Interview with Thomas Benjoe, CEO/President of FHQ Developments
May 6, 2020
By Heather Exner-Pirot
How did you come to be interested in business? What brought you to your position as CEO of FHQ Developments?
I have always been interested in helping our communities. Through discussions with family and mentors, I was pushed into the direction of business. I went to First Nations University of Canada and took the business program there, focusing on First Nations economic development and governance. I subsequently helped establish new courses in relation to First Nations governance. It gave me a deeper understanding of how our Nations managed themselves historically, and how that context relates to who we are today. I also started doing some consulting work during that time.
When I was close to graduation, I had a number of opportunities with different financial institutions, Nations and other corporations. I was inspired by an Indigenous banker that had been part of the industry for some time, about why they chose a career in Indigenous banking, and it perked my interest towards where I wanted to go. I always saw myself as being a leader in business, and becoming a CEO, and thought RBC was a good route to start. They’re the biggest bank in Canada, and they allowed me to learn about the processes of a large corporation, all the while being able to support our Nations. My key interest was developing business opportunities for our Nations.
I learned a lot during my six years there. During that time I was a Board member at FHQ Developments, learning about the governance and being mentored by some of the best and brightest business leaders in the community. When they approached me about taking on the CEO role, I was nervous at first, but it was my opportunity to step into a leadership role. I didn’t hesitate. It’s been 3½ years and I wake up every day excited about what’s to come.
Would you encourage other Indigenous youth to consider a business career?
For sure. It doesn’t matter what you do or where you are, business is a part of that. And I find the business sector offers many more opportunities for individuals to grow and advance themselves. For those that are interested, it’s important to network and make sure they have good mentors, and ask for advice to see themselves grow in the business sector.
At FHQ Developments, we take the time to mentor students, take interns, and try to expose them to what we do. Hopefully what we are doing inspires more youth to want to be in business or work for us in the future.
How do you see FHQ Developments complementing the community development goals of the First Nations of File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council?
We are unique in terms of our development corporation structure. We have a partnerships and investment side, which involves starting new businesses. Then we have an economic development side, which is focused on helping to support our Nations’ economic goals, make connections, and expose them to new opportunities. At the same time we ensure our entrepreneurs have resources so they can grow alongside us.
We also have a mandate for human resource development. We’ve established a consulting company called Tokata that provides HR solutions, promotes employment, and creates good HR processes and policies to enhance our businesses and our Nations’ businesses over time. We are always trying to advance the employment and career opportunities of our members as well as Indigenous people from outside our communities.
All of those aspects help us see the much larger picture of developing our businesses in a well- rounded way. If we’re doing good business, we want to help our communities and citizens be a part of that.
What do you think are the inherent advantages and challenges of FHQ Developments’ community-owned structure?
The main advantage is that we can have a greater impact, not just in one Nation, but across multiple Nations. Many organizations and partners see our tribal council orientation as having an advantage.
On the flip side, because of our size and scope, we need to grow much larger in order to create enough sustainable businesses to support the things our communities need. So the pie needs to be larger in order for us to be able to have a greater impact. Our focus has always been on sustainability and making sure we are focused on long terms goals. We need to make sure our businesses have enough working capital to be able to grow. Having to wait to produce returns can be hard – and we are still focused on reinvesting.
Our corporate governance structure has allowed us to bring in a made up of professionals from our community which gives us skill sets to make sure we can make good decisions about the businesses we invest in. That has made us attractive to the companies that we partner or negotiate with.
What are the economic sectors that you think offer Indigenous businesses the greatest growth opportunities?
The strategies we are developing right now are around the protein sector. We are looking at advancing our involvement in agriculture – not as producers, but in technology, manufacturing, and supply chains – given where the world is going and given Saskatchewan’s competitive advantage as a leading producer of protein crops. So that’s a key focus.
The second priority is looking at technology. There are some great tech companies starting right in our own backyard, coming up with different technological solutions, allowing us to remain connected in ways we never thought were possible, and using software to make better decisions. I want us to be a part of that. We need to take our Nations on a journey down these paths so they can become successful in these sectors as well.
Our main sector is still construction and mining services. But we are looking at other opportunities, including renewable energy. It requires a very different strategy. The sectors are all unique in their own way and we are trying to build the right experience and knowledge. We are very proud of our first step into the technology sector with PLATO Testing. We’re the only Indigenous economic development corporation with a tech company, and we’re the only software testing company in Saskatchewan.
Strategy is important to you. Where is your strategy taking you in ten years? What is your vision for FHQ Developments and for Indigenous business in Saskatchewan?
As a development corporation, we are focused on sustainability. I can’t stress that enough. But we need to look at various measures of success. We can’t just look at profits. We need to look at employment, reinvestment, our impact on growing the economy around us, and how we ensure our own Indigenous thought and knowledge is brought into the business and drives its success.
We want our kids to be proud of who they are and where they come from. We want them to know they have some ownership in the development corporation and that our strategy will always focus on sustainability and thinking of our future generations, and how they can take advantage of what we’ve built up as a team. One day they will step into our roles and advance the business further in the future.
Our vision is to have sustainability and pride in what we do. And that will keep us going for a long time.