PHILADELPHIA — The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MBCI) is renowned for their wildly successful Silver Star casino. There’s also a modern hotel with up-scale restaurants and spiffy stores plus their two world-class golf courses, all located on the Choctaw reservation near Philadelphia (pop. 8,000) in east central Mississippi. That sprawling complex has caused an unprecedented area-wide boom.
Construction continues unabated with an additional casino on the drawing boards, a new expanded retail/commercial center replacing the old one and an 1,100-space parking garage rising next to the casino and hotel. And then there’s the 250-acre recreation lake under development with its surrounding 1,000 acres for multipurpose use.
Behind the Wayne Newton TV casino ads, the imported big-name entertainment, the glitz and glamour…and the construction dust associated with the complex, is a bedrock economic success story that’s the envy of any Native American tribe.
It all began in 1969 with the formation of Chahta (the word means “Choctaw” in their language) Enterprise and the establishment of a 30-acre industrial park. Chief Phillip Martin — he’s been either chairman or chief of the tribe for 40 of the past 44 years — had a vision of industries filling up the park and providing employment for his people.
Critics scoffed pointing out that the tribal unemployment rate was a staggering 80% plus, and that for 10 years, the only product of the so-called industrial park was hay.
A golden opportunity came in 1978 when General Motors’ Packard Electric Division awarded a contract to Chahta, as a federally qualified minority enterprise, to assemble automotive wire harnesses. At the end of the first year, there was a quality product and 57 employees, but the operation was a money loser. Critics chuckled and said, “I told you so.” Chief Martin and the Tribal Council went looking for a new plant manager.
The youngest interviewee was 33-year-old Lester Dalme, an all-purpose supervisor with Packard Electric’s Clinton operation. He was the only interviewee without experience as a plant manager. Dalme was also the only interviewee that pulled out a plan showing that the Choctaw operation should be profitable. That convinced Chief Martin. Dalme became Chahta Enterprise’s plant manager Jan. 28, 1980.
The operation earned a profit in Dalme’s first 30 days and had a profitable first year. In two years, employment had jumped from 57 to 300. It was the first successful MBCI manufacturing business.
“I didn’t have a rabbit in the hat and didn’t work any miracles,” Dalme recalled. “I used common sense, reduced the excess labor, got the quality where it had to be and got everybody working as a team in a belief that we were going to turn this business around and going to make it successful. That required a lot of help from a lot of people. I had the total support of Chief Martin, Chahta’s five-member board of directors, the 20-member Tribal Council and the community.”
In 1983 in a forerunner to later events, Packard Electric began moving their products and contracts to Mexico, but gave Chahta a year to seek another customer. Enter Richard Helvey, a purchasing agent for Ford Motor Co.
Dalme takes up the story. “Helvey came to the plant and said, ‘Look, we demand a lot and we’re tough to do business with. I’ve got a stack of minority wiring harness suppliers that started with us, and I’ve got a stack where we had to go in and shut it down,’ So I said, ‘Mr. Helvey, all the Choctaw people ask is the opportunity and you will have your first successful minority supplier.’ And he took a chance on Chahta Enterprise. I have to give credit to Richard Helvey for his courage and his faith in the Choctaw people.”
Contrary to Packard’s intense oversight, Ford simply gave Chahta the blueprint and expected a quality product at a competitive price.
“That brought on an entire new realm of growth for Chahta Enterprise,” Dalme said. “That gave us an opportunity to become a full-fledged wire harness manufacturer and enabled us to build our second plant next door in 1983.”
Meanwhile, growth was spawned in other areas. Based on Chahta’s success, American Greetings opened a plant across the street in 1981 that employs 150-250 depending on seasons. Choctaw Electronics opened next door in 1985 with 190 employees producing audio speakers for Ford, Chrysler, Boeing, Peavey and McDonnell-Douglas. And Choctaw Manufacturing Enterprise was formed near two reservations in Carthage, and after a rocky start, now employs 200 producing various products for AT&T, Xerox and others.
In 1990, Lester Dalme was named president & CEO of Chahta Enterprise, and was overseeing wire harness plants in Conehatta and Dekalb, both sites on nearby Choctaw reservations.
Then in 1997, it became apparent, as in many labor-intensive operations, that if Chahta was going to compete in price, a move “off-shore” was inevitable. Dalme said, “In business, you’re either quick or dead.” He was quick.
Under Dalme’s direction, a plant was opened near Quaymus, (pronounced wi-mus) Mexico, on May 1, 1998, now employing 1,800. Meanwhile, Chahta’s home operation, still making wire harnesses, is down from its peak of 1,800 to a mere 175 — and only about 90 of those are tribal members. Competitive pricing has caused annual sales to slip from $80 million to $76 million, but the move is keeping the wire harness business profitable.
Remember the casino complex? All of those local former Chahta Enterprise employees — that wanted to continue working — have been scooped up by those tourist-attracting businesses. Dalme says the future of Chahta is “…..in upgrading the skills of Choctaws and other employees so they could continue to increase their wage-earning capacity and become more technically oriented.”
As for that 80% plus unemployment rate 20 years ago, listen to Dalme now. “Anybody on Choctaw reservations who wants a job has one,” he said. That’s the kind of success story that turns any development group green with envy.
Among the reasons for the far-reaching accomplishments, according to author Robert White in “The Choctaw Economic Revolution,” is Chief Martin’s cooperative spirit in dealing with local governments and other off-reservation concerns. Instead of trying to settle old scores, the Chief wanted success.
Lester Dalme puts it another way: “This is the way the Choctaws are. They just wanted an opportunity to develop jobs for the Choctaw people, and — this is important — the surrounding community so that they could have a better quality of life.”
As for Dalme’s success, he attributes it to his hard-scrabble upbringing by his mother in Bossier City, La. He married while at Northwestern Louisiana State and was holding five part-time jobs, so he can empathize with the Choctaws about hard times. But there’s one more reason.
“One of the things I had to realize when I first came here was that I was the minority,” Dalme said. “I was a guest speaking a strange language. When I understood that, I had the opportunity to gain the confidence and respect of the people, so by working together is really the story of our success.”
So next time you fall to the lure of the Silver Star’s bright lights and surrounding attractions, remember how the MBCI got its industrial start, and momentum, from the success of Chahta Enterprise.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.