This fall, Wisconsin Phoenix, a nail base insulation manufacturer, will be opening a new manufacturing facility on Ojibwe Tribal land. The facility will be one of a few, if not the only, building products manufacturing facilities on a Native American reservation.
Wisconsin Phoenix was founded in 2011 by Mark Turner, a member of the Ojibwe tribe, and Mike Coughlin, former owner of the Cornell Corporation. The company was a broker for Cornell on certain projects from 2011-2013, but it is now its own entity. The company operates as a Native American Minority Business Enterprise (MBE). Running an MBE can pose challenges, Turner says, and though there are programs set up to help MBEs, they don’t always do as much as he initially thought.
“A lot of people have this misconception that with an MBE, people just hand you the work. That’s not really the way it works. I kind of thought that’s the way it worked 14 years ago when I started my first company, and I found out quickly that it’s all about the hustle in building relationships. If you can’t build those relationships, you’re not going to succeed,” says Turner.
Wisconsin Phoenix does have a good position in which to aid government contractors. Some government contracts require a certain level of minority participation when completing projects, and Wisconsin Phoenix is ready to fill those slots. When contractors purchase the company’s products, Turner says that the contractors can be assured that 100% of their payment amount can count towards the participation requirement. “When contractors purchase our insulation panels, a Certificate of Origin goes with the paperwork that proves the products were made through my company. They can use that to submit towards their participation credits for the applicable project because it was bought through a Native manufacturing plant,” says Turner.
He’s also certain that what Wisconsin Phoenix does is rare. “I think we are the only one on a reservation that actually builds construction materials. I think we’re the first. So, this is huge.” The facility will make Wisconsin Phoenix products, most notably TechVENT, a roofing insulation that provides moisture resistance, keeps roofs cool, prevents ice dams, and preserves roof shingles. This product used to be available exclusively to the commercial market; however, Turner is changing that. Now, he wants his products to be available to distributors and retailers so that everyone will have access to Wisconsin Phoenix products.
The new manufacturing facility will not only benefit Wisconsin Phoenix, but also the Ojibwe. The reservation will own the facility and Wisconsin Phoenix will lease it from the reservation. Most importantly, the facility will bring jobs and opportunities to the reservation. “My reservation has over 70% unemployment, so what I’m trying to do is bring more jobs. We hope to be filling the reservation with employment,” says Turner.
The reservation also requires the company to have one-third of its employees be from the reservation. Turner plans to have 100% reservation-based employment in the future, once everyone is trained in automation. “We got a lot of bright, young minds out there, but they need opportunities, a break. If we can give them a break, we’re going to try to give them a break.”
Turner could not be more excited about the new facility. “I’m going home. It’s been a long time. I've got a lot of relatives there and you know, at some point, you like to go back to your culture.
“When you talk to the elders, they always tell the young people, ‘Go. Leave the Rez. Learn, and then come back so you can offer something.' Well, it’s my turn to come back and offer something.”