Waséyabek: Non-Gaming Diversification Empowered Tribal Economic Resilience in Face of COVID-19

Waséyabek Development Co.’s headquarters, purchased in October 2018, located in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Courtesy Waséyabek)

Because the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi made the strategic decision to diversify away from gaming, the Tribal economy has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic significantly less scathed than if it was sustained primarily by casino-related activity. The Band’s non-gaming arm, Waséyabek Development Co. LLC, has exacted on its strategic economic plan, targeting three core sectors for market entry and expansion: commercial real estate (30% of its focus), commercial operating businesses (40%), and federal contracting (30%). 

“Our federal contracts have continued 100%. Our manufacturing company was deemed essential,” Deidra Mitchell, President and CEO of Waséyabek Development Co. LLC, told Native Business of how operations have proceeded unencumbered by the pandemic. “Our commercial real estate has remained largely unaffected. It has built us a nice asset base that we’re able to count on and a steady revenue stream. We’ve been very, very lucky, but it was because we decided to diversify completely away from gaming-associated companies.” 

The Nottawaseppi Huron Band owns the AAA Four Diamond-rated FireKeepers Casino Hotel in Battle Creek, Michigan. The casino (affiliate businesses include a resort-style hotel, five restaurants and event center) was shut down for roughly 10 weeks, until June 1st, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. While the Tribal economy inevitably felt the brunt of the virtual overnight loss of casino revenue, it was the Band’s foresight to economically diversify its portfolio beyond gaming and tourism that have not only sustained the Tribal economy, but allowed it to flourish. 

READ MORE: A Genuinely Effective Leader: Kathy George, CEO, FireKeepers Casino Hotel 

Waséyabek Development Co. formed in 2011, and sat its first board in 2014. Mitchell came on board in 2016 and helped to lay the foundation for Waséyabek’s strategic diversification plan. Central to Waséyabek’s mission, as set forth and its guiding documents, was to diversify the Tribe’s revenue streams beyond gaming. That meant investing only in businesses that don’t rely on capacity drawn by FireKeepers, which ruled out hotels, C-stores and other businesses tied to the casino.  

But first, attention focused on the deal flow process. “When I came in 2016, my first goal was to gain alignment between my board of directors, the Tribal Council, the membership, and what I knew to be good practices for economic development in Indian Country,” Mitchell said. Mitchell started by clarifying decision-making authority — whether Waséyabek was purchasing a company, buying a piece of property or developing a company: “What decisions needed to be elevated to the board level? To the Tribal Council level?” she explained.

Native Business breaks down Waséyabek’s core focuses and evolution below. 

A Waséyabek commercial real estate asset, Debanawen 29, which stands for “Love” in the Potawatomi language. The building is leased by a community-based non-profit, which is an economically stable, long-term leaseholder.

Commercial Real Estate Acquisitions 

To date, Waséyabek counts five commercial real estate properties. Three are single-tenant commercial spaces — a refrigerated warehouse, a manufacturing space, and a building formerly owned by the Goodwill in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “They were divesting their structures,” said Mitchell of Goodwill, explaining that Waséyabek now rents that building to Goodwill as a tenant. 

Waséyabek’s fourth purchase was a mixed-use office building in downtown Grand Rapids that became its headquarters. An Italian restaurant sits on the Kendall Building’s first floor, and Waséyabek occupies the second — as it also expands its real estate onto the third floor to accommodate the fast growth of its federal services division. Waséyabek is currently converting existing third-floor apartment units into additional office space and a large conference room. (The fourth and fifth floors of the Kendall Building also house apartment units.) Meanwhile, the company is hiring for at least 15 new jobs, with future positions anticipated for finance, contract administrators, legal support, technical writers, human resources, etcetera. “We were already bursting at the seams,” Mitchell told MiBIz

Waséyabek’s fifth and most recent real estate acquisition entailed a partnership with Gun Lake Investments, the non-gaming economic investment entity of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, or the Gun Lake Tribe. The parties jointly purchased an iconic, 18-story building in downtown Grand Rapids called McKay Tower for $17.5 million. 

In 2018, Waséyabek Development Co. acquired DWH, LLC.

Commercial Business Acquisitions

Waséyabek owns two commercial operating businesses. Its first commercial business acquisition was strategic and filled an internal need. The Tribal economic arm needed help with turnaround and succession planning. “We knew as we were growing as an organization, and we were going to need talented professionals to help us. It was a revenue-producing business, in good health with leadership that wanted to stay,” Mitchell said of the firm, DWH.

So it was a win-win as an investment that bolstered Waséyabek’s holdings and supported Waséyabek’s plans for growth and workforce development. “We often use DWH’s staff to help us do due diligence on acquisitions, or to fill interim spots before we have enough business activity to warrant a full-time position,” Mitchell said. “An example of that would be our controller; we had a part time controller from DWH for a while. We’ve now hired our own controller and a controller’s assistant, so we were able to have this known group of really good professionals that could also help us grow also. That was a very strategic acquisition that we made first.”

Waséyabek next purchased a commercial manufacturer in Nunica, Michigan, Baker Engineering LLC, that also handles research & development and engineering, and work for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Department of Defense agencies. “A lot of what they do is research and development on specialty engines — drone engines, primarily,” Mitchell said.  

Waséyabek’ coinvested in McKay Tower with Gun Lake Investments in mid-January 2020.

Federal Contracting 

Subsidiary Waséyabek Federal Services secured its 8(a) certification from the U.S. Small Business Administration early on. But certification alone “doesn’t mean people are going to come and knock on your door,” Mitchell said. “That just means you have an advantage in the market to help you compete in federal contracting. You still have to do the work, you still have to do the marketing, you still have to sell yourself, and have the capabilities.” 

In September 2018, Waséyabek garnered its first 8(a) contract, a $161 million U.S. Department of Energy award through a joint venture with Emeryville, California-based E2 Consulting Engineers Inc. to provide site operations and support services at three National Energy Technology Laboratory locations. “We’re the prime on that,” Mitchell said of the DOE contract, Waséyabek Federal Services LLC’s largest to date. “We have pursued other work under that joint venture with that teaming partner, but we’ve also developed other teaming partners along the way.” 

Come February 2020, the SBA awarded Baker Engineering LLC — the precision performance engine manufacturer and defense R&D supplier that Waséyabek purchased — its 8(a) certification. 

Then, in March of this year, Waséyabek’s rapidly expanding federal services division launched FED95 LLC, a new Grand Rapids-based environmental remediation subsidiary. When COVID-19 hit, the newly 8(a) certified FED95 LLC started bidding on coronavirus cleaning and disinfection contracts, in addition to offering industrial hygiene services.

Pictured: Baker Engineering’s Performance Engine Segment, which includes shop services and the Pro/Cam Racing Engine Components product line. Waséyabek Development Co. acquired Baker Engineering in 2018.

Strategic Planning & Alignment 

Ultimately, Mitchell credits Waséyabek’s success to alignment around a solid, strategic plan that matched the capital investment the Tribe was prepared to make. “The financial models bear all that out,” Mitchell said. “Because the board, the Tribal Council and the membership are aligned and supportive of economic development, we have been able to hit all of our milestones in the strategic plan so far.” 

And Waséyabek has remained disciplined to its plan. “We have a vision that I can execute on and that is funded appropriately,” Mitchell said. “We’ve done very well.”