WINNEBAGO, Neb. — He grew up in north Omaha, earned a law degree from Harvard and returned to Nebraska as the chief economic developer for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
“There's still a lot of poverty here,” said Lance Morgan, 43. “But Winnebago is now a place that's all about opportunity. There are people who don't take it. I push that all the time, especially with young men.”
People have described Morgan as charismatic, outspoken, controversial and at times brash. But after 17½ years as CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., the tribe's economic development corporation, he has made a big difference on and off the reservation.
Twice in recent months he has attended meetings at the White House, and last July met President Barack Obama. The tribe's relationship with the federal government, he said, is complicated and at times unhappy, “but we are tied together.”
Ho-Chunk is the native language of the Winnebagos, who are based about 80 miles north of Omaha near the Missouri River. Morgan is Winnebago on his mother's side, but his paternal grandmother was a Bohemian from Czechoslovakia.
With that combination, he playfully calls himself “a Bohunk Ho-Chunk.”
He played football at North High in Omaha and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before attending Harvard Law, anticipating a career at a big corporate law firm in New York.
“But then someone knocked on my door and said, ‘How would you like to do corporate Indian law?' No one in their right mind should have made me CEO of anything at 26.”
HCI, as folks on the reservation call Ho-Chunk Inc., is housed in a two-story, glass-fronted, hilltop headquarters on the north side of Winnebago, Neb.
With subsidiaries in 10 states and five countries (including Iraq and Afghanistan), it employs about 1,400 people. About 250, Morgan said, work within a 30-mile radius of headquarters.
All Native Services, a subsidiary based in Bellevue, near Offutt Air Force Base, was awarded an $84 million contract in January. It will assemble, publish and maintain technical manuals for airplanes at Robbins Air Force Base in Georgia.
The hope is that more and more HCI jobs will go to Indians. As Morgan spoke to me on Friday he had just hired 10 college interns from the Winnebago and Omaha Tribes.
“We give them real things to do, like designing senior housing,” he said. “I treat it a little like law school. I'm very hard on them in the beginning.”
The economic development corporation has some business advantages, such as being eligible for a percentage of federal contracts that go to minority-owned businesses.
But at the White House last month, he discussed a problem: It's difficult to raise farming capital when the federal government holds your land in trust and it can't be used for collateral. Much of the housing on the reservation, meanwhile, is federally owned.
“We've had other people control us for the past 100 years or so,” Morgan said. “We think we need to have control over our own future.”
Five years ago, Morgan almost lost control of HCI, which is tribally owned but independently managed. Critics said, among other things, that too many of its jobs and revenues benefited nontribal members.
Morgan, who had been featured in Fortune magazine and named one of America's 25 most fascinating entrepreneurs by Inc. magazine, was variously accused of having lost his focus and praised as a whiz kid.
He was briefly removed from his job, but when contractors and business partners objected, he was reinstated.
Morgan said that 20 percent of HCI's profits go to the tribe, and $100,000 is donated annually to a tribal nonprofit corporation. The rest, he said, is reinvested.
The Winnebago Tribe, which runs the WinnaVegas casino in Sloan, Iowa, hasn't gained nearly as much financially from gambling as tribes in some parts of the country, Morgan said. When the casino “boats” opened in Council Bluffs in the late 1990s, business at upstream Indian casinos dropped off.
But Ho-Chunk Inc. is forging ahead on other fronts.
“We're well on our way to our ultimate goal,” Morgan said with a wry smile, “which is international corporate domination.”
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