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Seminole Stiles: We pay ourselves

Tony SanchezThere has been much discussion lately about a joint venture (JV) that partners Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc.’s Seminole Construction and Development, LLC with Stiles Construction of Fort Lauderdale, a well-known and proven, family-owned corporation that has been operated successfully in South Florida for more than 60 years. Our JV is named Seminole Stiles and is currently building the Tribal Public Safety complex on the Brighton Reservation.

There has been some confusion regarding this JV, first dreamed up more than five years ago and completed at the beginning of my administration. Some have questioned why Seminole Stiles is pursuing so many reservation projects and not seeking work off the reservation. How many times have we heard, especially in Council briefings and meetings, “I thought that you all were going to do all this work off the reservation.”

This JV is in its infancy. That’s why we are starting with the reservation projects. But to allege that this is all we are ever going to do from here to eternity? No, that was never the vision. But this is the best way to establish a portfolio.

Reservation projects will help create the portfolio we need to bid for outside jobs. You go out tomorrow and approach some agency with your construction business and what is the first thing they are going to ask you? Do you have experience? What are your qualifications?

Before you do anything, they are going to hand you what is called an RFQ, a Request for Qualifications. You have to walk in and show them why you are qualified, hand them your portfolio listing the types of projects you have done.

You want me to build you a tank, well, the only thing I have ever built is car models.

You are not going to qualify. If you can’t produce a portfolio that addresses the project, you are dead.

And this speaks to the heart of why Seminole Stiles was formed. The Board’s construction company has had success building smaller projects: Tribal member homes, a few small commercial projects. But to take the next step and go bigger, you really have to go down a different road. Seminole Stiles’ portfolio is insufficient right now, but a few major projects from now, we’ll be ready, especially, to go after government “set-asides.”

Set-aside programs allow government agencies to limit competition for certain contracts to small businesses owned and operated by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals. This includes various minorities, including Native Americans, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians. They can apply for these set-asides by becoming a Certified 8(a) firm that is eligible to receive federal contracts under the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) 8(a) Business Development Program.

Getting an 8(a) certification as a Native American construction company is no easy task. There is a lot of paperwork and it takes a lot of time, especially for the Seminole Tribe. One of the things we have been hearing is they are not giving out certifications to gaming Tribes. A gaming Tribe is not considered economically disadvantaged. Though we may still be socially disadvantaged, when they see us they think of gaming, Hard Rock, etc., and we have no chance. They don’t make any distinction between Council and Board. They look at us as being one.

What they don’t understand is that the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc. is still economically disadvantaged. We don’t have that pot of gold over at the Board. We don’t own the Hard Rock. We don’t have the casinos under our umbrella. So, at the end of this year, as an important step in separating us financially from the Council, for the first time, we are doing an internal audit – a stand-alone audit, separate from the Council, to prove the point that we don’t make the kind of money they think, that we satisfy their criteria and should be considered eligible to apply for the 8(a) so we can go out and start bidding on some of these set-asides.

Tribal members should understand that the long-term vision is to have a certified minority company (we own 51 percent of Seminole Stiles) that will achieve 8(a) status and be able to bid on government contracts outside the reservation. But while we are pursuing that process, we are going to be creating and building up our portfolio which will see Seminole Stiles building the Public Safety complex in Brighton, the Hollywood Gymnasium, the expansion at the Brighton Charter School, the townhouse projects in Brighton and Hollywood, the Fort Pierce community center – all these reservation projects will allow us to bulk up our portfolio, establish our credibility and establish our qualifications.

Conducting business on the reservation is not our only focus. The focus on the reservation is only going to be short term. The long-term vision is to go out and do business coast-to-coast. Right now, we can’t do that because we can’t show them we are qualified.

There is no way that anyone would put us on a bidder’s list.

Of course, though this JV will conduct a lot of business on the reservations, it is not designed to eliminate legitimate Tribal owned and operated companies. Our intent is to include as many Tribal businesses as possible, as subcontractors or even general contractors. The work that Seminole Stiles pursues is not the work the Tribal businesses do. We won’t be building houses or small commercial stores; anything $1.5 million or below, we won’t touch. Also, for most of the work a Tribal member company does with us, we won’t be requiring a bond.

Remember, we own 51 percent, which means we will make 51 percent of the profit. When we use an outside contractor, as we have done for most of our large projects, we pay and they take all the profits.

We want to help develop Tribal members into entrepreneurs. The days are over where companies have a token Indian fronting the organization. If a Seminole Indian is in there, he or she needs to be fully engaged, giving the orders and in full control. Besides, why be part of a “front company” and make a small piece of the pie when you could have the whole pie?

Let’s say a Tribal member owns an interior design company. But the only reason he is in that business is that he has aligned himself with the company that is really doing all the interior design work. We want to change that. We want to give this Tribal member all the work we can, build his knowledge and skills so he can own the whole company. Where he made a nickel before, he is making a dollar now.

Tribal members who already own their companies, fantastic; they are where we want them to be. But for those who are partnered with somebody, hopefully by us engaging them, it will provide the motivation to fully learn the business. And become the business.

As this all develops, in the meantime, we don’t ever want to leave the reservation wide open for someone else to come in and do the work that we are fully capable of doing. We have our heart and soul in building on our own reservation for our own people.

The Tribe has had delayed and uncompleted projects in the recent past, endeavors where hundreds of thousands of dollars were paid to architects and planners and here come delays and  months and years go by, there’s a new election and the next administration doesn’t want it and it is all thrown out. Seminole Stiles has everything: a bank of architects, planners, designers, sales people, land assessors, builders, everything. We are set up to streamline the process and make it more efficient and come in on time. We will maintain control and the Tribe as a whole will be way better off. We will finally have our projects that we need, we will get them done in a timely manner and they will fit the budget.

The bottom line is Tribal members are going to get their projects in a timely manner: everything that is needed, community centers, gymnasiums, schools, all of that; Ahfachkee, Okalee Village, Big Cypress Medical Center.

It’s all in the works.

We aren’t going to just stand still while we wait for the audit and the 8(a). In the interim we are also considering partnering with other Tribes who have 8(a) and further building up our portfolio.

This whole enterprise allows the Tribe to have more control over the projects, not only from a timely sense but from a financial sense, and you know what? At the end of the day, rather than allowing other contractors to come in here, you are going to end up paying yourself.

What’s wrong with that? We’ll pay ourselves. Now that’s good business.

Sho-naa-bish.

Tony Sanchez Jr. is President of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc.

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