Montana's Indian manufacturers join forces

Published July 1, 1992  | July 1992 issue

With fewer contracts available from the Department of Defense, and with increasing competition from the commercial sector, Montana's seven tribally owned manufacturing companies decided on a novel approach to conducting their businesses: They joined together.

In the summer of 1990, those seven firms from six of Montana's Indian reservations, formed the Montana Indian Manufacturing Network (MIMN). The association hopes to heighten the visibility of the firms' cooperative potential, to develop contacts among other Indian manufacturers and to discuss competitive strategies.

According to Leonard Smith, coordinator for MIMN, which is funded by a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul, the tribally owned companies get a better response from commercial firms now that they can pitch their services together. However, he acknowledges, "We still have a lot of work to do."

Essentially, MIMN is currently working as a resource base, both for the tribal manufacturers and for possible commercial clients. For the tribes, Smith says MIMN is trying to encourage tribal governments—who own the businesses—to become more profit-oriented rather than job-oriented. Some of the tribes also need training in management, finance and marketing to compete effectively in the commercial sector, Smith says.

For potential clients, MIMN uses printed material, a recently completed video and numerous face-to-face meetings to sell the tribes' capabilities. Smith says the tribal firms can do all types of work, from heavy and light metal manufacturing to cabinet woodwork. The Network's largest firm, A&S Tribal Industries of the Fort Peck Reservation, manufactures such items as metal-stamped products, nylon net products and medical equipment. A&S, northeastern Montana's largest employer at about 500 at full capacity, has also begun making special ceramic ovens for the fast-food business.

Other tribal firms manufacture such items as pens and pencils (Blackfeet Writing Company on the Blackfeet Reservation), electronic products (S&K Electronics at Pablo), small metal fabrication products such as guard rails for highways (Rocky Boys Manufacturing of the Rocky Boys Reservation), and electronic testing and measuring equipment (West Electronics, Fort Peck Reservation).

A statewide organization of private companies, the Montana Competitiveness Council, has joined with MIMN to aid the Network in its effort. Also, the state's university system is providing technical expertise on the development of a resource database.