$325 million set-aside deal is biggest for Montana

PABLO - An information technology firm founded by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Pablo less than two years ago has landed a $325 million contract for the next eight years serving as a U.S. Air Force logistics contractor.

As a tribally owned business, S&K Technologies Inc. is automatically eligible for federal contracts reserved or "set aside" under federal law for small, disadvantaged and minority-owned businesses. It was just such a contract the firm has been awarded, officials said Monday.

According to Michelle Johnson, chief of entrepreneurial development for the Small Business Administration in Helena, the $325 million contract is far and away the biggest set-aside contract ever awarded a Montana firm, and is one of the largest in recent memory in the entire United States.

At a ceremony Monday at the KwaTaqNuk Resort in Polson, Air Force Gen. Dennis Haines congratulated S&K Electronics and its partner in much of the information-technology work, Tamsco Manufacturing. Tamsco has a manufacturing and service facility in Polson.

Haines, based at Robinson Air Force Base in Georgia, said the specialized logistics work S&K Technology and Tamsco provide helps the Air Force in three ways: These small, private-sector firms do the job better, faster and cheaper than can the Air Force or huge private-sector defense contractors.

"We get parts quicker and cheaper and our customers are very satisfied," Haines told a group of about 30 people at the ceremony.

Such "customers" include the Saudi Arabian air force, and other users of the Air Force's F-15 fighter aircraft throughout the world. When those fighters are bought, the purchase price includes a service contract.

S&K Technologies does not do the repairs itself. Instead, it tracks and routes equipment. It handles the information using computers equipped with specialized software developed by Tamsco. This enables it to manage an enormous database that can quickly pinpoint where in a worldwide network of vendors a needed part can be located. Computer operators can then determine how to get it to where it is needed at the least cost in the quickest time, according to Greg DuMontier, president of S&K Technologies.

DuMontier came to the firm after a brief stint at the parent firm, S&K Electronics, another wholly owned tribal enterprise that shares facility space with S&K Technologies in Pablo. S&K Technologies was spun off from S&K Electronics less than two years ago.

Fred Matt, chairman of the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribal Council, said tribal enterprises such as S&K Technologies and S&K Electronics, offer a return on investment to the tribal government. But more importantly, the firms provide highly skilled employment opportunities for young tribal members.

"By creating job opportunities, we are in turn creating a stronger economic infrastructure," he said.

But the new high-tech tribal enterprises do not exclusively employ tribal members.

In fact, S&K Technologies will have 100 employees at five locations throughout the United States under existing contracts and as work on the new Air Force contract begins in the next month or so.

About 20 of those workers will be tribal members working on the Flathead Reservation. Other employees will be specialized technical workers in offices far from the Flathead Reservation - Atlanta, Seattle and Houston, where S&K Technologies handles data for the nation's space program.

In fact, DuMontier said, the business deal "was a tough sell" to the Tribal Council because not all the workers on the project will be tribal members on the reservation. "It was difficult to get people to warm up to the idea. With this contract we are going global."

The contract, DuMontier said, exemplifies the go-slow-and-build-on-success business strategy pursued by S&K Information Technology. Job growth on the reservation will come steadily, but slowly, as local folks gain confidence that this recent start-up "dot-com" will still exist in a year or two.

Fortunately, the tribal community college, Salish-Kootenai College in Pablo, provides the basic computer skills needed for these highly skilled and technical jobs. Entry-level workers will receive training for specific skills they need.

Reporter John Stromnes can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or jstromnes@missoulian.com.

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