American indian Commerce

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on March 24, 2002

A large, white metal building on a grassy river bottom field in Poplar, Mont., (pop. 911) houses the economic hope of the Fort Peck Reservation—in the form of A&S Tribal Industries.

The manufacturer was Montana’s largest employer in the 1990s, with more than 700 workers filling government contracts for netting and medical kits, among other things. By decade’s end, however, A&S was on the verge of closing. Contracts had dried up and employees dwindled to four—just enough to keep the company’s large steel buildings warm.

“It would have been easy to write A&S off,” says Leonard Smith, 52, who was brought in less than three years ago to help rebuild.

At its peak, the company was a source of tremendous pride to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, about 6,800 of whom live on the 2-million-acre Fort Peck reservation. In its heyday, A&S was held up to other reservations as a model of American Indian commerce.

Smith worked for A&S rebuilding military rifles as a youngster. He understood the company’s greater importance, having grown up on the reservation, the son of an Assiniboine mother and a Sioux father. With a degree in business and experience coordinating the Montana Indian Manufacturers Network, he seemed the ideal CEO to blend the culture of the fast-changing business world with traditional tribal ways.

The town also is home to the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Culture Center and Museum, which houses artifacts and coordinates annual powwows that keep tribal traditions alive. The museum and the Fort Peck Community College are two of the vital legs that support this largely American Indian community. A&S is the third.

“(A&S) means everything to us,” says Arlyn Headdress, Fort Peck Tribal chairman.

Small triumphs have occurred already. The company has grown to 74 employees and hopes soon to top 200. Employees have a bigger role in operations, and A&S is profitable again. To grow further, Smith says A&S must cultivate successful business partnerships on and off the reservation.

“The key to this turnaround has been the ability to bring on partnerships, and showing them you have a goal to achieve,” Smith says.

Recent gains, coupled with memories of past problems, have taught tribal members that A&S needs to diversify and improve marketing. It also is finding new niches for some products it already produces and looking for others that can be made on its production line.

For example, A&S is marketing its environmental netting to sporting companies looking for soccer and tennis nets. The netting is commonly used to cover toxic waters—such as mine waste or oil refuse ponds—to keep migratory birds from landing there. The company is promoting its metal fabricating technology to automobile muffler manufacturers.

“We need to show everyone that we as Indian people can do it,” Smith says. “That, yes, Indians can be good business people. It was very hard because we had to dig ourselves out of the hole at first.”

There’s a lot riding on the company’s turnaround.

“A&S is the linchpin for economic development from the tribal perspective,” says James Shanley, president of the Fort Peck Community College.

“If they can make A&S successful, they can move forward and make a lot of other businesses successful.”

The company’s growth is also important to the people of the Fort Peck Reservation, he says.

“All of the tribe is looking at A&S with hope in their eyes.”