A Forest County Potawatomi Tribal member, Kip Ritchie’s ties to his Tribe run deep. His grandfather and great-grandfather both served as Tribal Chairman, and his great-grandfather was instrumental in forming the Forest County Potawatomi Tribal government in the early 1930s, Ritchie tells Native Business. “For me, it’s a lot of pride,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity to be involved and to work for the Tribe.”
Ritchie started his career in marketing for AT&T and other major corporations, before transitioning to the gaming industry at his Tribe’s then small bingo hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“We’re a top 20 construction firm in Milwaukee — competing with companies that have been in business for over 100 years,” says Ritchie “We're a top 20 construction firm in Milwaukee — competing with companies that have been in business for over 100 years,” says Kip Ritchie, President/CEO of Greenfire Management Services. Click To Tweet
“There’s since been about $800 million worth of development on that property in Milwaukee, and it’s now become one of the largest and most successful Indian gaming casinos in the country,” says Ritchie, who served as the Director of Marketing then as Assistant General for Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, before leaving the gaming enterprise to serve on the Board for Potawatomi Business Development Corporation (PBDC) to help his Tribe pursue economic diversification. (Ritchie served on the PBDC Board from 2003-2007, joining PBDC full-time in 2006 as Senior Vice President, before holding the COO position at PBDC from 2009 to 2014.)
Potawatomi Hotel & Casino is a prosperous venture for the Tribe and an economic driver for Milwaukee and surrounding areas. The Tribe’s gaming success bodes well for the company Ritchie currently helms. For roughly 5 years, Ritchie has led Greenfire Management Services, LLC, a subsidiary of PBDC, as its President and CEO.
“People are very familiar with the Tribe, because they’ve been in the gaming business for the last 29 years, and they have a phenomenal corporate citizenship presence. They are one of the pillars in the community. Another way we can demonstrate the ingenuity and the leadership capabilities of the Tribe is through Greenfire, a construction company and a builder, creating jobs, and helping to develop the infrastructure around Milwaukee. We have projects all over the city and into the suburbs,” Ritchie says.
The Tribe actually launched Greenfire Management Services in 2010, in the middle of the recession. “It was a huge learning curve,” Ritchie says.
Just prior to the launch of Greenfire, PBDC had made some significant investments, including in the Marriott Residence Inn in Washington D.C., through the Four Fires economic partnership between the hotel chain and four Tribes — the Forest County Potawatomi Community, Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. PBDC had also made diversified investments — ”to varying degrees of success” — in energy, real estate, hospitality, technology and federal contracting, Ritchie says.
So in 2010, during the height of the recession, the Tribe was approached by a retired construction professional about starting a minority-owned construction management firm in Milwaukee with financial capabilities and bonding capacity. “That’s part of our corporate goal — to build capacity, infrastructure and business acumen,” says Ritchie, adding that, today, Greenfire boasts $75 million in bonding capacity.
The Tribe was able to draw from an already established team — some counting 20-plus years of experience in construction. In addition to managing projects for the Tribe and across Wisconsin, Greenfire could compete commercially, leveraging its minority ownership.
“Like any startup business, it took a few years of fledgling, growing, learning and adjusting,” Ritchie says. “Right around 2014, things really started to take off in Milwaukee, and especially around multifamily housing. There was a huge demand, as we’ve seen nationally, for multifamily residential housing. These projects can be anywhere from $10 million to $40 million.”
Greenfire secured a contract with one of the largest real estate developers in Milwaukee, the Mandel Group, for multifamily housing, and similar opportunities manifested in its wake. Over nearly a decade, Greenfire has scaled from roughly $5 million in revenue to $80 million.
“We’re a top 20 construction firm in Milwaukee — competing with companies that have been in business for over 100 years,” says Ritchie of the award-winning Greenfire Management Services, which raked in 11 awards in 2018 alone.
Greenfire currently employs 45 people and counts two offices — one in Milwaukee and one in Wausau in northern Wisconsin. “We started the company with about $600,000, and the Tribe invested about $5 million for our bonding package — held in a separate account to bond some of these large projects,” Ritchie shares, paying credit to the Tribe and Greenfire’s eight-member leadership team for the business’ formation and success.
The Tribe tapped Greenfire to manage construction of its new 19-story hotel at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino; Data Holdings, the Tribe’s $36 million Tier 3+ data center; and the expansion of the Tribe’s Wgema Campus, formerly Concordia College, in historic Milwaukee.
In addition to leading Greenfire, Ritchie has served as the Chairman of the Forest County Potawatomi Community Foundation’s Board of Directors for 20 years. He additionally serves on various Boards, including the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, Froedtert Hospital Foundation, New Mexico Community Capital (Board Chair), NUMU, Inc. (Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe EDC) and Gun Lake Investments (Gun Lake Potawatomi Tribe EDC).
A family man, married with two children, Ritchie likewise values cultivating a family-oriented work environment. “We knew that in order for this to work, to retain our employees, we needed to create a culture that people are going to gravitate to that’s family oriented, community oriented, and treats people with respect and trust. We’re collaborative, transparent, encouraging, and we promote from within,” Ritchie says.
Ritchie adds, “This is a place where you can grow and have a career, do wonderful things and work on great, exciting projects — community transforming projects. And while you’re doing it, you can really enjoy the people you work with, and know that the company has your back. You have a company that respects and appreciates you.”
To hone his leadership skills, Ritchie participates in a CEO roundtable called Convene. “It also pulls in my faith, which can be very beneficial in leading an organization,” says Ritchie, who also frequently reads business and team management books, such as those by Patrick Lencioni and John Maxwell. When it comes to podcasts, you can catch him listening to StartupCamp, Ultimate Entrepreneur and the Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast, featuring conversations designed to help leaders go further, faster.
Ritchie is certainly committed to going further — in a sustainable fashion.
“With the strength and knowledge of our top-notch engineers, project managers and superintendents, we have been able to compete really well,” Ritchie says. “The challenge moving forward is to manage our growth and continue to expand our operations, both here in Milwaukee and geographically.”