Breaking new ground 

Tribally-owned firm forges ahead on affordable homes

After a challenging start, officials at the Blackfeet-owned Pikuni Industries predict they’ll soon turn the financial corner with their new modular building construction business.

“Within three years, we’re hoping to be sitting pretty good,” says General Manager Ed Aubert. “We’ve had a pretty tough go, but we’re doing OK. Our name is out there. People are starting to know who we are, and our homes are starting to move.”

Pikuni (pronounced peh-kunn-ee) officials in the late 1990s decided to expand their metal fabrication and general contracting business and get into modular construction. Bolstered with $1 million in grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help cover the transition, the company has been cranking out new buildings at an ever-increasing pace.

The first HUD grant, awarded in 1999, allowed the firm to renovate a 40,000-square-foot building just south of Browning, purchase equipment and build the first prototypes. The second grant, secured in early 2000, was aimed at developing new markets for the buildings, which are built with metal frames instead of wood.

The fledgling firm is providing desperately needed jobs for residents of the reservation, where wintertime unemployment often exceeds 75 percent. Wages for skilled workers at the plant run from $11 to $16 an hour. Entry level positions typically pay $8 an hour. Better yet, the jobs are year-round, while most work in the area is seasonal.

In time, the company hopes to become a major provider of affordable homes for Montanans and other residents of the Rocky Mountain region. The buildings, which typically sell for about $50 per square foot, are specially designed for cold northern climates.

Pikuni offers 27 computerized floor plans for customers to choose from. Cabinet work is now done in-house, and buyers can also toy with other accessories. Aubert says standard homes built outside a factory typically sell for $60 to $100 per square foot, which is too expensive for many folks. “We wanted to make homes that are affordable,” says Aubert, adding that the buildings run from $48,000 to $71,600 apiece, depending on their design.

With wood prices steadily rising, Aubert says it makes economic sense to use metal for the framing. Instead of nails, the stout studs and joists are secured with screws, which ensures a tighter and longer-lasting fit. The pieces are cut with a special stud-making machine purchased in New Zealand. The firm, which employs 27 full-time workers in the production plant alone, also prepares financing packages and does building transport, as well as site preparation. The eventual goal is to become a one-stop, full-service operation that is both convenient for customers and profitable for the tribe.

So far, 12 of the modular units have been completed and sent down the road. Dozens of other orders are trickling in as a variety of federal and tribal agencies and private buyers choose the company for their housing, classroom and office needs.

Pikuni recently completed a classroom, a dormitory building and an office structure for the Blackfeet Head Start program, and the company is working on modular buildings for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge near Malta. Another unit was built for the wildlife agency’s research center in Wheatland, Wyo. Glacier National Park officials have contracted for a modular dorm building in Many Glacier, just west of the reservation boundary.

Aubert and Don Kittson, Pikuni’s marketing director, say they’re working with tribal housing authorities on the Flathead and Fort Belknap reservations to sell up to nine homes in the coming year. They also hope to sell more of the structures to the Blackfeet Housing Authority, which typically has a waiting list of tribal members looking for a home.

By the end of 2002, Aubert says he expects 24 new units to have gone out the door. The company also hopes to tie into a major housing development outside of Helena, which alone could produce enough orders to keep the operation at peak capacity for the next several years. If all goes well, Aubert hopes to complete up to 50 additional modular buildings in 2003. “We have to get out into the commercial market, the private sector, so to speak,” says Kittson, who also holds a law degree. He adds that the company’s federal minority status undoubtedly helps them secure government contracts, but that’s not enough.

Pikuni’s general contracting work is also expanding, and Aubert says a contract was recently signed for the company to build a $1.6 million office addition at Blackfeet tribal headquarters in Browning. Last September the firm finished a new, $2.4 million tribal elderly care center on the reservation. Pikuni also hopes to secure the contract for building a $10 million resort complex being considered by the tribe. The facility would be located just outside Glacier Park.

Aubert says the metal fabrication component of the business is also diversifying into more agricultural equipment such as corral panels, gates, calving pens and even branding irons. The company is hoping to secure a $12 million contract with Kentucky-based KECO Industries, a major supplier for the U.S. Air Force, to build a specialized form of equipment carts.

While all the business activity is encouraging, making the financial pieces fit has been a major headache, Aubert says, especially considering that many federal contracts don’t allow for down payments. That type of purchasing ties up capital that could be used for other projects and creates cash crunches.

But Pikuni officials hope to alleviate future cash-flow problems with help from the Native American National Bank, which now has a branch in Browning, as well as by steadily increasing sales. If predictions hold, they say there’s clearly light at the end of the tunnel.

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