Q & A with Shareholder Employees

A Conversation with Helvi Sandvik, President of NANA Development Corporation

This is part of a series of interviews with NANA’s shareholder-employees.

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Helvi Sandvik, the president of NANA Development Corporation, is a shareholder originally from Kiana. She came to NANA in 1995. Photo by Brian Adams, a NANA shareholder.

 

What is your Iñupiaq name?

Aa'yak. 

I was named after Nellie Baldwin. Nellie lived next door to us in Kiana, but was originally from upriver. In Kiana, Nellie was married to Tom Baldwin, a miner.

It is an honor to share someone’s name, to have a connection with your atiiŋ (namesake). Nellie (Aa’yak) was very industrious.

What is your position?

I’m the president of NANA Development Corporation (NDC).

Why was NANA Development Corporation established?

In 1972, a year after the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act was passed, NANA Regional Corporation (NANA) was formed. Two years later, NANA’s founders created NANA Development Corporation (NDC).

NDC was founded for a few reasons: to protect our parent organization (NANA)—and our lands—from business risk, and to allow for a specific focus on our business activities.

NANA Regional Corporation focuses on broader issues such as lands and resource management, and shareholder programs and services. NANA advocates for the region, its people, and their traditional subsistence lifestyle.

When did you first start working at NANA?

I came to work for NANA in 1995, as vice president of operations.

What was it like then (20 years ago)?

In the 1990s, NANA went through a lot of change. Developing Red Dog Mine had been NANA’s main focus in the 1980s and early 1990s. Another change, in the 1990s, was that many of our senior leaders, who had been with NANA since nearly the beginning, moved onto other roles, some with the state government. So, NANA began assembling a new team. And we began looking for ways to diversify our business portfolio, both geographically and in the sectors we serve.

Where were you working before you came to NANA?

I’d been with the state for 12 years, when NANA hired me. I was working for the State of Alaska as the deputy commissioner of the Department of Transportation (DOT). It was a job I liked. I knew how transportation drove our economy.

Aviation was crucial to our region, since no roads connected our villages to the rest of the state.  Pilots played an essential role. They delivered mail and supplies. They medevaced sick and wounded people out and brought medical professionals in. They saved lives. I loved aviation and still do. (Helvi currently serves as a Board member of the Alaska Air Group.)

Tell us about your early days at NANA.

Our NANA team was small and we all wore many different hats. We all jumped in and did what we needed to do.

For a brief time, I served as both vice president of operations for NDC and as the vice president of resources for NANA Regional Corporation (NANA).

Was the NDC president a new position?

No, Willie Hensley served as the first NDC president, beginning in 1974.

In 1995, Charlie Curtis was serving as president of both NANA and NDC, but it became clear that to grow our businesses we needed to have a specific focus on the business side. So, in 1999, I was named president of NDC.

At that time, I wasn’t sure that I was ready for this important role, but Charlie said, “We’ll help you.” I didn’t aspire to do this job. When I was asked, I stepped up.

What are your main job responsibilities?

As president of NANA Development Corporation, my role is to oversee our business interests.

NDC is a vehicle to invest and grow revenues and income. Our goal is to build a strong company capable of delivering a long-term, sustainable income stream for NANA. NDC passes that income onto NANA Regional Corporation, who then decides how best to use it.

We have two goals for our companies: to generate income and to create employment opportunities that our shareholders can access.

We have a long-term vision for the success of our corporation. While we are working towards our long-term goals, we also strive to perform well so we can deliver meaningful short-term value to our shareholders. Sometimes it is a challenging balance, and sometimes we fall short, but we continue to work to deliver on the vision.

How does NDC decide to expand its business?

We evaluate the economy and different markets to identify business opportunities that could provide income and jobs. In the 1970s, we starting serving the oil industry on the North Slope. In the 1980s, we developed Red Dog Mine. Red Dog’s early years were lean. Our partner Cominco made the investment. We started operation in 1989. It took until 2006 for Cominco (now Teck) to recover their investment.

In the 1990s, we began developing Marriott-flagged hotels. We developed engineering capabilities, and we began building companies to deliver services to the federal government. In the 2000s, we started working to expand our companies that serve Red Dog Mine and the oil & gas industry.

Over the years, we have invested cash and sometimes we’ve taken on short-term debt—with the vision of delivering long-term, sustainable income. We’ve invested in companies that can generate income that will provide for us for many years to come.

How is NANA Development Corporation structured?

NDC is building a diversified business portfolio. We’ve organized our businesses into three sectors: oil & gas, federal, and commercial.

Where are you from?

My mother, Ruth Blankenship Sandvik, grew up in Kiana. When her father became ill, she and her cousin, Rob Blankenship, took over her father’s business, Blankenship Trading Post. My mother and Rob were business partners. 

Our family spent part of the year in Kiana, and part of the year in the Lower 48, where my father, Pete Sandvik, worked as a geologist.  I went to elementary school in California, and high school in a suburb north of Chicago, Illinois.   

Who has inspired you?

In addition to my parents, I have to mention Rob, my mother’s first cousin. He was a bachelor; he never married or had kids of his own. He was like a second father to us, except without the heavy-handed discipline.

Come to think of it, Rob did spank me three times. I deserved each spanking. Once, I pushed Terry Reed off the barge to see if he really could swim. Turns out, he couldn’t. Another time, I hitched a ride with Jokey Sheldon on his motorcycle. Rob didn’t think this was such a good idea, since I already had stitches on my leg, from a cut. I got my last spanking from Rob for throwing a wrench into the Kobuk River. I was a tomboy.

I admired Irvin Morris who was a firefighter, which is what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Percy and Rosaline Jackson were close family friends. I respected Percy greatly for how honorably he behaved, and for what a great hunter he was. Rosaline, by her example, showed us how to fish—and how to take care of the fish once we caught them. She was always laughing, no matter what was going on.

I have vivid memories of pestering Esther Curtis and Martha Wells on the beach of the Kobuk River. They were hard-working people! I stuck close to them for hours, while they scaled, cut, and hung fish (caught by seining). They tolerated having me hang around.

What was your first job?

From a young age, all seven of us kids were put to work at the Blankenship Trading Post in Kiana.

Rob was also the postmaster, so I helped sort mail.

I liked physical labor, so I liked to hang out with Rob. I liked working as a longshoreman, unloading goods off the barge: rolling drums of oil, carrying two-by-fours up the hill, hoisting 25-pound sacks of flour. I knew I was getting strong when I could carry a case of pop up that hill. Everybody worked together.

Where did you study or train?

I went to a small liberal arts college in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I studied economics. I had many opportunities at Kalamazoo College, including playing inter-collegiate basketball, and going to France on foreign study. I met my late husband, Kelly Culver, at K College. After graduating, I lived in Kiana and helped with our family business. Later, I got my MBA (Master of Business Administration) from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

What other jobs have you had?

When I learned that Maniilaq Association was looking for an economic development planner in Kotzebue, I applied, since I had a degree in economics. I was hired when Dennis Tiepelman was Maniilaq president, and stayed on when Marie Greene succeeded him (before she became president of NANA Regional Corporation).

At Maniilaq, I was fortunate to work with people who had a strong work ethic—and I saw that the work we did made a difference in people’s lives. I was working side-by-side with people who had their MBAs, so I decided to earn my master’s degree. At first, I was afraid to tell Marie about my decision to go back to school, but she was very encouraging.

While at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I worked full-time as the transportation planner for the State of Alaska. I was assigned to the northwest region. My master’s thesis was on building multi-use terminals in communities like Kotzebue. The research was relevant to my job, and it kept me connected to my region.

Working and studying full-time made me better at utilizing my time. After work, I scheduled time for sports and for what was then my favorite TV show, Magnum, P.I. (This was the 80s.) I liked that he was a problem-solver and a solver of mysteries.

Tell us about someone who has inspired you to work at NANA.

John Rense and I were visiting at a conference, where we’d both given speeches. John wondered when I’d be ready to leave my job with the State of Alaska. Soon after that, John and Charlie Curtis asked me to join NANA, to be part of a new team. John and Charlie pulled me in with their vision of growth and their belief in our future.

What has surprised you most about working at NANA?

Maybe what surprises me is that people from the outside questioned what NANA could do. I’m surprised that they would doubt us. If we believe in ourselves, there are lots of paths and options. If we keep the end in mind, there is no limit to what we can do. There are no barriers.

Can you talk about the motto, “Two Worlds, One Spirit”?

We’re a very traditional people, but we’ve always taken advantage of technology to find new ways of doing things. We’re fast moving, adaptable and efficient. We utilize new tools—in hunting and in business.

We participate in the modern economy and hold onto our traditional values.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

I used to be a pretty good (subsistence) hunter. In fact, one Fourth of July in Kiana, I won a shooting contest, popping a balloon across the Kobuk River (about two city blocks away). I’m not that good at shooting today, though.

What advice do you have for young shareholders?

You can only aspire to be what you can see. So, look for ways to get exposure. Widen your experience. For example, working at Maniilaq and the DOT before coming to NANA broadened my perspective.

Recognize that it’s a privilege to work. Learn something new to improve your game.

Find a job you enjoy and work with people you enjoy being around. Because if you aren’t happy at work, if you’re not around people who inspire you, you bring that home. Your time at work and your time off will be miserable. When you find a job you like, then work isn’t a chore.

Always raise your hand, even if you’re uncomfortable.

What are important lessons that you have learned?

Just because you think you’re doing the right thing doesn’t mean that everyone will agree.

Stay the course, otherwise you’re not going to get where you need to go.

Never forget where you’re from. And remember that life is really short.

What are your strongest beliefs about what you do?

We have a solid foundation. We’ve been blessed with good leaders. We believe in our values. I believe in what we’re doing.

When NANA was first formed, we had 4,700 shareholders. Now we have more than 14,000. We have many more mouths to feed. We will continue to grow and progress, and continue to serve our people for a long time into the future.

Charlie Curtis used to remind us that people usually overestimate what can be accomplished in a year, and underestimate what can be accomplished in a decade. There will always be people who don’t think we’re doing enough. We still have work to be done.

What is the best thing that has happened since you started working with NANA?

I grew up in Kiana, around Kobuk River people. And I lived and worked in Kotzebue. Working at NANA has expanded my view. I’ve grown to know people from all the villages in our region. These people will always be my friends. I’ve had the privilege of watching their children and grandchildren grow up.

What do you want people to know about NANA?

We care about our people. We really are family.

Our strength comes from our community. I feel rich to have that strength.

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Helvi K. Sandvik was interviewed by Carol Richards, Director of Brand Communications for NANA Development Corporation.