Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fund helps entrepreneurs fly

Lends small aboriginal firms crucial capital

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It's hard enough for well-educated middle-class people with few resources at their disposal or a track record in business to find enough money to start their own business.

It's that much harder for First Nations people, especially from northern reserves.

Tim Sweeny who grew up in Cross Lake First Nation, knows first-hand.

He studied to become an aircraft maintenance engineer, earned his pilot's licence and eventually got his commercial designation.

Using his savings -- and maxing out his credit card -- he opened a small aircraft-maintenance shop in Thompson called Creeway Aviation in 2006.

But when he wanted to get into the northern charter business, he knew it would be hard to raise the $300,000 to buy a used eight-seater Navajo Chieftain.

'I know I was a bit of a high risk and the reason I'm such an advocate of First Peoples fund is that they gave me an opportunity I couldn't find anywhere else'

He eventually was put in touch with First Peoples Economic Growth Fund (FPEGF), a lending agency formed in the fall of 2008 and funded entirely by the Province of Manitoba.

Founded as a partnership with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, in its first five years it's provided about $13.5 million in interest-free loans to 43 First Nations entrepreneurs and 13 band-owned businesses.

Almost all the loans are for less than $200,000, but the total portfolio includes seven larger loans.

"When you're first starting out, you have nothing," Sweeny said. "The conventional banks, understandably so, have requirements. If you don't reach a certain number in their computer program they don't give you any money. That's normal."

But since FPEGF's mandate, according to its CEO Ian Cramer, is to try to help give committed First Nations entrepreneurs a leg up in their efforts to run their own business, Sweeny has become one of its all-star clients.

"I know I was a bit of a high risk and the reason I'm such an advocate of First Peoples fund is that they gave me an opportunity I couldn't find anywhere else," he said.

He's paid off two loans from FPEGF, has a couple more that will be paid off in a year and now charters three Chieftains, runs the maintenance shop and employs five people including himself.

Creeway is the kind of low-key business with a dedicated owner servicing a market demand with the chance to employ other First Nations people that the fund wants to target.

FPEGF's portfolio of loans includes two other small aviation companies, a number of grocery stores and gas stations, a catering company, a graphic design house, a number of fishing enterprises and several heavy equipment/construction companies.

"Out intent is to facilitate the economic success and increase the number of First Nations people in business," said Cramer, the founding CEO of FPEGF. "That's why we were created. Most of our clientele wouldn't be able to get a bank loan. But many are successful in conjunction with our financing."

Adhering to a strict lending practice, entrepreneurs must figure out ways to match FPEGF loans through friends and family, their own savings, or a loan from the bank.

Graeme Green, commercial account manager with the RBC main branch at Portage and Main, has loaned funds to FPEGF clients.

He said it's easier for the bank to make a loan when the entrepreneur has the letter of intent from FPEGF.

"It provides some gap funding," Green said. "It's another tool to help stimulate the economy."

After completing its first five-year run -- the province originally committed about $20 million -- it has stuck to a business-minded, low-key approach. Cramer said its clients are not universally successful but it's only now about to send its first couple of accounts out to collection.

Eric Robinson, Manitoba's deputy premier and minister of aboriginal and northern affairs, said the province is happy with how the fund has performed and is in discussions to increase its funding commitment to 2016-17.

"A lot of (First Nations) people want to get into business and this is one way we felt it could be done," Robinson said. "The opportunities the fund provides wouldn't normally be there. But what's more important is it gives people a sense of pride that they can enter the business world."

Patricia Turner, a veteran entrepreneur from Grand Rapids -- and a former chief of that First Nation -- is the chairwoman of the board that also includes former Manitoba Hydro CEO Bob Brennan and Bob Silver, the CEO of Western Glove Works (and an owner of the Winnipeg Free Press). (Board members are 100 per cent volunteer and do not take per diems or charge the fund for travel expenses.)

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 12, 2013 B6

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Updated on Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 6:39 AM CDT: Replaces photo, adds fact box

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