Alaska's native corporations look beyond profits
By night, Roy Huhndorf sits among blue-jeaned students, jotting down notes on financial management and basic economics, part of his nine-year quest for a business degree.Skip to next paragraph
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By day, the pin-striped executive is guardian of one of Alaska's most powerful corporations, Cook Inlet Region Inc., with $95 million in assets and land holdings of 2.3 million acres.
For the president and chief executive officer of a major corporation to be taking ground-level business courses may seem odd. But Cook Inlet itself is something of a corporate oddball. It is one of the 13 regional native corporations created by Congress in 1971 to settle ancient land claims in Alaska.
Today, 11 years after the hatching of these unique ventures, the companies are slowly emerging as savvy entrepreneurs in a world that just a few years ago was as alien to them as walrus hunting is to Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca.
They've not all been financially successful. A few have made Alaska-size bloopers and tallied losses that would have most shareholders on the warpath. But these corporations, one of the most unusual experiments in business history, are sharpening their business acumen and feeling their way.
They are caught up in trying to be profitable businesses as well as tools for the preservation of native culture. But many natives are eager to see tangible benefits from the corporate till.
''There is no doubt that with every passing year, the role the native corporations play in Alaska is growing by leaps and bounds,'' says Robert R. Richards, vice-chairman of the Alaska Pacific Bancorporation and a close watcher of the native corporations.
Under the precedent-setting 1971 settlement, the 13 regional corporations were granted close to $1 billion and 44 million acres of land as compensation for Alaska's 80,000 natives (the aboriginal Aleuts, Eskimos, and Indians).
These companies then parceled out part of the money and resources among some 200 smaller village corporations. Each native owns 100 shares of stock in the regional and village companies.
The natives have gained more political and economic clout across the state in the last decade, and these corporations have been part of the reason. At the same time, however, the rush of modern-day life has left its imprint on their rapidly changing culture, particularly in some rural villages where the life style still revolves around subsistence hunting and fishing.
Problems of alcoholism, suicide, an educational system oriented toward the white man, and the difficulties of coping with a cash economy have left their mark on native identities. More recently they have been fighting moves to repeal the subsistence hunting and fishing rights of rural villagers.
If the regional corporations today reflect these crosscurrents, they also represent to many natives what could be an instrument of stability. ''People who desire to enhance and preserve a culture are left to their own devices and, for better or worse, the one device we have now that might just work are these corporations,'' says Byron Mallott, chairman of the Juneau-based Sealaska Corporation, one of the most successful and powerful of the regional enterprises.