Lance Morgan on Leveraging Revenue From Federal Contracts to Bolster Reservation Economies

Lance Morgan is President and CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., the award-winning economic development corporation owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Established in 1994 in Winnebago, Nebraska with one employee (Morgan), Ho-Chunk, Inc. has grown to over 1,000 employees.

As Lance Morgan, President and CEO of Ho-Chunk, Inc., said during a July 30th panel entitled Indian Country Business Leaders for Biden: “We’ve used government contracting money to stimulate our economy,” including purchasing a housing manufacturing company, construction company and a used car company. 

The virtual panel — led by Clara Pratte, Diné, Tribal Engagement Director for Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign — covered a wide array of topics from entrepreneurship to infrastructure to new market tax credits to support Native economies, all priorities under Biden’s plan.  

Morgan was joined by Carmen Davis, Native Business Publisher and Executive Editor; Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and Congressman Raul Grijalva; Patrice Kunesh, Director of Pehín Haha Consulting; and Chris James, President and CEO of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. 

READ MORE: Carmen Davis Speaks to Entrepreneurship, Infrastructure During Indian Country Business Leaders Panel 

Morgan specifically honed in on the opportunity for Tribes to leverage government contracts to boost their reservation economies, and he emphasized the need for the next Presidential Administration to not merely protect the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) 8(a) program, but to bolster it. 

Morgan spoke from his office on the Winnebago Reservation in rural Nebraska, overlooking a herd of buffalo. Due to the reservation’s remote location, Morgan, who started Ho-Chunk, Inc. more than a quarter-century ago with $9 million in seed capital from the Tribe, has always had to think outside the box. 

READ MORE: Lance Morgan on Ho-Chunk, Inc.’s 25-Year History of Growth 

Ho-Chunk, Inc. built offices in urban areas, including Colorado Springs and Omaha, Nebraska, because “we don’t have a huge government contracting opportunity here.” 

Ho-Chunk flexes an “outside-in” approach, generating revenue off-reservation and then leveraging that money as social and economic capital — “really venture capital,” he said, “to start businesses on our own reservation.” 

“We’ve been able to develop a whole economy on our reservation, using the money that we’ve brought in from government contracts,” Morgan said. “We’ve used government contract money to stimulate our economy, to provide quality housing, and to fund our educational programs and internship programs,” he added. 

As Morgan, who is also the founding partner of Big Fire Law & Policy Group LLP, tells his clients: If you don’t have any natural resources, and if your casino is in the middle of a cornfield and not near a major city, figure out how to do government contracting. “Getting a few contracts might make a big difference,” Morgan said. 

For a reservation economy to flourish, it needs housing options and ways to embrace a high quality of life. So, Ho-Chunk, Inc. purchased an established housing manufacturing company, Dynamic Homes, and then created HCI Construction to set them, “so that we could control our own destiny,” Morgan said during the panel discussion. “We bought 40 acres, and we master planned a whole community.” 

“We’ve also run an interest in two banks, including the Native American Bank in Denver, Colorado, and we’ve started a used car company, just because we were tired of people getting ripped off on our reservation,” he added. 

For several years, Morgan served as the chairman of the Native American Contractors Association (NACA). What NACA practices by and large is “defense,” Morgan said, “trying to protect somebody from taking away the government contracting rights we have.” But really Indian Country and the United States need a U.S. Presidential Administration that will not only uphold the 8(a) program but strengthen it. 

“The last point I really want to make on federal contracting is that the government is going to spend this money anyway. Why not spend it with us?” Morgan asked. “That money will take people off government assistance, and turn them into thriving members of society.”