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NAABA: An Industry Perspective

CAROL CHRISTIAN - Photography by Paul Jen
BY CAROL CHRISTIAN - Photography by Paul Jen
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On September 13, there was a gathering in town – one the likes of which Fort McMurray has never seen before.

It was a celebration of Aboriginal business leaders and their companies; all successful and many members of a ground-breaking Aboriginal business template: the Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association, more commonly known as NAABA.


Those in the crowd also included their clients and suppliers as well as oil sands industry and political representatives.

The evening was a recollection of what has gone before as well as the bright future that lies ahead for the association and its members.

However, a few years before NAABA was officially kicked off, it was a couple of intrepid Syncrude Canada executives who had the foresight and inclination to see an organized effort to promote Aboriginal business was needed.

Eric Newell and Jim Carter had come to this conclusion after watching some of their Aboriginal employees work with a focus that was enviable and one that bucked the negative stereotypes of Aboriginal workers.

When asked about the way the story unfolded, Newell casts his mind back to 1989 with clear recollection when he became CEO of Syncrude Canada and Carter was head of operations.

Around 1992-93, Syncrude was conducting about $3-million of business with Aboriginally-owned companies, “but they weren’t very good projects,” he acknowledges.

Citing one example, Newell mentions the Good Fish First Nation. Members were hired for work similar to a laundry service.

“It was like subsidy pay. We could have gotten the work done a lot cheaper elsewhere.”

Now, the members are in the textile business, making the goods they were once hired to wash.

“Jim and I recognized there are several aspects about the people who we were working with. We have a large Aboriginal population, workforce in other words.”

He remembers another group that flew down from Fort Chipewyan for seasonal work on the oil recovery group at Syncrude cleaning up the bitumen on the tailings ponds. 

“That group was really well focused on the objective. They produced tremendous results. They were doing so well and recovering so much. They were doing so well and returning so much bitumen that the good news was it was really quite profitable, but the bad news was we were letting that much bitumen out,” he chuckles.

“That group was very committed. I used to love to use them as an example. Their absenteeism rate was like 1.1%. It was absolutely unheard of it was so low. That’s so counter to the negative stereotypes you hear.”

Those two examples as well as others caused Newell and Carter conclude “We should really be trying to develop more Indigenous businesses.”

Two key Indigenous leaders at that time who really play a centre role here are Dave Tuccaro and Doug Golosky, says Newell. Both men now own groups of companies. with Tuccaro Group and Sunset Recycle and Sales, one of Golosky’s business ventures, were event sponsors of NABBA’s 25th anniversary celebration.

“Dave was always very entrepreneurial, even as a teenager.”

Newell recalls Tuccaro was able to buy out Neegan which at one time was owned by the area’s five First Nations. Neegan, a fuel and mine services supplier, continues to be part of the Tuccaro Group.

While Tuccaro was gung-ho to get started, Newell says “We had to get him to understand you don’t start right at the level of Finning or Caterpillar. You have to work you way into it.”

He stated working with Syncrude in smaller projects involving mobile equipment.

“We always worked very well with David at the senior level. Sometimes we had to pull the old tough love. David went through some ups and downs, but he learned, and got bigger and bigger.”

Newell is similarly flattering of Golosky, adding “He’s great.”

Both men are founding members of NAABA.

“Jim and I may have started down this target and we may have started to put the steps in place, the infrastructure to create these companies, but it wouldn’t have happened without leadership from the likes of people like Dave Tuccaro and Doug Golosky, and others,” pointed out Newell.

“We had talked about why we as Aboriginal companies, weren’t getting the same chances on bidding like others in our region,” remembers Golosky.

“We felt that if we got a group of our local Aboriginal companies together, we would work together to win bids and to help each other, and so we did this. The first thing we did after we were formed was to work together on building the Air Mikisew building at the airport which Syncrude operates out of today.

“This involved Mikisew (Mikiesew Cree First Nation), Golosky Contracting and Dave’s company, Neegan.”

Golosky recalls others at that first meeting included Simon Waquan, Joseph Trip De Roche, Archie Gladue and Bruce Golosky.

The first NAABA meeting was at the Sawridge Inn which let the group use one of its boardrooms.

“We asked Eric if they could help with supplying a person to help us in our first meeting which he did.”

And the rest, they say, is history.

One trait Newell credits both Golosky and Tuccaro with being extremely good at wanting to make sure others, especially younger people in their communities, could learn and develop companies.

“So I often refer to NAABA as the chamber of commerce for indigenous companies.”

Newell clarifies that the plans he and Carter set in motion were not a hand out. It was a hand up and helped the people and that’s what enabled their initiative to work.

Witnessing early successes for Golosky and Tuccaro, “Jim and I decided we needed to get serious about creating opportunities for Indigenous companies.”

Creating these opportunities wasn’t all sweetness and light, admits Newell.

“If you create an opportunity for Indigenous people, like for example, using our overburden, that means you have to carve out a piece of the business; take it away from some very good loyal contractors and that’s not nice, but you have to get them started.”

At the same time, they had to have the contractors on side to make it work.

“We sat down and talked to them. They bought on right away.

“So we started down this path trying to find good bus opportunities so we helped make them happen.”

In creating those opportunities, Newell and Carter had some stipulations for those they were helping which translated into three or four years of favoured treatment such as sole sourcing.

First and foremost, they had to have a business plan. Also, noted Newell, the recipients had to find other clients and branch out to deter any idea of them becoming solely dependent on Syncrude for business.

“That’s not the grounds for good healthy business relationship.”

In the end, they had to stand on their own two feet and become profitable.

“But Jim and I are anal. We’re engineers,” laughed Newell. “We always have to have a target for something so we set a target for ourselves…. That we were going to try and strive to get to the point Syncrude would be doing about $30-million a year of business with Indigenous companies.”

According to company information, Syncrude spent a record $342-million in 2017 with Aboriginally-owned businesses to surpass the $3-billion mark in total spending since 1992, when the number first began to be tracked.

“Our thought was if ever got to that level, $30-million a year, nobody would question our intent. We were trying to help the local people share equally in the benefits of oil sands development. That was guiding our employment philosophy at the time too. I held that very seriously. So did Jim.”

“Jim and I may have started putting these pieces in place, but it wouldn’t have happened without the leadership of people like David and Doug and others in Fort McKay and Fort Chip.”

Though never directly involved with NAABA or the direction of it, Newell doesn’t doubt there were many people saying it wasn’t going to be a success.

“When we first started, we weren’t that well received by the oil sands industry, but we have had a very huge impact as Aboriginal companies who have proven that we are capable of doing everything any other non-native company can do.” adds Golosky. “We have now proven that we are capable.”

Newell repeats the efforts by Carter and himself weren’t a hand out, but a hand up to people who have a lot of barriers against them and with growing the pie bigger, everybody wins.

In 2014, NAABA had more than 200 members which were doing approximately $1.6-billion worth of business with the oil sands companies and Al-Pac.

Newell calls NAABA the “most successful Aboriginal business development application in the world, but you don’t hear much about. You don’t hear the accomplishments of it.”

The NAABA template has been used in other provinces to create similar business associations such as within Aboriginal communities looking for success in the potash industry in Saskatchewan, even at the national level with organizations such as the Conference Board of Canada.

“NAABA has fingers that go out further than you might realize though it started with pretty modest efforts.”

Hearing that their template was used by other organizations, “Made me feel like we had really helped Aboriginal business, not only here in Fort McMurray, but nationwide,” says Golosky.

Newell notes that Golosky and Tuccaro never hesitated to create opportunities for their people.

“They developed the people and what they created, I think, is just a great model. You have to set the tone from the top. You aren’t going to be able to do anything. The people in the organization have to see its supported from the top.”

What NAABA created in 1993 and the trust it built and the capacity, is a model Newell calls replicable.

“It’s a model that replicable. It takes leadership, but it’s doable. It’s a real tremendous accomplishment.”

Going forward, Newell says he hopes NAABA continues developing their operation, especially in building capacity particularly among the youth to work into those senior level positions. 

“If every one of those Aboriginal companies had CEOs and CFOs that were Indigenous, what do you think that tells the youth? That shows it’s working.”

The goals of the job creation seeds Newell and Carter were planting are reflected in the spirit of NAABA’s objectives and missions. It’s board of directors is a who’s who of Aboriginal business leaders from across the Wood Buffalo region.

It’s vision is: Aboriginal Strength, Unity and Opportunity in Business.

Aboriginal Business working with Industry; enhancing opportunities by promoting business development in the Wood Buffalo region is its mission.

Business objectives include business development and strengthening relationships between industry and membership.

“We  really didn’t have any big ideas about our organization other that helping each other succeed to become a group of Native-owned companies which could work anywhere and be successful,” says Golosky.  “I think we did a lot better that what we had envisioned when we started this.”

He admits that he would like to see NAABA continue to grow.

“In these tough times, we must really work to build relationships with other organizations in our region. Also, (we need) to help get more young people involved and to help keep young people stay in school and get an education or tickets in the trades as these will help to keep NAABA growing and moving forward.”

Golosky grants that he is very happy to have played what he describes as a minor part in NAABA.

“I have great hopes that NAABA continues for a very long time. I would like to be remembered as a very small part in a great organization which the local Aboriginal people have built in the best interests of Aboriginal generations to come behind us.”

These are just a couple of the recollections of what has gone before and some hopes for the future. There are others, and those are memories and stories yet to come…