When Robert Johnson started his firm back in 1976, did he envision having a significant practice among Native American Tribes in the southwest? Maybe not. But he knew business owners in the area needed reliable, insightful information if they were going to make sound decisions. That's why he founded the firm that would later become Johnson, Harris & Goff, PLLC (JHG) in Scottsdale, Arizona. Leap ahead 32 years, and JH&G is a team that includes quality personnel and employs superior technology in an effort to provide only the best solutions for their clients. JHG partners credit membership in IGAF Worldwide for adding even more muscle to their practice, making it possible to take on bigger clients than they otherwise could. The firm specializes in elder care planning and estate planning and offers a wide variety of business services to their client base which, thanks to the leadership of partner Armando Roman, includes a large number of Indian tribes.
Before joining JHG in 2007, Roman operated his own practice for 14 years, including work with Indian tribes in Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Oklahoma. In Arizona alone there are 22 different tribes, about two-thirds of which rely on JHG as their trusted advisors, but the firm also serves tribes across the southwest. His own Hispanic heritage - he is a third-generation Mexican American - may be why his largest niche consists of Hispanic clients, and why he's been able to successfully bridge the cultural gap in serving Native Americans. For example, among the tribes, the community as a whole is more important than the individual. For them, it's all about what a person can do for the group rather than for him or herself. Understanding those differences as Roman does may not be critical to good accounting, but it is key in building trust.
For Roman, this area of practice started with one Native American client, and the niche just grew by referral... but not without a lot of hard work. When he set out to learn all he could about tribal affairs, he found there were not many resources available. That's when he decided to pursue expertise in this field for himself. He learned by working with attorneys who specialized in Indian law and by attending a lot of Native American conferences, gleaning whatever he could from people knowledgeable in Indian culture.
According to Roman, there are about 600 federally recognized Indian tribes, and more on the waiting list. The differences between tribes as well as between Native Americans and the general population are important and need to be respected.
"Tribes are somewhat equal with states," he says. "They are local governments." So the issues they face are different than for individuals or businesses. It can also put the tribes in a somewhat adverse relationship with their state governments, so they need an advisor who is sensitive to that circumstance. Working with tribes is less about income taxes and estate planning and more about things like privatizing health care or doing feasibility studies for developments like golf courses or gaming facilities. "I could work with just about anybody and give them good service," he says. "But that doesn't provide the same kind of reward I find working with the tribes. There isn't a lot of service given specifically to their community, and they seem to really appreciate what I do."
Another factor that makes this niche complicated is the fact that there are so many misconceptions about Native Americans, says Roman. For example, many people believe that Native Americans all get free health care, which is an enviable benefit. In reality, though they may be granted free health care, they often have to travel hundreds of miles to get it, which may end up costing more than the medical services themselves. Another thing many people don't realize is, tribes are often heavily involved in philanthropy that is not limited to their own communities or their own tribal members. Where tribes have a significant presence, they are often among the biggest donors whenever there are fundraisers for causes they support in their surrounding non-Indian communities.
The Economy and the Native American Niche
Like the country as a whole, tribes have been affected by the economic slowdown. Among other sources, tribal budgets come from their investment portfolios, and obviously, those have suffered along with the general investment landscape. That means that they have less money to accomplish their goals. Tribes that are involved in gaming have taken a hit to their revenue and, like many other industries, they are scrambling to find ways to make ends meet... another reason why they need a trusted advisor like Roman.
These days, says Roman, the clients are still there seeking guidance, but the questions have changed. Now instead of asking how to grow their businesses, they want to know how to protect them... how to hunker down, watch their costs, and keep their businesses healthy. They ask about the possibility of bankruptcy, about shutting down, about unemployment. This tendency will only grow as the economy continues to stumble, says Roman. "They still come for advice, just in a different light." Plus, like most of the population, "they're still afraid of the IRS."
Roman may have an unusual niche that involves significant cultural differences. But in terms of the effects of the economic slowdown, the Native American tribes he serves seem to be a microcosm of the nation as a whole. Maybe now more than ever, clients need the wisdom of their trusted advisors like Armando Roman and his colleagues at JHG to help them hang on till the storm passes.