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Meet Justin Bennett, President of Ongweoweh Corp and Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs Honoree

The “Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs” list serves to elevate awareness of the innovation, professionalism, competence and tenacity demonstrated by Native entrepreneurs across Indian Country. Native Business is rolling out profiles of these 50 Native entrepreneurs online, in no particular hierarchy, to document and memorialize their innovation and self-determination. The inaugural class of the Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs recognizes leaders across 13 business sectors, demonstrating the diversity of industries where Natives are making an impact. Among the entrepreneurs recognized in the Manufacturing & Constructing sector is Ongweoweh Corp President Justin Bennett, a member of the Cayuga Nation. 

Justin Bennett, Cayuga, Ongweoweh Corp

Native-owned Ongweoweh Corp derived its name from the Haudenosaunee word meaning “original or real people,” according to President Justin Bennett, and it’s a signal to potential customers that they will be doing business with real people.

“The business relationship will be with real human beings,” is how Bennett puts the company philosophy.

The firm got its start in 1978 by Frank C. Bonamie, a Cayuga Tribal member in the construction trade who saw an opportunity in pallets, the wooden racks that goods get loaded on for transport. From a modest beginning in a barn in Spencer, New York (“it was just him and his son,” Bennett said), the firm has grown to one with 260 employees (80 in its headquarters in Ithaca, New York) and revenues of nearly a quarter billion dollars last year. It has locations in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Bonamie had many contacts with the federal government, other Tribes and private firms in his construction business, but his next move came about because a friend knew of an opportunity in Rochester, New York. The company was Kodak, and they needed pallets and wanted to work with minority suppliers.

Kodak remains a customer to this day, Bennett said, and Ongweoweh got an opportunity to grow by finding pallet makers close to Kodak plants around the country and brokering pallets for them.

Revenues have grown from $76 million in 2006 to $246 million in 2017, a track that could put them near the $1 billion mark in the next decade. “Over the years there’s been some rapid growth,” Bennett acknowledged. (Bennett is a former executive director of housing at the Cayuga Nation.)

The firm has small operations in New York, Illinois and Georgia that manufacture new and recycled pallets, to keep it current with industry trends. But mostly it is a broker that provides pallet management to its customers, which include some Fortune 500 firms.

In addition to traditional wood, it works with pallets made of plastic, composites or corrugated pallets.

It also has specialized in technology (called NativeTrax) that can track pallets from different suppliers. This is environmentally friendly because instead of being discarded, these pallets can be kept and repaired by vendors who get a rebate. Then Ongweoweh resells them.

Pallet shipping also involves a lot of packaging, and Ongweoweh includes this in the recycling effort, saving a lot of material from going to the landfill through a unit called 7Gen Waste Logistics that gives vendors credits on the material returned.

Ongweoweh’s growth has also come through acquisitions. In 2012 it purchased White and Co. and its software programs Best Pallet and Best Load. Best Pallet is a pallet design program. Different loads can have different requirements, said Bennett, so a design for a lighter pallet that works with what is being shipped can save a customer money. A customer shipping brick needs a heavy-duty pallet, said Bennett, but a customer shipping sneakers can use a much cheaper, lighter pallet.

The same is true with Best Load, which optimizes the loading of units depending on the product and comes up with the optimal way of stacking the load or moving the wooden boards. This can result in an 8 percent to 15 percent savings for the customer, Bennett said.

“Ongweoweh strives to be an adviser to its customers when it comes to secondary packaging,” Bennett asserted. “We advise them to look at the science and the engineering to discover new ways to save.”

The firm is quick to advertise its core values and responsibilities. “Ongweoweh strives to abide by our basic corporate values in addition to abiding by the values of the ‘Seventh Generation’ philosophy derived from the Iroquois Great Law of Peace. Our core values include Integrity, Respect, Accountability and Stewardship,” the firm states.

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