Tunica-Biloxi Chairman Marshall Pierite says Tribal lending entity MobiLoans, LLC, is a lifeline to the Tribe and their consumers during the current coronavirus and financial crisis.
While the gaming and hospitality industry may anchor the economy of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, the Tribe’s lending enterprise is sustaining it now.
In 2011, the Tribe entered the financial services industry with the launch of Mobiloans, an enterprise offering small-dollar loans to consumers. The Tribal Council appointed Tunica-Biloxi Chairman Marshall Pierite as Chairman of the new company’s board, and shortly after, he was also named its CEO.
“We led a great team on this startup company into a multimillion-dollar corporation,” he told Native Business. “We’re doing cutting-edge stuff with Mobiloans, and we’re still expanding.”
The move to economically diversify the Tribe’s portfolio with Mobiloans has been beneficial over the course of the past decade — and essential in 2020.
Caught in the financial tailspin of the coronavirus, the entire country is reeling. Mobiloans is helping the Tunica-Biloxi offset revenue losses from the temporary closure of Paragon Casino Resort and its affiliated entertainment and hospitality venues, as the Tribal government awaits critical federal aid.
“I must say, with the closure of Paragon, Mobiloans has been filling in that gap and has become a huge economic engine for the Tribe, and is allowing our government to continue operations and to help much-needed programs to our Tribal citizens — programs that are supposed to be federally funded, but as you know, Tribes only get 60% of the funding that is needed, so we have to find a way to be creative when it comes to our economics.”
Those benefits extend to Mobiloans consumers, too.
“Mobiloans is a Godsend — and not only for the Tribe’s economy,” Pierite said. “It’s a lifeline to our consumers as well.” Particularly for consumers who have established creditworthiness and a payment history with Mobiloans, the lending service is incredibly valuable. Existing consumers enrolled in Mobiloans’ rewards program have access to a line of credit and reduced fees. “They can draw a line of credit that is affordable to them and can get them through this crisis,” Pierite shared.
Paragon Casino Resort accounts for 80% of the revenue needed for the Tunica-Biloxi Tribal government to function, Pierite told Native Business, so the closure is certainly having an adverse impact on government operations and Tribal citizens’ livelihoods. Paragon has furloughed all of its employees “with the exception of a handful,” Pierite said, “and we did the same thing with our nonessential employees at the Tribal government level.”
Even the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana’s essential employees are working from home to ensure safety as well as the continuation of Tribal services and programs. “Safety is being considered first and foremost,” Pierite emphasized.
“Because we’re dealing with an invisible enemy, it’s hard for us to plan against or to plan for. We don’t know what we are dealing with. We don’t know how long the furlough or the closures are going to last. We are at the mercy of this pandemic,” said Pierite, adding, “But we do know that our Lord’s grace is sufficient.”
Tribal Stimulus Package
Meanwhile, the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana has created a stimulus package through its general welfare, health and exclusion program to ensure Tribal citizens and their families “have the wherewithal to buy the basic essentials that are needed for them to survive and sustain their households throughout this crisis,” the Chairman said.
The one-time payment of $1,000 per Tribal member serves as a housing allowance and to help with medical bills. “We’re going to visit this again in a couple of months,” Pierite said of another Tribal stimulus injection, “because even though we’re working very closely with our Congressional delegates — and thank God both the House and the Senate passed the Tribal Stabilization Fund and other desperately needed funds that are going to be vital to Indian Country and to mainstream America — it’s just going to take time for them to get guidelines around that, before the federal government can start dispersing those funds.”
Pierite added: “We were in a position where we had to be proactive, making sure our Tribal citizens and their families are taken care of. With this pandemic, we cannot afford to be reactive anymore.”
In addition to Congressional delegates, the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe is working closely with the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) organization and the Indian Health Service to address government and healthcare needs at this time.
Chairman Pierite underscored that his Tribal Council, as a government, has a moral and a spiritual obligation to make sure that all its Tribal citizens and their family’s needs are met during this crisis. That extends to the non-Tribal community, “because Tunica-Biloxi is located in a very rural area,” he explained. “We have to make sure that our non-Tribal community needs are met as well, so we’re working hand in hand with them, and in some cases, taking the leadership role to make sure that we have enough testing kits, that we have enough essential supplies — not only for the Tunica-Biloxi but for our neighbors.”
The Tribe is proactively procuring coronavirus testing kits and medical supplies.
“Thank God for Mobiloans, because that’s the saving grace,” Pierite said. “If it weren’t for Mobiloans, we wouldn’t have the wherewithal to get this [testing kits and medical supplies] in a timely manner for our members,” Pierite said.”We don’t have the luxury of playing this ‘wait and see when everybody else is going to react.’”
Mobiloans: Growing & Challenging the Industry
Mobiloans’ forecasted expansions are still underway, Pierite told Native Business last week, adding that Mobiloans will be increasing its call centers throughout Louisiana.
Mobiloans continues to employ more than 30 individuals on the Tribal reservation, in addition to providing numerous outsourced jobs. Reservation-based employees are now working from home “to provide great customer services to our consumers, so that we do not miss a beat,” Pierite said. “We will be available as well as accessible to our existing consumers and new customers.”
Mobilians is currently experiencing an uptick in existing customers as well as a surge in new customers. Pierite estimates those increases at 60 to 65% for existing customers requesting a draw on their line of credit, and approximately an 18 to 20% increase in new customers.
Beyond economic diversification, another impetus for creating Mobiloans in 2011 was “to challenge the industry,” Pierite said. “We weren’t happy with the way the industry was operating.”
The Tunica-Biloxi Tribe realized early on that it wanted to “challenge the status quo,” Pierite said. “We wanted to change the industry. We wanted to make sure that Tunica-Biloxi did responsible lending.”
Pierite alluded to the criticisms of short-term lending — ”people call it payday lending, or whatever the case may be,” he said.
“We wanted to make sure that it was highly regulated and that evolution would occur. The evolution that I’m talking about is taking on more of the day to day activities on ourselves by learning the industry,” Pierite shared of the Tribe’s intentional approach.
“But one of the things I realized and that my father taught me at a young age is: if you don’t like something, get in there and challenge it,” Pierite said. “One of the things that really stuck in my mind is that if you’re going to go through something, not only go through it, but grow through it.”
When you grow through it, you bring everyone along, Pierite added. It’s about finding that balance of doing well for you, and good for all people.
“And that’s what I’m proud to say with what we have done with Mobiloans and with Tribal lending where we took it from a third-party driven enterprise to an internal-driven and Tribal modified enterprise while creating jobs — good paying jobs — on the reservation,” he said.
Equally important is Mobiloans’ credit reporting helps build people’s credit, “and also the financial literacy — that you empower your consumers financially,” he said.
Over the years, Mobiloans has developed a multi-tier product, lending to Diamond customers at a 65% reduction of the standard cash advance fee and fixed finance charge. Other levels include Platinum, Gold and Silver.
“A lot of [our consumers] at the beginning were not prime consumers. Traditional banking had given up on them. But we found the opportunity to where they could build that trust in us, that we would invest in them. And through our product and the outreach component with the call centers, we got to know our customers, each and every one of them, and let them know that there is some light at the end of the tunnel. And if they would be vested in this, we’re going to do everything we possibly can to transition them from our product or any type of nontraditional banking and introduce them to traditional banking circuits.”
All customers need to do is maintain good payment history, and Mobiloans empowers them to reenter into traditional financial programs. “So not only did they buy into the long-term vision, but we embraced them as well. At the end of the day, what we have is real-life testimonies of our consumers that two and a half years ago, weren’t credit worthy to walk into a bank to get a car loan or to get a mortgage. A plethora of our consumers have written testimonies now — not only that they can transition into traditional banking, but that they qualify for car loans, they qualify for home mortgages.”
And as an online service, Mobiloans also provides a convenient service for consumers, who can access everything they need from their smartphones, laptops or computers.
“But most importantly, they are loyal to the Mobiloans brand. Because, even though we talk about the transition to traditional banking, we all have to be cognizant and realize that even traditional banks still do not allow for these types of small-dollar lending, because it costs too much for them to process. So we fill a gap, a void, in the banking world, and we’re extremely proud of that,” Pierite said.
Chairman Pierite also took the opportunity to praise other trailblazers in online lending. “I want to applaud the Native American Financial Services Association (NAFSA) for their leadership and what they’re doing. I want to applaud our regulatory commission. I want to applaud the Tribal leaders that educate and advocate on behalf of the Tribes that do small-dollar lending,” he said.
“I think this is an eye-opener for those Tribal leaders who one time were against or looked down on this industry. I do think with a little bit of TLC, Indian Country can take a generation curse and turn it into a generation blessing, where Tribal lending can be the friendliest consumer product.”
Due to Tribes’ tax exempt status, “we can do more,” Pierite added. “We have the leadership, the knowledge, the wisdom, and above all else the understanding to make this happen.”
“We are not a problem; we can be a solution to the problem,” he added.
If Chairman Pierite could leave Indian Country with one other final message amid the coronavirus pandemic it would be: “God is still on the throne. He’s not surprised about what’s going on. We just stay in faith and trust in Him. Let’s be there for each other. Let’s keep each and every one of us in our prayers for every Tribal Nation and Tribal citizen. Together we can overcome this.”