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Wall St. And Business Wednesdays: Minority-Owned Business Evolving by Jo Dee Black


Brokering canned peaches from vendors in California for school lunch programs across the country isn't what Chinook-resident John Gilbert expected he'd be doing for a living.

But recently he made a $3 million deal to do just that, thanks to the Internet and federal programs aimed at helping small, minority-owned businesses in economically disadvantage areas.

A member of the Little Shell Tribe, Gilbert runs Silver Wolf Enterprises, with his wife, Pattie, and son, Shawn.

On Sept. 14, he received the 2004 Minority Small Business Person of the Year award for Montana from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Now his name is in the hat for regional and national awards.

"We have a lot of wonderful small businesses in Montana owned by Native Americans. They don't get enough recognition, and that is why these awards are so important," said Robert Much of the Montana Small Business Administration office.

Silver Wolf Enterprises has evolved quite a bit since it started in 1990.

That's when, after years managing farm and convenience stores in Blaine County, Gilbert launched his own business. In the beginning, he sold Durastill water coolers and water products.

He also attended workshops on U.S. Small Business Programs, where he was introduced to the world of government contracting.

"That's were I learned about some of their programs and today, about 80 percent of our business is with federal agencies," he said.

Now the diverse business brokers commodities for school lunch programs, sells appliances and water cooler products and markets a unique, adjustable bungee cord.

Revenue has mushroomed from $200,000 a year when the business started to more than $12 million in government contracts.

Silver Wolf Enterprises is part of the Small Business Administration's 8(a) Minority Enterprise Development Program, which aids new entrepreneurs in getting a foothold in government contracting.

The business also completed the tedious and time-consuming paperwork needed to be placed on the federal Central Contractor Register and the General Service Administration schedule.

Now if a government agency in Pittsburgh needs water coolers, it can go to the General Service Administration Web site and punch in that product. Silver Wolf Enterprise's name pops up on the approved vendor list.

"When a business is on that schedule, then contracting officers can assume the General Services Administration has already gone through the competitiveness process, and they don't have to put the purchase out for bid," said Karl Dehn, director of the Government Contracting Assistance Center in Great Falls. "It saves contracting officers a lot of time."

Gilbert credits his business' success to the Small Business Administration programs and a strong marketing plan.

A good working relationship with the business's lender, Independence Bank of Havre, also is critical.

"The government's pay schedule time is different for every product we sell, so we need some float to pay the vendors we buy products from," Gilbert said.

One of the biggest advantages of being a business owner is getting to work with family.

Gilbert's son, Shawn, is the sales manager.

"I hired my wife away from the Farm Services Agency," Gilbert said. "That allows us some freedom. Now if we want to have a long weekend away, we can. She doesn't have to be back to report for work by Monday."


Jo Dee Black can be reached by e-mail at jdblack@greatfal.gannett.com


Note: This article first appeared in The Great Falls Tribune


Wednesday, September 29, 2004

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