Dennis Gibb's business with Native Americans keeps growing, and so do his ideas about how financial advisors should be paid.

Two or three years ago I wrote an article about Dennis Gibb, a financial advisor in Seattle who specializes in financial planning for American Indians or, as Gibb says, "Natives." The story examined the many ways that planning for Natives differs from planning for those of us who now call ourselves Americans, chiefly because of the treaties and other specific rules that apply only to Natives. As a side issue, Gibb talked about how he was working on setting up a new compensation model using retainer fees.
Is there a planning market for Native Americans? Some individuals receive annual payouts of $100,000 and more from shares in casino operations. As a group, they own 43.7 million acres of land in the United States, land they're eager to develop if only they can find business partners that will respect them, understand their priorities and cut them a fair deal. Given the potential opportunities here, Gibb's knowledge seems to me a scarce and valuable commodity.
Gibb has been developing his specialty since the early 1980s, when he worked for Morgan Stanley in San Francisco. He helped the Coville Confederated Tribes in Nespelum, Wash., get out of some ill-advised mineral leases and get the money it was due from an oil company. Gibb never got paid for his 100 hours of work. But William White Dirt, a shaman of the Northern Cheyenne, designed a logo for Gibb because Gibb had earned distinction as a warrior by "counting coup," that is, bravely standing up to the enemy.
When I came across Gibb's firm-Sweetwater Investments-on the Internet the other day, I felt curious about how his Native business had grown and took a look at his Web site, represented by the logo William White Dirt designed so many years ago. Below it were these words: "This is a representation of a Native American warrior's shield cover. The blue arrowheads containing the eyes pointing to the nexus of the four cardinal directions represent a person always seeking harmony. The four feathers indicate coups or great victories. The logo was presented to the firm as a remembrance of work during a complex financial transaction."
It was the only mention of Natives on the site. Why? Had Gibb given up on the Natives? Not at all, he says. Of the $1.5 billion he manages, $1 billion belongs to them. "It's a major part of the business, but I don't want to put the flag up because then everyone in the world wants you to help them sell swampland in Florida," Gibb says, explaining that for marketing guys, the old axiom, "There's a sucker born every minute," applies doubly to Natives. Because they are outsiders to American society, and often naïve about how the financial markets work, Natives are the perfect pigeons. Or so thinks the type of salesman we all know, who believes the perfect target is someone who doesn't understand what he's buying-the better to eat you, my dear.
Few Americans who try to work with Native tribes understand their culture. "We value individual work and achievement," Gibb says. "Native Americans come from a spiritual continuum, an almost communist environment where daily life and the sacred are not separate but the same." When Americans try to introduce a Calvinist culture, it can clash severely with this view.
Gibb cites the example of a mining operation developed on Indian land in Alaska that came to a screeching halt when the workers took two weeks off to go whaling, a cultural and spiritual ceremony that is part of their calendar of celebrations. "They just want to go and get drunk," the mining officials told Gibb. But the tribespeople were willing to give up the entire deal rather than give up their whaling ceremony. The event is part of who they are, part of their sacred tradition, says Gibb. Ignoring or failing to respect Native American culture results in the failure of many attempts at economic development.
Gibb thinks it's possible for Natives to develop their land and still keep their sacred traditions. The major problem is that both sides needed for such projects to go forward-U.S. corporations and/or developers, and Native tribes-believe that they will change the other. "General Motors is not going to change its ways for a Native American tribe, and the tribe will not give up 25,000 years of culture," he says. Instead, he suggests that each side identify its own strengths and weaknesses.
Natives make decisions differently, too, often considering the tribe first rather than the individual. They possess intangible or unusual wealth in the form of family traditions and artifacts that hold great value and must be passed on properly to the next generation rather than sold as collectibles.
Gibb sees protecting his Native clients as part of his job as advisor. When a salesman calls Gibb and tells him that he's found the perfect product for his Native clients, Gibb typically responds: "This is great for Indians because they're stupid, right?" Then he asks how much money the salesman has raised from outside capital. Typically, the answer is "nothing."
Gibb gets mostly hostility from non-Indians when they learn he works with Natives. "I've had people tell me they don't want to do business with me because I do business with Natives," he says. One politician asked him: "Why can't they just accept that they are conquered people?" What most people know about Indians comes from Hollywood, from Tonto and Chief Dan George. "They've never met a native, or they picture someone falling down drunk," Gibb says.
But now Gibb reminds me that when we first began talking some years ago, it was about how advisors can best rationalize their business and get paid for their accumulated knowledge and expertise as well as the work they do. Gibb doesn't believe the assets-under-management fee accomplishes that. That's because the way to increase revenue from AUM fees is not to gain knowledge or expertise, it's to increase assets.
A better model, Gibb says, is to offer highly customized advice covering a broad spectrum of topics. "But though we set ourselves apart from investment managers in the range of services and value we offer, we pay ourselves based on their commoditized model," he says. The fee level is constantly under pressure and the client relationship is at risk of being dependent on investment performance. So Gibb has devised a hybrid model, which is based chiefly on retainer fees.
He keeps track of tasks he performs for a client over a year. Perhaps the client wants to know if a 529 plan is the best way to save for college. How does it affect the child's ability to get financial aid? Then he wants you to speak with his mortgage broker. Gibb uses a software program called Qlockwork, which provides a calendar that lays over the top of Microsoft Outlook and shows, for example, whom you spoke with on the phone at 2:30 p.m. on March 26. When he meets with clients at the end of the year, he says: "Here's how much time I spent on you. That's OK. That's what I'm here for."
Gibb says that his job is "to eat other people's stress, and I think I should get paid for it." He wants to be a fiduciary, to be looking at each client's situation and researching what is best for him. Although his business resembles what many advisors call a "multifamily advisor," Gibb likes to call it a "trusted family advisor."
What's next for Natives? When Gibb began working with them in the early '80s, there was no Indian gaming. There were no casinos on reservations. Native unemployment was 50% to 90%. Of every dollar that came onto the average reservation, 97 cents left. Natives lived "a pretty spotty existence," he says. "No one wanted to work with them."
Now they are riding high with 500 casinos and gaming revenues of $25 billion. "Some states say it is here to stay," Gibb says. "Other states fight gaming, and the tribes are fighting with each other." There is well-funded opposition to gaming, he says. "It is a big enough income source so you have management issues." Some of the questions he asks:  "Are we facing saturation? How do they reposition themselves? What are tribes going to do with the money?"
Gibb says he sees tribes getting more sophisticated. "But I don't see the kind of investments I would make if I were sitting on this huge cash flow." 

Mary Rowland can be reached at [email protected]. She has been a business and personal finance journalist for 30 years and has written six books, including two for financial advisors.