Native American Bank looks to enter Alaska

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2002

ANCHORAGE -- Bank executive John Beirise couldn't go along with the ''acquire and fire'' mentality that gripped the banking industry in the mid-1990s, so he launched off on his own.

While industry consolidation benefited shareholders, it did little to provide support for the long-term development of people and communities, said the 57-year-old Beirise, whose career largely was spent at Continental Bank in Chicago and Mercantile Bank in St. Louis.

So, last year at an age when many bank executives are contemplating retirement, Beirise established the Native American Bank. The bank's mission is to increase economic independence for American Indians by pooling resources ''to create something that did not exist but has potential to have a significant impact on a group of people who has not participated by and large in the American Dream,'' Beirise said.

Beirise, a non-Native whose roots are in southern Ohio, is turning his attention to Alaska Natives. Last month, his bank, which is headquartered in Denver and has a branch in Browning, Mont., had a booth set up at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage, attended by members of the state's more than 200 federally-recognized tribes.

''What the tribal investors have recognized is that by banding together you can create much stronger organizations with greater capacity than any one of the tribes can do on their own,'' Beirise said from his Denver office.

While in Alaska, Beirise met with representatives of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural development program.

Bill Allen, the Agriculture Department's state director for rural development, said the Native American Bank likely will be more willing than other banks to make loans in Bush Alaska. He said some banks are skittish of making such loans because they can't easily check up on the remote projects, increasing the risk attached to the loan.

But Beirise's bank has a bigger comfort level with that, Allen said.

The offer is welcome in Alaska, where the Native corporations already provide a wide array of banking services but don't do much project lending, Allen said.

''We are anxious to see more capital in rural Alaska,'' he said.

The Native American Bank was formed when 11 tribes banded together and donated $1 million each to purchase Blackfeet National Bank in Browning, owned by the Blackfeet tribe. The bank became Native American Bank.

The group of original investors included two Alaska Native corporations, the Sealaska Corp. of Juneau and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. (ASRC) of Barrow, established in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that compensated Alaska Natives for the loss of their land. The act allowed 13 Native corporations to select 44 million acres and gave them $962.5 million.

Beirise said the Native corporations already provide many of the banking services needed by Alaska Natives. The Native American Bank is still trying to find its niche, he said.

''The bank is very much in the startup mode. We are a very small operation at the present time,'' Beirise said.

The Native American Bank reported total assets of $26.4 million and $10.7 million in loans as of Dec. 31, 2001.

There is an advantage to having a bank with a national focus that can network with other banks, said Byron Mallott, president and CEO of the First Alaskans Foundation and a former CEO and president of Sealaska. Mallott is on the Native American Bank's board of directors.

''We have a strategic focus of supporting Native American economic development across the country,'' he said.

Beirise said the economic landscape for Alaska Natives is far different than tribes in the Lower 48, where casinos are fueling improvements for American Indians. In Alaska, ANCSA resulted in a network of shareholder-owned corporations, some very successful in working on behalf of Alaska Natives. In 2001, the ASRC with more than 9,000 shareholders reported revenues of $1.1 billion.

Beirise said he's not negotiating with any other Native corporations at this time, but hopes to.

Jim McMillan, AIDEA's acting executive director, said the Native American Bank has a much better understanding than other banks of the real risks associated with projects in rural Alaska.

He encouraged Beirise to put a bank representative in Alaska.

''A lot of time risk is perceived because of a lack of knowledge of the area in which the project is located,'' McMillan said.

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