Corporation to pay first dividend in years

Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Given up for dead by many shareholders after a string of shady fiscal dealings and well-publicized fiascos during its formative years, the 13th Regional Native Corp. is back.

Though never out of business, the Native corporation for Alaska Natives living out of state hasn't sent a dividend to its nearly 5,500 shareholders since an $11 check in 1989.

This year, those shareholders will get sent 50 cents per share - or $50 for the typical shareholder.

``We're getting a lot of lost shareholders out of the woodwork,'' said Norman Ream, the corporation's 77-year-old volunteer president. ``These people have been patient for a very long time.''

The corporation's board of directors had to bend the 13th's dividend policy a little to allow for the dividend. Dividends are supposed to be calculated on 30 percent of the five-year average profit of the corporation. The 13th recorded a net profit of $1.1 million in the 1999 fiscal year, which didn't quite make the dividend policy's minimum, 50 cent per share threshold. Given the new millennium, Ream said, it seemed like a good time to send out checks anyway.

The dividends aren't in the same league as the checks shareholders of Juneau's Goldbelt Inc. or Southeast's Sealaska Corp. have received over the last few years. At $50, the dividend checks are the same size awarded to Goldbelt shareholders to vote in corporate elections.

The talk of dividends has increased participation at shareholder meetings by a factor of 10, Ream said. Rather than three or four shareholders showing up, 30 to 40 now attend, he said.

Ben Paul, a 13th shareholder living in Seattle, said the dividend check is nice, but isn't enough to spur much excitement from him.

``Getting a dividend check from the 13th is more of a moral victory for the corporation than a benefit for shareholders,'' Paul said. ``I'm glad they're making a go of it.''

He noted Ream's salary - zero. If the corporation had to pay for all the work people are putting into it, there'd likely be little profit, Paul said.

The 13th was set up in 1975, a few years after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 set the stage for Native corporations. It received $52 million to start with, but didn't get the land 12 other regional Alaska Native corporations did. The 13th also doesn't benefit from a corporate profit-sharing provision written into ANCSA.

In the corporation's early years, the millions in start-up money evaporated into a cloud of questionable management practices.

An investigation by lawyers hired by the corporation to figure out what happened to the money concluded that though there might be enough evidence to sue past managers, pursuing litigation probably wouldn't recoup the cost of legal action. Also in the corporation's past are incidents such as the jailing of a Minnesota banker who issued loans to the 13th and the corporation's name on ownership papers for a boat involved in a drug bust.

Ream said those days are long gone.

In the last five years, the corporation has rebounded to show steadily increasing profits. Ream said the stock market's gains are responsible for much of the turnaround, as was the sale of an asset - an office building in Vancouver, Wash. But, it looks like the next fiscal year will show a flattening out of the corporation's profit line, Ream said.

The board of directors and Ream have been discussing hiring a salaried president to take over. However, the status of those discussions are at the same place they've been for two years, he said.

``We keep talking about it,'' he said. ``But there are some things I want to do first.''

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