Published in Economic Development

Tribally owned firm secures $161M federal contract, expands GR headquarters

BY Sunday, June 07, 2020 07:10pm

GRAND RAPIDS — A federal contracting firm owned by Waséyabek Development Co. LLC has begun work on a five-year, $161 million contract with the Department of Energy to provide site operations and support services at three National Energy Technology Laboratory locations. 

The contract — Waséyabek Federal Services LLC’s largest to date — helps illustrate the growth story for the non-gaming investment arm of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi. The Waséyabek parent company recently started work on the third floor of its Kendall Building headquarters in downtown Grand Rapids to convert apartment units into additional office space and a large conference room to support the expanding federal services division. 

Waséyabek President and CEO Deidra Mitchell COURTESY PHOTO

“Right now, we’ve got about 15 positions that we’re advertising for, so we are growing and hiring,” Waséyabek President and CEO Deidra Mitchell told MiBiz. “And then as we bring on more and more federal contracts, those support positions are going to have to grow, too — things like finance, contract administrators, legal support, technical writers, HR. We were already bursting at the seams.”

The firm is working on the expansion project with architecture and engineering firm TowerPinkster and general contractor McGraw Construction Inc., both of Grand Rapids. 

Waséyabek also launched FED95 LLC, a new Grand Rapids-based environmental remediation subsidiary. FED95 and the tribally owned Baker Engineering LLC, a precision performance engine manufacturer and defense R&D supplier based in Nunica, both received 8(a) minority business certifications in March and February, respectively, from the U.S. Small Business Administration. 

For FED95, the 8(a) certification came just as the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread throughout the country, which led the company to form new teams to bid on coronavirus cleaning and disinfection contracts with the federal government, as well as offer industrial hygiene and other services.

“We haven’t been awarded anything yet, but we bid on several things for the emergency response piece of it so that when a COVID-19 confirmed case is onsite, you need to come in and do the disinfection and testing to make sure that it’s clean,” Mitchell said. 

FED95 also tapped Truscott Rossman Group LLC, a public relations agency with offices in Lansing, Grand Rapids and Detroit, to provide communications services for customers in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak or if their building gets commandeered to provide emergency services to patients, for example. 

CEO and Principal John Truscott said the partnership will operate similarly to the work the firm does with I.T. companies when clients have a cybersecurity issue. 

“It may just be internal communication to help keep everyone calm and let them know what’s going on, but there might also be some external communication, too,” Truscott said. 

The partnership is an extension of a client relationship Truscott Rossman has developed with Waséyabek for more than a year as the tribal firm has “really emerged as an investing organization doing some innovative things,” Truscott said. 

Like many non-gaming tribal economic development organizations, Waséyabek has leaned into federal contracting as a way to diversify revenue for the tribe. Tribally owned companies qualify for minority business status, which opens them to opportunities to compete for federal set-asides.

The Department of Energy awarded Waséyabek Federal Services the site operations contract in December, with the firm fully taking over the project on April 1 after a transition period. The contract covers National Energy Technology Laboratory sites in Morgantown, W.Va., Pittsburgh, Pa., and Albany, Ore. with a collective 200 employees, Mitchell said. 

Waséyabek serves as the prime contractor, and formed a joint venture with Emeryville, Calif.-based E2 Consulting Engineers Inc. to offer a range of R&D, engineering, facilities, environmental, safety, health and quality support services. 

Mitchell said Waséyabek’s goal for the federal contracting group is to generate $20 million in annual revenue by the end of 2022. 

The growth for Waséyabek also comes as the firm expands its buy-and-hold investment strategy beyond small businesses into the middle market for the first time, Mitchell said. Waséyabek is prospecting for operating company acquisitions in the $10 million to $30 million revenue range “hopefully here in the Grand Rapids area, or the Michigan area,” she said. 

“We’re hoping to do a mid-market acquisition — or two, or three — before year end 2022,” Mitchell said. “We’d love to have one done by the end of 2020. We’ll see how that goes.”

To cap it all off, Waséyabek in January partnered with Gun Lake Investments, the non-gaming economic investment entity of Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, or Gun Lake Tribe, on the $17.5 million purchase of the iconic McKay Tower in downtown Grand Rapids. 

The building suffered damage and looting after protests against police brutality turned violent at the end of May, Mitchell said, noting the Kendall Building was spared in the incident. Prior to that, the owners had been working with McKay Tower’s retail tenants as they’ve been seeking out various COVID-19 relief programs. 

“The relationship with Gun Lake has been great,” Mitchell said. “There’s a lot of pride in both tribes of owning a building of that caliber, and in us being able to remain committed members of the Grand Rapids community. We both really set down deep roots and we’re happy to be here.”

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