Manitoba Business Profile – The wisdom of Alfred Lea, Indigenous entrepreneur

Dorothy DobbieBusiness News

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WINNIPEG, MB. – Alfred Lea’s intelligent take on the world of commerce knows no boundaries. He is an entrepreneur, through and through.

A lingering smile warms Alfred’s face. You have to lean in to hear his quiet voice, but his words and manner project confidence that says he knows where he’s been and where he is going. And where is going is domination of the Indigenous potato chip market.

Alfred has always been a precocious sort. Growing up in Pine Dock, Manitoba, he had to learn to be self-sufficient like his father, a fisherman on Lake Winnipeg. Working hard, figuring things out and being resourceful just came naturally.

He is also an instinctive leader. His quiet authority, even at an early age, led him to become student council president in Grade 11 at the Cranberry Portage Residential High School he attended. During this time, he discovered that many kids were attending school only for part of the year. They would start in the fall, go until Christmas, then work helping their families for the next three months returning after the Easter holidays. That meant they had to start all over again the next year.

This made no sense to Alfred. So why not change the school schedule to accommodate the students? Alfred came up with a system that allowed the kids to cram a year’s courses on a couple of subjects into shorter periods that could be completed within the timetable dictated by family needs.

His ingenuity got him noticed. He was still in high school in grade 12 when he was hired by the Jack Lewis, head of the Provincial Youth Secretariat, to work for the Step program evaluating other students’ eligibility for the program. He was then recruited by the federal government to work for Manpower and Immigration in the Opportunities for Youth Program

Starting at the low end of the totem pole, he was soon asked to do the work of some of the project officers down south who were promoted, leaving behind existing applications to be evaluated. One project to be assessed was a group of older white women who were making pottery and wanted to buy a huge kiln.. “You need a smaller kiln,” said Alfred. “Otherwise you won’t be able to afford to operate it when the funding runs out!” The women were incensed and quickly called Drew Cringan who then worked for Lloyd Axworthy. Next thing you know, Alfred was called up on the carpet for daring to interfere with their project.

“I was just doing my job,” Alfred explained. “I didn’t block it — I just gave them some advice.” In the end the women listened to this cheeky, young aboriginal man and a smaller kiln was purchased. They also rewarded Alfred in appreciation with a fruit basket filled with goodies.

After four years of working in the system, Alfred determined that he wanted to go to university. He got a place to live with Dr. Denton Booth, the former Medical Coroner, and enrolled in science classes leading to a medical degree. But it wasn’t long before reality set in and Alfred realized he couldn’t afford to pursue this career.

He left to go back to work after two years but not before he met Daniel and David Putter from Equinox Industries. They wanted advice on some new products for the North — at the time, they were making polyethylene tanks. Alfred came up with the Big Boggan, a boat-shaped, light-weight sleigh that could be pulled behind a snowmobile to carry freight — whether it be firewood or fish. Today, a spin-off of the boggans is also sold as a rescue product.

At one point, Alfred met a young man named Mike Birch. He saw something special in this kid, who was smart and energetic, so he suggested Mike should start an on-reserve store which he did at the Garden Hill Reserve. Then they thought it would be cool to have their own soft drinks and so the Aboriginal Beverage Company was born. Alfred learned a lot during this process, at one point earning advice from Richard Branson, who created the Virgin Group.

Branson, who was thinking about starting a private label beverage company, was in Winnipeg to receive a Humanitarian Award from the Asper School of Business. At the presentation Mark Benadiba from Cott Beverages in Toronto introduced Alfred to Branson, saying, “If you want to know about the private label business, here’s the guy you should talk to.”

“Branson told me two things,” Alfred smiles. “He said, the banks are not your friends and don’t go public. Stay private. That way you stay in control.”

Alfred has done so many things. At one time, he worked for Ed Martens, former president of Wordsnorth Communications, back in the day when the agency business in Winnipeg was still vibrant. Alfred was vice president of the Cross Communications Group which did a lot of work in public affairs. Consequently, he spent time in Ottawa, where he got to meet all the deputy ministers and directors general.

Later, Alfred worked for MP David Walker as an apolitical consultant on Aboriginal affairs.

So here we are, this bright young fellow from Pine Dock, Man. has made himself a reputation in Winnipeg and Ottawa. He was about to be swept literally out to sea on another tide of fortune.

Alfred has now made his home in nearby Riverton and was offered a chance to haul a boat from Riverton to Hay River, some 2,600 miles away overland. “What the heck,” thought Alfred. “I can visit my cousin,” and away he went. His cousin worked on one of the boats up there. After learning that a new deckhand was quitting, Alfred rushed over to the company offices and asked to put in a resume.

“You can do what you like,” said the man in the office, “but it won’t do you any good. We have at least 50 applicants ahead of you.” Alfred said he’d apply anyway — why not? The pay was excellent — $70,000 for six month at sea — and while he is sitting there, the young guy walks in and quits.

Well, you can see where this is going. Alfred was on the spot while the other applicants were miles away. The need was urgent, so Alfred got the job.

“It was great,” remembers Alfred. “I got to see the Beaufort Sea, got six months off every year and made a pile of money.”

He worked there for five years and was within two weeks of having enough sea time to get his captain’s papers, when his father became ill with diabetes and needed constant care and dialysis. Alfred decided to return home to Winnipeg to support his dad who passed away a year later. Meanwhile, his mom, who also needed dialysis, moved to Fisher Branch where she commuted the 135 miles to Winnipeg every second day for treatment.

Alfred had not come home empty -handed; he had a nice little nest egg from his days at sea. With a lot of time to think about the future, he stated thinking about confectioneries. Potato chips are light. They don’t freeze and they stay fresh a long time. Gradually, Tomahawk Chip Company Ltd. took form in his mind. In the spring of 2005, he was ready to go.

He needed a manufacturer and started looking for product and prices, searching from British Columbia, down to Oregon and back, and finally settled on a cooker in Mississauga, Ontario. He had the distinctive and beautiful bags designed by Aboriginal artists like Bighetty, Dubois and Nigiyok. One of their first outlets was the Aboriginal co-op, Neechi Foods at 325 Dufferin Street in Winnipeg.

He now has his chips in a number of chains from Alberta to Ontario, including Arctic Co-ops, North West Company stores, and Federated Co-op service stations. As well, his product has been picked up by wholesalers such as Pratts Wholesale, the Massy Wholesale and Sysco Foods. He has been pounding the sidewalks in England, Europe and the United States to open up new market opportunities. He has also set up prospects for direct distribution and sales by Aboriginal youth.

Although the enterprise has grown considerably, it still operates with the original intent: to open up opportunities for native people, to show that others can do what he himself has done.

“When they ask me for advice,” Alfred says. “I tell them, ‘Just do it!’” It is that let’s-just-do-it philosophy that has guided him all these years and that has made the seemingly impossible quite within reach for Alfred Lea.

His story doesn’t end there. He has magnificent plans to stimulate a tourism business that would bring people in from all over the world to experience indigenous culture, Canadian style. When first offered, his plan couldn’t get the support of Western Diversification, even though he had some pretty big players as partners. Attitudes are changing as people begin to understand the ingenuity, drive and power of this community and can see the past and ongoing successes of guys like Alfred Lea. There is no doubt his plan can come forward again, perhaps with a new result.

Pine Dock’s most famous son is still just beginning.

Dorothy Dobbie, Manitoba Post

Photo supplied by SmartBiz