Q&A: Up Close With Kermit Mankiller, Enterprise Executive Officer for Nez Perce Tribal Enterprises

Indian Gaming magazine had the opportunity to speak with Kermit Mankiller, Enterprise Executive Officer for Nez Perce Tribal Enterprises. The Nez Perce Tribe has consistently been one of the top three regional employers in North Idaho, contributing millions of dollars to Idaho’s economy. An enrolled member of the Nez Perce Tribe, Mankiller is responsible for the oversight of the tribe’s enterprises – Clearwater River Casino & Lodge, It’s Ye Ye Casino, Nez Perce Express, and Camas Express – as well as general responsibilities including developing economic opportunities for the Nez Perce Tribe. Here is what he had to say…

What is your personal approach to leadership? Have you had any mentors over the years that helped form your leadership style?

I would describe my personal approach to leadership as ‘facilitation.’ I prefer a participative leadership style, which allows everybody, not just management, to grow and evolve their approach to work as conditions in the workplace change. A lot this approach is based on personal responsibility.

I’m a believer that most people enjoy work and enjoy being part of something. I believe that everybody has unlimited potential and that it is my task, and management’s task, to facilitate their engagement in order to unleash their potential for the benefit of our organization.

At the Nez Perce Tribal Enterprises, we place a high value on recruiting and elevating Nez Perce tribal members, particularly to management positions, so that we can take advantage of that natural engagement that we have as owners of our enterprises. I’m a member of the tribe myself, and I can say from experience the responsibility we as tribal members have to our peers does play a big role in keeping people focused and engaged. I try to promote an ownership-type mentality, because that results in a higher level of engagement, and generally more effective decision-making and performance. We take a lot of pride in the work that we’re doing and the impact that we have on our community.

It’s important for everybody to understand that there’s no one single individual at the enterprise to create great success – it is a function of our collective efforts and commitment to long-term organizational goals. The reason that I stress a team approach is that it requires three things – cooperation, collaboration and personal responsibility. These three things together produce a lot of great new processes, products and opportunities. I feel very fortunate to be part of a great team at the Nez Perce Tribal Enterprises, and to be able to work with great energetic people who are committed to our success. That’s the other part of this management philosophy – the commitment to success and the idea that success is out there – it’s our job to find it.

With regard to mentors, my most influential mentor was my Aunt Wilma. She impressed upon me the importance of getting up every day and being a part of something much greater than oneself. Also, the idea that we all need to take care of each other. It’s important to aspire to positive goals that appear beyond our reach as individuals. One of Wilma’s most famous quotes was, ‘We must trust our own thinking, trust where we’re going and get the job done.’

I’ve been fortunate to have also had several mentors in my academic and professional career. One that I would point out professionally was from when I first got out of college and went to work for my tribe. I worked for a gentleman named Michael J. Penney. He was a tribal administrator and taught me a lot about managing in Indian Country. I’m forever grateful for his advice. I was able to build a career based on the good start that he gave me. Over my lifetime, he also provided a lot of direction and was a lifelong friend. I really value that. He passed away in the last year or so, and he’s somebody that’s missed in our community. Another important lesson I learned from Mr. Penney was that if you’re going to manage in Indian Country, it’s an ever-changing environment. You have to be prepared to persevere.

Looking across the Nez Perce portfolio of enterprises, which business had the most growth and opportunity in the last year, and which proved to be most challenging to operate in these unique times?

Everything was very challenging, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic. There was so much that we didn’t know. The challenge, first of all, was making sure the team is safe. In all of our businesses, we needed to become convinced that it was safe for our staff to be there, and if we could achieve that, then by extension, it would be safe for our customers too. We were very successful at that.

In the beginning of the pandemic, we had to shut our gaming doors for 73 days. It was a real shock to the system not being able to operate our keystone business. When we did reopen, we had masking and distancing, temperature screening, enhanced cleaning – all of those things that were kind of state-of-the-art at the time. After we reopened, there was a slowdown in traffic, just because of the uncertainty, but not long after, customers came back. I’m convinced that our commitment to maintaining a safe space for our workers and our customers played a key role in convincing people that we were a safe place to be. One thing that has enhanced that reputation has been the Nez Perce Tribe’s Nimiipuu Health, which is our health system. They were on the leading edge, whether it was with regard to vaccination, tracking information, and beyond. The Nez Perce Tribe was able to position itself as an entity that could be trusted for accurate information during the pandemic.

With regard to gaming, between fiscal year ’17 and the end of the fiscal year ’19, we grew a solid 38%, which was dramatic. We had to give some of that back in the last year, but over the winter, it started to pick back up and we returned to our pre-pandemic growth rate. Right now, gaming looks very good and we anticipate that it’s going to be good into the near future as well. The Nez Perce Express stores remained open for the duration of the pandemic as they were considered essential services. Once again, we cultivated a reputation for diligence, maintaining protocols, and businesses at our stores has grown during the pandemic, particularly fuel sales, which are up pretty dramatically. I’m comfortable that we’ve reclaimed our spot on the growth curve, and very optimistic about that.

How have these businesses evolved over this last unprecedented year? What has surprised you the most?

Everybody is more conscious of health and safety issues, and that’s reflective of how we all approach our jobs. People pay attention to customers and staff and everyone around them. One area that’s definitely evolved is how we manage crowds, especially large groups. The Clearwater River Casino is literally the entertainment of capital of the region, and not having concerts and other events left a huge void in the regional entertainment schedule. Obviously, we didn’t feel like during the pandemic we would be able to manage that safely. Now that we are kind of marching back towards normalcy, we are preparing to hold our first concert event and have a couple of tribute acts. It’s going to be, for us, a relatively small show, but an opportunity to test our crowd screening and crowd management safety protocols prior to our big line acts later this summer. We’ll be hosting ZZ Top, Ludacris, Rob Schneider and a bunch of other top shelf acts. We need to make sure our protocols are polished before then, and that when people do come, that they feel safe and comfortable. We hope to return to some semblance of normalcy sometime soon.

As far as surprises – the last year has been such a blur with a number of positive and negative surprises. One thing that I was really heartened by, was the willingness of a whole bunch of people to work together to protect our community. It’s close knit and we take care of each other. Everybody rose to the occasion. One advantage we had, during all of this, was that the different entities within the tribe were being led by local tribal members that have a stake in outcomes.

Like so many businesses across the country right now, is the Nez Perce Tribe experiencing staffing issues at its enterprises? If so, how is this being addressed?

At Nez Perce Tribal Enterprises, we are focused on hiring primarily Nez Perce Tribal members. Different tribes have different goals with their enterprise. As an executive, I think it’s important that eventually all of our decision-making positions are filled by tribal members to support engagement and ownership. We’ve been successful in recruiting and elevating a number of people, so the labor shortage is a little less intense for us when you compare it to other employers in our area, because we are focused on a certain labor pool. Just the same, we’re not receiving as many applications as we have previously, and we’re running into the same situation as everybody else – there are positions we’d like filled.

The minimum wage issue is important and it’s something that the enterprises, and I personally, have been aware of the last few years. At the enterprises here, we’ve been incrementally increasing wages on a department by department basis over the past couple of years, with the intention of having at least a $15 an hour minimum wage as soon as possible. But it’s a steep climb, particularly in a low wage state like Idaho. The other element of the labor issue is the workforce has re-evaluated their value to employers, especially so-called essential staff. They are truly essential, and they need to be paid accordingly. All employers need to reassess how they view their staff, and make sure they are paying an appropriate rate. If they’re essential, then treat them like they’re essential. That’s the move that we’re trying to make here.

Are there any new technologies that you have implemented recently or are looking at implementing in the near future to streamline operations?

We use a lot of the new technology that was necessitated by the pandemic for health and safety. But for us as a team, probably the biggest leap we made in the last year, was a basic shift towards a virtual workspace. Now, we all know how to use Zoom, and Microsoft Teams is something we have implemented with our executive team. We’ve also used Lifesize and other different virtual platforms. These tools are going to be permanent fixtures in our workplace now. On a personal basis, one thing that I learned is that by using virtual platforms, you can get through a lot more meetings in a day. Virtuality is probably the biggest workplace leap we’ve made.

Where do you see the most opportunity for the Nez Perce Tribe going forward? Are you pursuing any new economic development or expansion plans?

We see opportunity everywhere, for a number of reasons. The natural and human resources that the tribe has available are substantial, they just need to be channeled in the right direction. For us, probably the biggest opportunities are in manufacturing. We own a lot of cropland and produce a lot of wheat, barley and chickpeas, for instance, but we don’t really do any value-add. In fact, in our region, nobody really does any value-added agricultural manufacturing. And we have all of these inputs right here within a stone’s throw. So, value-added agricultural manufacturing is something we are pursuing. Some of that will include food, but also potentially industrial hemp, metal manufacturing, and so on. We’re also looking at expanding our current businesses.

We are in the process of building an overpass from Highway 95 for our flagship casino campus. We were also in the process of doing some master planning when the pandemic struck, so we’ve had to reevaluate some of those ideas and make sure that whatever we design, it’s going to be useful post-pandemic.

We are looking at expanding our number of hotel rooms. We have a great event center and casino – we need to become  more of a destination property. That’s something that we continue to work on. We’re also expanding our stores and acquiring some new storefronts.

One of the big initiatives we’re involved with is raising money to build a business park. We have a couple of local manufacturers that have committed to locating there once it’s built. And there’s a lot of other interest in locating there. We are waiting to hear back from a federal agency on whether we are going to get a grant to do that. Once we get the business park in place, that really will accelerate our manufacturing initiatives.

Like many other tribes, we have a lot of potential, but we are missing basic infrastructure such as roads, power grids and broadband, which we are building. A lot of what we are trying to do going forward, is take advantage of the resources that are around locally.

In the future, we need to continue growing our gaming operation and eventually expand that out beyond our reservation lines. I know we’ve still got a little way to go before we are beyond the pandemic, but we are really optimistic. We are back on the move at this point and in growth mode, and that’s a good place to be. My biggest fear during the pandemic was that we were going to lose momentum, and basic team comradery, because we had this great momentum. All of that has been allayed. We picked the thing back up and we’ve got our energy, and particularly gaming is doing fantastic at this point. That’s where my optimism comes from.  

For more information about the many Nez Perce Tribal Enterprises, visit nezperce.org.