The first thing Jamie Fullmer wants to clarify is that the Blue Stone Strategy Group is not a financial advisor. “We consider ourselves to be a tribal support advisor,” said Fullmer, the founder and chief executive officer of the four-year-old company based in Phoenix that focuses on helping tribes and tribal communities build strong and sustainable economies and protect their sovereignty. “We work in two areas—government and economic development. Finance does play a part in it, but we’re not about going out and trying to get loans for tribes or striking deals for tribes.” Instead, Blue Stone does the research, analysis and due diligence needed to assure a tribe that the paths it takes make sense from long-range governance, business and cultural perspectives.
It’s no coincidence that the company chose the Blue Stone—or turquoise—of the Southwest as its logo. A powerful element in Apache creation stories, the blue stone is used in ceremony and as an amulet or talisman that brings good fortune. “We chose the Blue Stone to serve as our symbol and guide as we promote and support sustainability and prosperity within Native communities,” he said.
Fullmer founded Blue Stone Strategy Group after serving for five years as chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, where he planned, initiated and implemented a number of projects that continue to yield financial and community benefits, including a low-income housing project of 50 units financed by a combination of tax credit funding, low interest loans and tribal resources, a cement plant, and an RV park that’s still going strong. “It has passed that five-year business threshold, and it’s still up and running and a success,” he said.
Fullmer formed Blue Stone Strategy Group with the idea of bringing that same kind of long-range strategic planning to tribal nations and companies that do business in Indian country. The overarching goal is to strengthen tribal sovereignty and preserve cultural values, and the path is stable economies and strong governance. So Blue Stone has gathered a team of well-known, high-powered, seasoned tribal leaders with expertise in all fields of tribal governance and politics, community development, business management and enterprise development. They are experts in retail, golf courses, natural resources, agriculture, ranching, manufacturing, healthcare, real estate, recreation, cultural preservation and more. They help tribes define their visions, analyze their resources and challenges, and develop real time, workable plans to reach their goals.
Bobby Barrett is the newest senior strategist to join the company. He recently completed 10 years as chairman and vice chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, during which the Viejas nation had unmatched growth in its casino, in the development of a shopping mall, an entertainment and production company, the establishment of the first American Indian–owned bank in California, and Three Fires, LLC—an unprecedented partnership with the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians of California that broke ground on its first venture in 2004: a $53 million Residence Inn by Marriott in Sacramento, California.
It’s important that Blue Stone always be an Indian-owned business serving Indian country, Fullmer said. “A lot of tribes will hire experts in finance or planning, but they’re not experts in understanding the unique characteristics of a tribe. We’re not only Indian-owned, but all of our Native team leaders are former or current leaders throughout Indian country. We’ve tried to blend the best practice of business with a deep understanding of tribal priorities and tribal cultural values and tribal community systems.”
Given the present turbulent economic times, Fullmer said tribes should take a critical look at their strategies on both the governance and enterprise sides.
This is where due diligence comes into play for tribal governments, said Blue Stone Senior Strategist Brian Patterson, a Bear Clan Representative to the Oneida Nation Men’s Council and Clan Mothers and president of the United South and Eastern Tribes. “Tribes need to look beyond their own backyard and even seriously consider forming business partnerships with private companies,” he said. “It’s a bold move, but with the right planning it’s worth exploring to build upon the diversification, which is more than just a buzzword in Indian country. If tribes want to depend less on government earmarks and more on their own profits, then they need to explore multiple avenues to generate income. Innovation has to be the
priority today, not tomorrow.”
Diversification is the key theme these days, said John Mooers, Blue Stone’s president. With the American Indian gaming industry soon reaching the ripe old age of 25, it has become a mature industry and has likely reached a plateau in growth. “Our purpose is to help protect tribal sovereignty by helping create a stable economic platform that creates diversity potentially outside of gaming.”
Fullmer said it’s also important to increase diversity within a tribe’s gaming operation. “It would make sense to at least look at vertical integration—what can you do to enhance your gaming, be more efficient and reduce your overall gaming expenses, because that’s profit at the end of the day. Some tribes have gotten into the entertainment arena, for example. It’s still within gaming, but it’s a different industry. Or they have their own restaurants or have added spas to their hotels and are running them themselves.”
Each tribe has different needs but all can benefit from increased efficiencies, Fullmer said. Setting up a separate economic development corporation helps run businesses more efficiently, and so will creating systems for formal communication, better operations planning, and more consistent financial reviews. Staffing reviews always result in efficiencies, Fullmer said. Sometimes the recommendation is to cut back the number of employees. “We call that ‘right-sizing,’?” and sometimes efficiencies are gained by increasing staff to avoid having to outsource jobs.
But Blue Stone’s vision goes beyond the economic well-being of individual nations to a pan-Indian economy. “One of the challenges in Indian country that we see is that we don’t buy goods and services from ourselves,” Fullmer said. “We’ve been part of the National Indian Gaming Association and the American Indian Business Network, whose whole idea is the ‘Buy Indian’ philosophy. How can we hope to build strong economies or even support Indian people if we don’t buy from one another?”
Buying Indian goods and services from qualified and reputable Indian vendors creates an Indian country economy, Fullmer said. With the gaming and other business successes that tribes have experienced, there is more opportunity now to create a pan-Indian economy despite some fierce competition between tribes. “You can learn from your competing tribal neighbors and also create a sense of unity to allow for the creation of strong business opportunities and stronger business models that can be repeated in different tribal systems,” he said. “What we learn from the mainstream economy is that there is fierce competition in every industry but there’s also a need to share information so that everybody can remain competitive.”
Blue Stone also thinks about the needs of the seventh generation. What does a community want to look like tomorrow and how does it need to structure its enterprise and governance to get there? Fullmer said the key here is education, so there isn’t a brain drain of their best and brightest members leaving the tribal system and moving away to the urban areas.
“If creating jobs is a priority, and it usually is, then what specific sort of training and education and scholarships need to be put in place so that the majority of jobs are tribally owned, tribally managed and employ tribal members? We look at those opportunities for education and career building for the youth in our tribal communities.”
With his experience as a tribal leader and with degrees in social work and business, Fullmer brings passion to his work that transcends the bottom line. “We’re really honored to be in Indian country. I feel a calling to help wherever I can, and I’m always trying to maximize my value to Indian country,” he said. “That’s why we’ve built a diverse team of folks who are Indian and non-Indian that I think really make a positive impact for the tribes we work with.”