Alaska Innovators Share Success Stories

We’ve all heard politicians talk about how businesses need to change to succeed in today’s marketplace. A group of Alaska entrepreneurs shared their success stories, in hopes of inspiring others, at last week’s Innovation Summit in Juneau.

Most of us have heard stories of an Alaskan with an idea for a business that just takes off.

There’s the boatyard that became a major tour operator. Or the beer-lovers who now sell in more than a dozen states.

Representatives of some of those businesses talked about how they made it work during the recent Innovation Summit at Juneau’s Centennial Hall.

One is a business that provides the flexibility needed for local hire.

Huna Totem Corp. Board Chairman Russell Dick says its Icy Strait Point tourist attraction does just that. He says the seasonal business employs village residents who don’t want a year-round job.

“Nobody works in these communities to work for a Microsoft,” Dick says. “Their idea of lifestyle compatible is the ability to go deer hunting, the ability to go berry gathering, to do these things that make living in a rural community critically important to them.”

Dick is also president and CEO of Haa Aani’, a Sealaska subsidiary pursuing economic development in Southeast. It’s been helping village residents set up oyster farms and sell their product.

He says it’s a collaborative business model, not a grant program.

“We as a for-profit entity were willing to put money into this, we’re willing to put in time. But we’re not going to solve the problems within the region,” he says.

Another innovator is Allen Marine, based in Sitka.

The family-owned business began as a ship-repair yard. It fixed up a derelict boat and began providing tours. Growing demand led the company to buy, then build more vessels.

Wildlife-viewing excursions expanded to Juneau and Ketchikan, and the company eventually formed its own small cruise line, Alaskan Dream.

Vice President Jamey Cagle says its onboard shops are part of its business plan.

“We try and support and procure as many local products as we can, whether it be the foods on board or the gifts that we sell,” Cagle says. “And we’ve found that to be a very successful program for us. It’s what our customers like to see and the quality’s good.”

Juneau-based Alaskan Brewing Company’s innovation is resisting pressure to grow too fast and create too many products.

Brewing Operations Manager Brandon Smith says the craft beer market has expanded significantly since the company began operations.

“You look at some breweries and they have 60 different products and it gets kind of insane,” he says. “We have a somewhat different philosophy there, that we want to do a smaller number of products very well and not confuse the consumer with the dizzying array of things that we put out.”

The company has also invested time and money into new technology. The most recent innovation is a boiler system that burns spent grain, saving heat and shipping costs.

Another business, Juneau’s Gastineau Guiding, tapped into the cruise-ship excursion market during a time of rapid passenger growth.

Owner Bob Janes says it wasn’t alone. He says his business recognized opposition from residents needed to be addressed.

“We saw tours driving through neighborhoods. People weren’t sure whether the trails were going to be packed with tourists every day. So there was a lot of dissention in Juneau,” he says.

He cites the Tourism Best Management Practicesprogram and similar efforts with reducing conflicts and allowing for smoother growth.

Yet another innovator is a much larger company, Anchorage-based Alaska Communications Systems.

ACS CEO Anand Vadapalli says his company took a new direction by partnering with a longtime competitor.

“For those of you who have been in Alaska at least 10 years or more, you have a sense of the degree of competition and rivalry that exists between ACS and GCI,” Vadapalli says.

“But guess what? Last year, ACS and GCI announced a joint venture to combine our wireless networks together to form the single largest wireless network in the state of Alaska.”

That, he adds, is to compete against telecom giant Verizon, which plans to begin service in the 49th state this year.

University of Alaska Southeast Management School Dean John Blanchard moderated the panel.

“We’ll hopefully be inspired to go and incorporate some of those great those ideas as we move the needle a little bit further in creating innovative ideas for Southeast Alaska,” he says.

Some regional business and government leaders are pursuing such an approach through the Juneau Economic Development Council’s cluster initiative.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell.

He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues.

He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.

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