A First Nations Enterprise

Samson Management Limited doesn’t hesitate when it comes to growth

General manager and CEO Azar Kamran levies his business acumen on behalf of the Samson Cree Nation.

First established in 1974, Samson Management has proven itself a viable and vital business. Expanding beyond the borders of Alberta’s Samson Cree Nation reservation, its transformation from a nonprofit social enterprise into a for-profit business venture has driven its substantial, ongoing growth.

As its name indicates, the Samson Cree Nation—part of Canada’s indigenous population—is the major shareholder of Samson Management. “But it’s not involved in day-to-day business or decisions on how to run the company,” says Azar Kamran, Samson Management’s general manager and CEO.

Over the course of its 36-year history, Samson Management has diversified, expanding into areas such as real estate, pharmaceuticals, insurance, petroleum, automotive, and fast food—turning a robust profit in each segment.

“The company started out in 1974 as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Samson Cree Nation,” Kamran says. “A year later, it incorporated to serve as the holding company for the Nation’s real-estate portfolio. Eventually, it evolved into a business- and investment-management company, performing for-profit economic activities.”

Samson Management helps provide the kind of oversight that turns opportunity into success. The company is headquartered in the Alberta hamlet of Hobbema, home of Samson Cree Nation reserve. While the Nation isn’t running the business, it is certainly reaping the rewards. Through job creation and a housing program, Samson Management is helping move people off of the reservation, acting as catalyst for them to function self-sufficiently in the outside community.

Today, the company has structured itself around three major activity areas: investments and emerging opportunities, retail businesses, and acting as a shareholder entity for Crown Properties International and Cold Lake-Samson GP. In terms of investments, Samson Management strongly focuses on acquiring real estate.

“We are into real estate—big time,” Kamran says. “Besides our properties in Hobbema, we now own properties all across Edmonton, such as multiunit apartment complexes. Also, we are developing an 890-acre area in Cold Lake, a city in northeastern Alberta. It’s a huge subdivision project. We are also in the process of acquiring a large complex in Calgary—so we’re spreading out.”

On the retail side, Samson Management owns several businesses located on the Samson Cree Nation reservation. These include Maskeptoon Automotive Services, a business established in 1981 that became part of Samson Management in 1996. “It’s a full-blown operation staffed by licensed technicians who repair cars,” Kamran says. “We’re able to attract a lot of business from all throughout the region, because our prices are significantly lower than what some other similar businesses charge.”

Samson Management also owns the Okeymowkisik Gas Bar & Convenience Store and Roots & Berries Pharmacy—two businesses that opened in 1995. In 1996, Samson Management established a Subway franchise, which marks the first aboriginal-owned franchise on First Nations land. “In addition, we own a strip mall that we’re expanding to make more profitable,” Kamran says. “We’ll rent out the new space, and we’re also considering starting up some of our own new businesses to place there.”

But things weren’t always so profitable for the vibrant company. In 1995, Samson Management offered nonprofit programs and services in addition to its for-profit businesses. The expense, though, was too much for the company, which operated at a deficit estimated between $1.5 and $2.5 million. So in 1997, the company decided to remove all nonprofit operations from its plate.

“The company felt it wasn’t moving in the right direction,” Kamran says. “If it wanted to expand—and that was the corporate vision—it realized it had to turn things around.”

The impact was profound: the bottom line shifted from the red to the black. By 2001, the corporate management team started looking at joint-venture and partnership opportunities.

Despite these changes, however, the company never lost sight of its responsibility.

“We still support social programs involving office space and housing, which provide incentive for people to move off of the reserve,” Kamran says.

Making a foothold in the community is high on the list of Samson Management’s priorities. It is currently becoming involved in infrastructure development in the Hobbema hamlet—working on water and sewage lines and taking on a courthouse project.

Further, the company is expanding beyond local, regional, and national borders, moving into international territory. “We’re working on a project that will supply grains to China,” Kamran says.

These and other initiatives of Samson Management owe a debt to the company’s board of directors, both past and present, which has been instrumental in helping plan what Kamran calls the “larger picture.”

“We grew beyond the reservation, and then beyond Edmonton,” he says. “That was just the start. We’re looking to expand even more.”