, David Goodreau saw his father and grandfathers support their families by starting and operating small businesses.
After a two decade long career in the military and some time working in sales for a manufacturer in Milwaukee, Goodreau began to think the notion of going into business might make sense for his family, especially when he realized he would have three children attending college all at the same time.
“The impetus in hoping to start a business was to support my family and put my kids through college,” Goodreau said.
He credits an uncle who was high in the executive ranks at Tyco International for giving him the guidance he needed to put some structure to his “wild idea.” The advice: “Go with what you know.”
That’s why Goodreau leveraged his military experience in aviation to launch Northern Wings Repair Inc. in Newberry, which has grown into a 26-person aerospace manufacturer that serves customers including NASA, Boeing Aerospace, the Defense Logistics Agency, L-3 Technologies and Sierra Nevada Corp.
“We custom built the shop, which is really state of the art,” Goodreau said, noting that auditors from OEM clients often visit and are pleasantly surprised by the high-tech environment that’s based in a remote rural area of the Upper Peninsula. “We created a cult of safety-conscious, quality-aware fanatics.”
While Goodreau leveraged his relationships and his expertise in aviation in starting the business, many of his fellow members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians lack those kinds of connections or entrepreneurial role models.
That’s why the Sault Tribe Economic Development Corp. formed the Sault Tribe Thrive initiative as a way to celebrate the success of tribal entrepreneurs, offer resources to would-be business owners and potentially lure tribal member-owned companies and other partners to tribal lands in the Eastern U.P.
Sault Tribe EDC leveraged a $485,000 grant from the Minority Business Development Agency in the fall of 2019 to create Sault Tribe Thrive.
Initially, the plan was to put some structure around an outreach effort to successful tribal member-owned businesses that Executive Director Joel Schultz started when he joined the organization in 2016. After meeting with five tribal member-owned companies, four of them went on to open offices at the tribe’s Tamarack Business Center in Sault Ste. Marie. About 12 people now work out of the center and earn salaries of $38,000 to $70,000, “which for our area are pretty good jobs,” Schultz said.
Schultz planned to travel and meet with other member-owned businesses, but then the pandemic hit and forced a change of plans. The EDC switched gears and developed a web-based directory to celebrate member-owned businesses. To date, it includes more than 170 listings for businesses in Michigan and beyond ranging from breweries and retail shops to outdoor equipment manufacturers, professional services, hospitality and more.
Everything But Money
The Sault Tribe Thrive initiative forms the basis for the EDC’s outreach-intake efforts around business development that aims to foster a culture of entrepreneurship among members and help tribal members’ businesses access the resources they need to grow and thrive.
“We have some self employment businesses contacting us for guidance on what do they have to do legally, how could they sell to the tribe, can they apply for a grant, all the way up to we’re dealing with $25 million companies that are looking to partner with us to approach 8(a) certification or maybe locate on our land and get HUBZone status. It’s a wide range,” Schultz said.
Like with most other aspiring entrepreneurs, tribal members most frequently need help with understanding the financials of running a business, he said.
“If you’re going to do a startup, you need to be able to analyze the financials of something. You need to be able to use your financials to determine what are the problems in your company,” Schultz said.
However, the most frequently asked questions he gets from tribal members hinge on whether the tribe can give them money to help with their businesses. While some entrepreneurs walk away from that conversation feeling dejected, many continue to work with the EDC to refine their business plans and practices to get to a place where they can successfully find capital from another source.
“There isn’t a business challenge that we can’t find a solution for, but we can’t find them money. We’re just not in that position,” he said. “There is no magic dust and that’s what people are looking for.”
Goodreau at Northern Wings argues that’s the right approach for the tribe to take.
“The last thing an entrepreneur needs is a big wad of money, but that’s the first question everyone asks,” he said. “To me, that’s backwards; that’s gambling with someone else’s money. Build the infrastructure, make mentors available. Ideas are free.
“The funny thing is people don’t necessarily understand entrepreneurism. I didn’t when I started, either.”
In addition to offering coaching and mentoring resources, Sault Tribe EDC also hopes to offer peer-to-peer connections for tribal member-owned businesses that it identifies as part of its outreach.
However, the effort could also help feed a pipeline of acquisition and partnership opportunities for Sault Tribe Inc., the tribe’s holding company.
The current portfolio includes Chippewa Government Solutions LLC, an online educational company that will go after training opportunities via federal contracts. The company, which is currently in the process of securing 8(a) certification from the U.S. Small Business Administration, grew from connecting with a tribal member who had started a successful business in that sector.
The tribe also looks to increase the number of companies, whether tribally owned or otherwise, based on tribal lands. The Sault Tribe Thrive website includes detailed information about tribal properties that are available for development. In addition, the tribe is also building out some of its properties, including the multi-tenant Crane Industrial Suites that it expects to break ground on this year.
Schultz said the underlying goal is to help members position their companies to grow and serve as examples to other tribal members who may be considering starting their own businesses.
“We’re trying to build the infrastructure to support entrepreneurship for our tribal members,” Schultz said. “The success of Sault Tribe Thrive will be defined by jobs created, businesses started, capital formation and sales growth.”
For his part, Goodreau welcomes the new resources, which he hopes will also serve as a catalyst of sorts in helping to create a “definitive tribal identity.”
“The premise is that there’s safety in numbers or amassing enough people in one spot that you’d be able to get assistance from somebody,” Goodreau said.
“Being an entrepreneur with an aviation company in Newberry, Michigan is a lonely endeavor,” he added, a wry reference to his aerospace firm’s unlikely location. “I’ve been toiling away on my own business for years, so it’s neat to get to know the tribal members that have also been starting their own businesses.”