Social Entrepeneur Winner: Clarence Louie

Clarence Louie Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corp. It’s the end of a long July day when Chief Clarence Louie answers the phone in his office in Oliver, B.C. Louie, president and CEO of the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corp. (OIBDC), which owns and operates 10 businesses on the 12,800-hectare Osoyoos Indian Band reserve, has been his band’s elected chief since December 1984. To hear him tell it, it’s an exhausting, sometimes thankless, role. “When you’re a political person or an elected chief but you also are involved in business, you deal with all the social issues and the business issues of the reserve,” he says in a tired voice. Asked to describe his typical day, he responds, “You have meetings, 100 phone calls, emails – you never get through them all, and then you’ve got band members coming in. Some of it’s about their issues within their jobs; just as much or more often it’s social issues on the reserve, whether it’s their housing problem or some problem on the reserve: roads, water, sewage issues, housing, school stuff.”

Louie was just 24 when he was first elected, and since that time the band’s economic success has become the stuff of legend – as has Louie’s uncompromising, no-bullshit attitude. (He’s been known to address aboriginal conferences with such aphorisms as “If your life sucks, it’s because you suck” or “Indian Time doesn’t cut it”; he has hung banners in his band office displaying the words “A real warrior supports himself and others.”) Among the OIBDC’s businesses are the Nk’Mip Vineyards, where more than 92 hectares of Vinifera and French Hybrid grapes are cultivated; Nk’Mip Cellars, an award-winning winery; the Nk’Mip Canyon Desert Golf Course, which expanded from a nine-hole course to a championship model in 2001; the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, which opened in 2006; 25 per cent ownership of the four-star Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa; as well as a construction company, concrete supplier, campground and RV park, a gas station and convenience store, a day care, and an interest in the Mount Baldy Ski Resort. Last year the OIBDC brought in $20.1 million in revenue, up 72.8 per cent from 2003. Those accomplishments seem all the more impressive when you consider the Osoyoos Indian Band has just 470 members and the adults virtually all work in some capacity for the OIBDC. “We’re proud to say we have more jobs than we have band members,” says Louie, estimating in peak season the corporation employs more than 1,200 full- and part-time staff. “We employ native people from 13 other communities and we employ a lot of non-native people. I always say you can’t run a business based on race. Most of our customers are non-native people.” It’s the band members, however, who receive an annual dividend from the corporation, as 10 per cent of each company’s profits go to the band; last year each member received $959.38, according to Brian Titus, the OIBDC CFO. Still, says Louie, it’s impossible to keep everyone happy. “There’s always the struggle and push and pull of running a business and trying to deal with the rez politics, as it’s called, and the internal politics and the demands.” He shares an anecdote summing up the tension between his hard-nosed business philosophy and his responsibilities as chief. “I was in the premier’s office, and I got a book from him called Good to Great,” he begins. “The emphasis of that book is get the right people in the bus in the right seats and get the wrongs ones off the bus. Well, in the white business world, you can do that. You can fire them or get rid of them and you never have to see them again. You can’t do that on an Indian reserve.” Why not? “Because they’re your people.” AND THE JUDGES SAY… “With a motto of ‘There is no dignity in a welfare line,’ Clarence Louie has led the Osoyoos Indian Band from one entrepreneurial success to another”