Ever since this administration started, we have been focused on opportunities that exist beyond reservation boundaries. We are definitely trying to position ourselves to reach the masses with our water, juice, beef and electronic cigarettes.
It’s not easy to reach the masses, though. You may have a very good product at a very good price, but it is tough when you are competing with established companies. Yet we are making tremendous headway because we are leveraging our minority status, our tax-exempt status. Even though we may not be a nationally known brand, we are definitely opening and creating opportunities, such as with our water.
We’ve met with US Foods. We are talking to them about national distribution. And that has taken time. That company needs to clearly understand that if they give us opportunities to be our national supplier, we have the capacity to pull off our end of the bargain. They want to know everything they can about us, they want to understand our bottling process, they want to know that we have the water source and they want to know that we have the financial wherewithal to meet their demands.
So it is much more than, “I have a good product. I bottled it. Now let me sell it to you.” No. It’s a very involved process: it is all about the marketing, about building on that which separates ours from any other product out there. What is the story on that product? That’s what they want to know. And that can take time. First, you have to sit there and educate them about who and what the Seminole Tribe is and how we started in the water industry, the orange juice industry, the e-cigarette industry.
I think that with our water and juice, we are definitely making headway though US Foods, H.T. Hackney and other national distributors such as McLane and Cormark. We have definitely been trying to position ourselves with other distributors that can put us out in front of potential customers.
These guys don’t normally get approached by Indian Tribes. We have all traveled across Indian Country. Think about it. When you visit another Native casino you’ll notice they are always going to have their own water, but do you know who they are supplying? Just themselves. They are not exploring other opportunities. They are not reaching beyond reservation boundaries. We are blazing that path right now.
The channels that we are establishing have taken time, but we’ve been focused, we’ve stayed the course. Just because things don’t happen as timely as we want, we can’t get frustrated, say this will never happen and walk away from it. Instead, we have to believe we have a good product and we can be competitive on the pricing. That takes commitment. And we have been committed.
Got to be committed.
American Indian business has come a long way in the last 10 years, but I think Tribes still have to go out and educate. The Tribes, themselves, need to tell their stories. The decision makers really need to hear from the Tribal leaders, who are the business leaders: they want to know how the Tribe got into the business, how committed the Tribe is and they want to evaluate that the Tribe will support the partnership with long-term viability. They need to be reassured that the Tribe and its enterprise is dedicated to support the future generations.
One of the products or industries we decided to enter was the electronic cigarette business. We have been successful in placing this product in several chain stores. Our website business is good. The big trick is to get ourselves out in front of the big, major outlets – Costco, Walgreens, Walmart – locating big businesses with major companies that have diversity programs.
I just came back from Seattle, where I had a very fruitful meeting with Costco. My role at that meeting was to say, “Let me tell you the story of the Seminole Tribe. Let me tell you who we are, what our core values are and reassure you that when we embark on a business venture, it’s because we want to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. We want you to know we will utilize and leverage our sovereignty, leverage our tax-exempt status and most importantly, we want you to know that we are committed. We aren’t looking to develop something and sell it in five years, 10 years.”
No. We want to be involved in these industries for the long haul and we want to be partners with companies that give us the opportunity to meet the masses. That’s why it was so important to sit down and talk directly to Costco decision makers. The experience reminded me of the movie The Guilt Trip, starring Barbara Streisand and Seth Rogen. It’s all about Seth pedaling his cleaning products, meeting with decision makers . . . meeting with Walmart, Ace Hardware, etc. … and he is basically packing a bag and going on a road trip.
Costco did their research on the Seminole Tribe and when I got there, it was clear they recognized that we are a player in the industry. They were comfortable that we would be very successful in this industry, whether we were one of their partners or not. That is what we were hoping for.
To pack an overnight bag, fly red-eye both ways and be bright eyed and bushy tailed and answer all their questions – they want to know if we are well versed in the industry. They want to be assured that our long-term vision is to get into the manufacturing; it is not to control their retail side of it.
We recognize who our customer base is and we are positioning ourselves and trying to determine who our national spokesperson should be. We have reached out to several, but because of commitments they have made to other products, it did not work out. But just because our first choices didn’t work out doesn’t mean we should quit! It is just the matter of finding that right spokesperson. It is a full and complicated process.
It’s been exciting to see our products grow into what they are today. There have been some setbacks but we have maintained a sense of urgency and commitment. We may not be recognized by the major players but because we are so excited about our products, we believe they will stand up to any product out there on the market.
It has been very interesting to witness the process we have to go through to be successful. And this administration will do whatever it takes. If it means taking red-eye flights and returning at 6 a.m. and still having to be wide awake for a Board or Council meeting and take care of business, well you know what? That’s what we are going do. So we lose a little sleep. But we understand before we go where we are trying to get and that we will lose a little sleep trying to get there.
Meeting with US Foods, Costco, H.T. Hackney, Walgreens and 7-Eleven has convinced me that educating them pays. Their question is, “Who are these guys sitting here in front of me asking me to buy their product and I don’t know anything about them?” So, educate them. Answer their questions. And suddenly it clicks: “Oh, so you are those guys. You are those guys with the casinos. You are the guys who bought the Hard Rock.” We all know that there is more to the Seminole Tribe than just casinos and they want to know that. So we start talking to them about being not only pioneers of gaming but also pioneers of the cattle industry here in Florida . . . and they are just amazed.
I think that we are the only ones who can tell our story. The Tribe needs to be telling that story to those buyers and make them aware that we, first and foremost, are committed. We are in this for the long run. And that is the message this administration has been carrying in all these meetings with potential customers.
Yes, it can get repetitive, but we understand that we are talking to people who say, “Seminoles? Florida State Seminoles? Are we talking to a college?”
Well at least they know where we are based – Florida. More times than not they are just amazed about who we really are and what we are trying to accomplish. We’re not out there to sell a sob story. We are astute business people who are going to do things the right way.
No matter what business we get into, we are committed to provide for our future generations.
Tony Sanchez Jr. is President of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc.