Blue Stone Strategy Group: Client Success Is Our Success

Gale Courey Toensing

What’s a good way to evaluate the job performance of a company that offers tribal governments, businesses and organizations advice on good governance and economic development?

The answer is found in the old adage “Nothing succeeds like success,” according to the Blue Stone Strategy Group. “We believe that our success depends on our clients’ success,” the group says on its website.

For the past eight years, Blue Stone, a majority Native-owned firm, has successfully completed around 300 projects for more than 125 tribal clients. The firm provides tribal governments with analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of their operations, practical advice on becoming efficient and transparent, and strategies for improvement with step-by-step implementation plans. On the economic development front, Blue Stone has applied its methods to tribal businesses to increase revenues and profits across a wide range of fields, including agriculture, manufacturing, gaming operations, convenience stores, real estate, recreation, health care, and more. Reduced to an essence, the commonsense formula underlying the firm’s work is that good tribal governance plus smart economic development equals a better quality of life for the community.

Blue Stone Strategy Group was created by Jamie Fullmer, former chairman of the Yavapai Apache Nation, based on a cultural framework that is reflected in the group’s name. “Blue Stone Strategy Group was founded on the spiritual philosophy of the blue stone being a protection stone,” said Fullmer, who is chairman of the group. “The idea of that stone … is used as a very important tool to protect our life ways, our religion, our value system and our culture and traditions. That tie is really where Blue Stone Strategy was founded – it was founded out of protection. The name came out of the idea that our role and our responsibility as advisors is to protect tribes and tribal leaders in their efforts to protect their sovereignty, to protect their culture, to protect the future, to develop a plan and vision.”

John Mooers, Blue Stone’s CEO, came to the firm with more than 20 years of experience as a senior business strategist. He has the on-the-ground responsibility to lead project teams in helping tribes develop operational efficiencies, effective strategic planning for economic development, and due diligence assessments. Mooers emphasized that Blue Stone is committed to working only with tribes, tribal businesses and tribal organizations “so we’re never distracted from our agenda,” he said.

Blue Stone has worked with a diverse array of tribes in all parts of the country over the years. “We’ve represented the smallest federally recognized tribe in the U.S. with six registered members to one of the largest with several hundred thousand members,” Mooers said. “We’ve represented a tribe with one acre of land and communities with several million acres of land. We represent tribes today that are living in sheer poverty and having trouble funding their food programs for their elders and we represent tribes that are financially stable and growing.”

As a result of these varied conditions Blue Stone teams have learned a lot, Mooers said. “We’ve gained an understanding of the best practices within each individual department of a government and how to create efficiencies, accountability, financial stability. We’ve looked at how to support the training and development for tribal jobs within the government structure to be able to offer the highest quality services to their members at the lowest possible cost. That’s always been the balance to aim for, right?”

Blue Stone’s uniqueness lies in its team members, which include subject matter experts and some of Indian country’s most well-known and respected leaders, who bring their own expertise and decades  of experience to the work. Among them are W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe since 1977; Ernie Stevens Jr., serving his 14th year as chairman and national spokesman for the National Indian Gaming Association; Bobby L. Barrett, former chairman and vice chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians; and Brian Patterson, Bear Clan Representative to the Oneida Indian Nation’s Men’s Council and Clan Mothers, tribe’s governing body, responsible for directing policy for the Oneida Indian Nation, a position he has held for the past 20 years, and president of United South and Eastern Tribes.

“We have 54 team members now and growing,” Mooers said.

About half of Blue Stone’s projects deal with improving the way tribal governments work, helping them envision the future and creating the strategic plans to get where they want to be in five or 10 years.

It’s about process, Patterson told ICTMN. “When a tribe that’s existed in impoverished conditions for multi-generations all of a sudden has untold resources available, it creates its own unique set of challenges related to governing,” Patterson said. “And to balance that perspective, Blue Stone has also worked with the other extreme – tribes with little or no resources. Structuring a governing system provides a roadmap for tribal governments to meet the needs of their people.”

Blue Stone’s fees are hourly-based or project-based, but the firm’s main goal is not profit-driven, Mooers said. “You obviously have to make a profit to stay in business to provide the structure and the people to do the work, but at the end of the day it’s not about a financial windfall for us. It’s about making a difference in the communities we serve.”

Economic development projects make up the other half of Blue Stone’s work. “As we all know, governments don’t make money, they spend money so the other half of what we’re doing in Indian country is all about creating job opportunities and efficiencies in their enterprises to generate the profits and tax revenues necessary to fund the government,” Mooers explained.

One of Blue Stone’s biggest success stories involved a southwest tribe with 23 employees operating two convenience stores that were losing money each year. (Blue Stone doesn’t reveal the names of its clients in order to protect their privacy.) The tribe called in Blue Stone to assess ways to improve operations and profits, but gave specific instructions that they didn’t want to cut jobs or lower their employees’ pay or benefits.

“So we looked at everything from the vendor contracts to the fuel contracts to fuel pricing strategy to the point of sales system. We looked at staff training to improve customer service, cross marketing opportunities that were available with their players club and gaming operation,” Mooers said.

In the end, it was another old adage – this one from the investment or retail world – that provided the solution: “Buy low, sell high.”  Well, not too high, Mooers said. Blue Stone helped the tribe create a new fuel-purchasing contract at a lower cost, adjust the retail price – and still generate more customers. Customer service improved and employee morale got a boost. The convenience stores expanded, creating new jobs, and the end result was the businesses went from losing over $100,000 a year to improving tax revenue and profitability to over $4 million a year. “That had a significant impact on that tribe’s ability to fund government services,” Mooers said.

Another measure of Blue Stone’s success is that tribes now seek out its services. “When we first started, we did a lot of outreach – we spoke at conferences, developed white papers and tried to raise awareness. There’s been a significant shift over the past few years to where the majority of business opportunities come from tribes reaching out to Blue Stone. So we’ve created a brand that people do recognize in Indian country,” Mooers said.

Brian Cladoosby, the wearer of many hats, has been a Blue Stone devotee for around four years. Blue Stone did a strategic plan for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians when Cladoosby chaired that organization. Last year, Blue Stone conducted a retreat for the National Congress of American Indians where Cladoosby is currently president. This year, Blue Stone traveled to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community to conduct a retreat. Cladoosby has served on the Swinomish Senate, the tribe’s governing body, since 1985, and as chairman since 1997.

“We did an outline of some of the things we wanted to include in our strategic plan – short-term, mid-term and long term – and they helped us put the plan together. They were like a facilitator – their information was good, they took interviews and got an idea of what each person was looking to do,” Cladoosby said. He said he would recommend Blue Stone to any tribe in the country. “Planning is crucial,” he said. Then, quoting Benjamin Franklin, Cladoosby added, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

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