“One good tree could have a thousand guitars in it. That’s the magnitude of value capture we’re talking about here.”
- Steve Helgeson of Raven Guitars
Sue and Wes Tyler bought a sawmill in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest ten years ago because they had a vision for what it could become. As the world’s sawmills go, theirs is a small mill, a true mom-and-pop with a half-dozen employees in the remote village of Hoonah—a place reached only by boat or plane.
When they started out, they knew they could transform trees from the surrounding rainforest—Sitka spruce, Western Hemlock, Western red cedar, and yellow cedar—into products more valuable than basic rough-sawn boards.
The source of their inspiration was simple: they wanted to add more value to the beautiful timber of the Tongass. It would translate to more earnings, more jobs and more local processing in a region where it was sorely needed.
“People in these remote communities need jobs to support their families and way of life while adding value to a local natural resource,” Sue Tyler says. “That’s the motive behind the whole operation.”
While they’ve been successful in scaling up their business’ value-added processing capacity—their sawmill, Icy Straits Lumber, now manufactures finished products such as tongue-and-groove flooring—the Tylers knew they were ready for the next step: to launch a new cabin building start-up.
Their entrepreneurial dream began to seem a possibility when, in 2013, they learned of a new entrepreneurial contest promising prizes of $40,000 for two winning start-up businesses. The contest was looking for entries from people like the Tylers. Called Path to Prosperity, it was open to aspiring entrepreneurs who live in Southeast Alaska and who are committed to a “triple bottom line” business. It’s a business model that places equal value on “three Ps:” people, planet and profits.
Haa Aaní, a Sealaska Corp. subsidiary, joins The Nature Conservancy’s Emerald Edge in sponsoring the Path to Prosperity contest.
The shared venture marks a departure from business-as-usual for both the Conservancy and Haa Aaní. Yet these partners – unlikely partners, some would say – understands the positive outcomes they can create for the communities of Southeast Alaska if they work together.
How a Cabin Company Makes More Money
The Tyler’s contest entry, Alaska Legacy Wood Homes and Products, was just one of 59 – the competition was fierce. But when the winners were announced in January 2014, the Tylers took home one of the two top prizes.
Sue Tyler says Path to Prosperity gave their business idea an incredible boost. Even before the top prizes were announced, the free consultations available to them with business leaders – attorneys, bankers, marketing experts were among them – offered them a leg up.
“What we need is that technical support from someone who can say ‘hey, I’ve been there and I’ve done that,’ and help lead us in the right direction,” Sue Tyler says. “It’s one of these things where you don’t know where to start. Who can I call who would care?”
The other $40,000 prize went to a guitar-building start-up in the town of Wrangell called Raven Guitars. Boatbuilder-turned-guitar builder Steve Helgeson said the Path to Prosperity contest helped him develop his own value-added business model.
“The idea of a guitar building business was really a dream,” Helgeson says. “But you know how dreams are. If you’re a busy person like most people are, you have a place somewhere behind your everyday responsibilities and obligations where you stick dreams and it’s kind of where they stay.”
Good for Forests and Communities
The Nature Conservancy and Haa Aaní launched Path to Prosperity because both believe in the potential of innovative local business to use local resources sustainably. The contest will launch a new round of competition in 2014 and 2015.
“At The Nature Conservancy, we believe that entrepreneurs can help lead a community by demonstrating how local natural resources can be used with an eye to the future,” says Norman Cohen, who directs Southeast Alaska programs for The Nature Conservancy. “This is why we founded Path to Prosperity: The future of the region’s rural communities lies in the sustainable use of natural resources.”
Haa Aaní CEO Russell Dick believes Path to Prosperity can shape the future of communities in Southeast Alaska.
“This business development competition was created with a common belief that a healthy community with strong social and cultural infrastructure is the result of innovative entrepreneurship,” Dick says. “This competition can be a catalyst and support network for developing successful entrepreneurs.”