PFN Group of Companies: Building relationships

PFN Group of Companies CEO Richard Missens in The Canadian Business Quarterly
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The Pasqua First Nation Group of Companies, better known by the acronym PFN Group of Companies, is a company owned by the Pasqua First Nation and acts as the major thrust in the Nation’s economic development strategy.

Group CEO, Richard Missens, is a member of the Pasqua First Nation #79, a Saulteaux/Cree First Nation, and lives on the reservation located 60km northeast of Regina and 15km west of Fort Qu-Appelle in Saskatchewan. The reserve currently has an area of almost 9k hectares, approximately 264 hectares of which is valley land. Pasqua First Nation has approximately 2,000 band members, of which around 69% live off reserve. Pasqua First Nation is a member of the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, which is part of Treaty 4 Territory. Mr Missens spoke to us recently about the beginnings of PFN Group of Companies, the Indigenous values that guide the company in achieving the Nation’s economic strategy, and the commitment to building relationships that benefit both the First Nation and Canada.

Pasqua First Nation

“[PFN Group] is a company 100% owned by the Pasqua First Nation here in Saskatchewan,” Mr Missens says. “It was established by the Chief and Council in 2012, and it was set up as a joint venture company to partner with industry.”

In 2018, the council decided it wanted the company to do more. It developed the PFN Group of Companies Limited Partnership, making PFN Group of Companies Inc. the general partner. It was to be the major thrust of the Pasqua First Nations’ economic strategy.

“I joined the company in 2019. In line with what the council wanted to do, the company didn’t have any staff at that time, there was just an LP and a General Partner with no staff. So, Chief Peigan and the Council approached me and asked me if I would come and help them out, as the President and CEO.”

Previous to beginning this role, Mr Missens had forged a successful career in academia, having spent 27 years as a facility member of the School of Business at the First Nations University of Canada in Regina.

“When the Chief and Council asked me to be a big part of the new company, I was honored. One of the first initiatives we wanted to do, in speaking with the Council, was build some capacity. We now have a Business Development Manager, and we’ve employed a professional Agrologist on staff to help with some of the farm planning we have in mind.”

Mr Missens quickly set out to work on identifying opportunities for the company, including ways of creating employment and training for First Nations members, and developing a strategic plan for moving forward. In early 2020, the Group and Council established an independent Board of Directors.

Subsidiary activities

The PFN Group of Companies is the overarching organization, and it contains four subsidiary businesses that the group manages under its portfolio, the biggest of which is Pro Metal Industries located in Regina.

“[Pro Metal] is one of Western Canada’s premier precision, custom manufacturing, assembly, metal fabrication, and welding [specialists]. We bought it in 2015, and the company has done really well since we’ve purchased it. During the pandemic Pro Metal was able to pivot the company, and we grew our sales from $2m in 2019 to over $10m.”

This new growth was partly due to the realization that many of the laser cutting and waterjet tools the company had could cut through a quarter inch of Plexiglas as easily as it could cut through six inches of steel.

“So we started making protective barriers for schools and offices. We also started manufacturing portable sinks and handwashing stations. We designed a division of the company called Sage Pro Protect, which delivered PPE and products to First Nations organizations, schools and government.”

This pivot helped the company grow despite the pandemic, at the same time providing vital assistance to other First Nations people. The company was seen as a preferred service provider for PPE in helping Indigenous Services Canada deliver these essential products.

“The other business, [Paskwa Pit Stop], we inherited actually, which has been running on the reserve for 20 years. It is a small convenience and gas station that provides fuel, tobacco, convenience, and grocery products to the local households and families here on the reserve.”

At the time the LP was created, Chief and Council moved the Paskwa Pit Stop business under the control of PFN Group of Companies, and it has been a successful business for over two decades, running on a team of 8 full-time and 7 part-time staff.

“It does really well,” Mr Missens explains. “It’s cash positive, been doing that for 20 years. It employs people and creates revenues, and most of all providing what I think is essential products and services here in the Nation.”

Another company owned by the group was one it developed in 2018, Pasqua First Nation Land Holdings Ltd, a business was established as a land and property management company that buys land and buildings in the area and acts as landlord for some of the other businesses the group runs.

PFN Group of Companies CEO Richard Missens in The Canadian Business Quarterly
PFN Group of Companies recently started manufacturing portable sinks and handwashing stations. This division, Sage Pro Protect provides PPE and products to First Nations organizations, schools and government

“Right now, the company manages approximately $8m of commercial and agricultural land. So, for example we’ve got roughly 1,300 arable acres of land, in 10 quarters, right next to our reserve community, and that’s owned by this company. We currently lease it out, so we get some lease revenues from that.”

The company also owns vacant commercial land in the town of Fort Qu’Appelle, about 20 mins from the reserve. The land was given to the land holding company, and PFN Group of Companies is currently looking at economic opportunities for how to best utilize it.

“The last entity we have is a very new one, a very young one. It is actually managed out of our community Public Works department. It’s our PFN Tire Shop, located right on the reserve, and it provides tires and tire servicing to the residents and businesses on the reserve.”

As a small company, the tire shop borrows its capacity from the Nation’s Public Works Department. There are currently plans to turn it into an independent, standalone tire garage and brake service for the community in the near future.

Investment strategy

“Part of our investment strategy is to actually own businesses and operate them, but we are also investing, by purchasing equity in other businesses that we think are doing really well, and have that have products, services and opportunities that align with PFN Group of Companies needs and values.”

The PFN Group has equity in a number of companies, one of which is Atlantis Research Labs, a Canadian research and development company located in Medicine Hat, Alberta. The group’s interest was in a product called PureJet, a proprietary technology developed by Atlantis to effectively treat waste gas and eliminate harmful emissions.

“In 2019, the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan changed the regulation with the oil and gas industry around flaring of gas, which doesn’t do a good enough job in trying to dismantle waste gas. According to the Atlantis executives, PureJet technology is 99.99% effective in dismantling and treating this waste gas, and eliminated all the harmful emissions that were coming from that.”

Oil and gas is one of the biggest industries in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but the Pasqua First Nation’s values revolve around taking care of Mother Earth, and as such the group must be careful with its business choices.

“Our corporate values wouldn’t permit us to invest in oil and gas exploration and development, but it’s perfect for us to get involved in helping to clean up. This product is now out into the industry, so we’re pretty proud to be a part of Atlantis Research Labs.”

Another company the PFN Group owns 50% equity in, is NP Aerospace, a world leader in advanced low weight, high-performance armor systems for personal and platform, the integration of military vehicle systems, and delivering complete turnkey composites engineering services for commercial applications.

“We make ballistic protective devices like shields, vests for military and police services. We also make ballistic helmets. In 2018, we won the contract to manufacture 33,000 helmets for the Canadian Army.”

The company’s main manufacturing plant is located in Coventry, UK, but it also has a smaller plant in London, Ontario. PFN Group invested in the company as part of its strategy to enter into the global military and defense industry.

“We’ve had a lot of First Nations elders and people who have served in military conflicts Canada has been involved in, so we have First Nations veterans from our community. We thought contributing to the protection of soldiers and military service personal was a good way for our community to give back.”

The last company that PFN Group has invested in is Atlas Biotechnologies Inc., which produces and distributes pharmaceutical products, in particular providing cultivation and production of medical cannabis products for healthcare sector.

The company operates under precision, controlled laboratory conditions and is expertly positioned to cultivate the most consistent medical cannabis products. The PFN Group’s interest was in the medical research and the potential health and wellness benefits to society.

“When the cannabis industry in Canada became legalized, it was a big boom of speculation and growth, everybody was scrambling to build capacity in providing cannabis products. We went to our elders, our community and our families and asked them – is this an opportunity we would like to be involved in as a Nation, and we got a resounding ‘no’.”

PFN Group of Companies CEO Richard Missens in The Canadian Business Quarterly
The Pasqua First Nation Group of Companies, better known by the acronym PFN Group of Companies, is a company owned by the Pasqua First Nation and acts as the major thrust in the Nation’s economic development strategy

The concern came from cannabis being an illegal drug until recently. The Nation has struggled with issues of substance abuse in its own communities, creating some hesitancy about getting involved in cannabis production.

“One of the things we did find out is that cannabis is made up of two main compounds, THC and CBD. THC is the recreational side of it, and the CBD is the medical side of it, and that’s where we were very intrigued with what Atlas Biotechnologies were doing. They positioned themselves as a medical cannabis company.”

The company developed a lab and started identifying derivatives of CBD, signing agreements with medical schools around the world – including Harvard and University of Alberta – to provide high-value cannabis CBD oil, derivatives and flower for research.

“As an example, the Harvard Medical School is doing research on neurological diseases, such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s and trying to find if these CBD derivatives can be useful in treatments. So we were very intrigued by that, and we went back to our Council and community members to confirm medical cannabis was okay to be a part of.”

The downstream opportunity we realized from this investment was the creation of a new Indigenous product line of medical cannabis products soon to be launched under the brand called Mino-Ahki (Good Earth) and a unique line of topical creams that combine traditional medicines and the benefits of cannabis CBD.

Future vision

When Mr Missens joined the company in 2019, it had already established a number of joint ventures and understandings with other companies. Having started life as a joint venture, it was well placed to form a number of beneficial partnerships.

“When Enbridge Line 3 Replacement was coming through Western Canada, when potash exploration development was happening, oil and gas exploration was happening – companies were looking for Indigenous partners to partner with.”

When these partnerships presented themselves, PFN Group of Companies took a good look to see what benefits there could be for the group and the Nation itself. This resulted in some important joint ventures.

“We continued on that path when I came on in 2019. We now have eleven partnerships with various companies in various industries. For example, we have engineering, logistics, construction, architectural companies, pipeline fabrications, line servicing, hydrovac. We wanted to develop a comprehensive group of companies that we called our alliance.”

Now, when the group is looking to provide services to both the Pasqua First Nation, other Nations, governments and, large companies, it reaches back into the alliance to find all the services and products it would need to bid on local or larger large contracts.

“So, we developed a round table discussion group where we sit with our eleven partners in order to plan, strategize and explore new opportunities for the alliance. PFN Group of Companies is the common denominator and we organize this on a quarterly basis. So, it’s something different.”

This approach has been extremely beneficial both for the companies involved in the alliance, and for PFN Group of Companies, which is now able to position itself to provide labor, training, lobbying and profit sharing.

“We saw a lot of win-win in this. For our companies, bringing the alliance together and helping to take the lead on some of these bids and project negotiations and lobbying, we think we can bring more work to them in that respect. We just started this year, and we’re pretty excited about the future of that one.”

As a community-driven company, the future of the group is influenced by discussions with Chief and Council and the Board, but also just as importantly with members of the Nation and especially from our elders, which Mr Missens has made a commitment to doing.

One untapped resource the Nation has is its current land holdings, and future land to be purchased as part of a Treaty Land Entitlement agreement with Canada.

PFN Group of Companies CEO Richard Missens in The Canadian Business Quarterly
PFN Group is a company 100% owned by the Pasqua First Nation in Saskatchewan. It was established by the Chief and Council in 2012, and it was set up as a joint venture company to partner with industry

“Under the TLE, we have the ability to buy upwards of 30,000 acres of land and turn it into a reserve. Right now we have a little over 11,500 acres of arable farm land, but that land is currently all rented out or leased to non-resident farmers. So it’s not Pasqua First Nation band members directly benefiting from farming on our land.”

After some discussion with the Council, the plan is to develop this land into a corporate farm, Pasqua Farms Ltd, which will be 100% owned by the PFN Group and built the capacity with band members trained to run the operation. The farm would start with grain and oilseed, before moving into poultry, bison or other agricultural products.

“When I met with our elders, they reminded me that we have a spiritual connection to the land, we always have as First Nations people. We live in harmony with the land, we are part of this ecosystem, and we’re taught that everything is connected.”

The Pasqua Elders remind Mr Missens and the group to be very careful and deliberate with its ecological choices. The way in which the land is taken care of is paramount for the Nation and for the PFN Group that represents it.

“But, we have to take a different approach, For example, we’re looking at things like the current agriculture – the industry is dominated by heavy use of chemicals, they’re draining wetlands, taking down trees, all to try and get from 40 bushels an acre to 60 bushels an acre. But you can’t squeeze that much out of the land, Mother Earth can only give so much – we are taught by the elders that you’ve got to be able to give back and take care of her.”

In a farming practice, the PFN Group would need to be very deliberate in its actions, maintaining soil health and protecting watersheds, as well as protecting the forests by planting bushes and trees for the animals.

“We’ve got to be able to minimize climate pollutions that we produce. The goal is, to sustainably farm the land so it’s there for our children that for the generations no yet born. That’s something our elders teach us – to look far, far ahead. We’re just borrowing the land, and that it does not belong to us.”

First Nations people have been isolated on their reservations for over a hundred years, set aside as Canada was developed as a nation. This means that in terms of business, First Nations are 25 years behind the rest of the world.

“We can be great partners, we can be great contributors to local economies, provincial and national economies, and we become more self-sustaining and self-dependent and less dependent on Canada. This becomes an important part of our self-determination – and it won’t take 25 years to catch up.”

Investing in First Nation businesses helps create better partners with direct benefits back to the company through increased supplier productivity, better quality products and services, and increased reliability.

“Economic development is an important part of the development strategies within First Nations governments, but it’s just the means to an end. It is getting to a place where we can begin to address some of the social pathologies we deal with as First Nations people.”

The economic benefits such as wealth, profits and jobs created by PFN Group of Companies go directly back to the community. These benefits have a positive impact within the community by spending the proceeds on community programs and services, education and training, healthy water and homes.

“We want to be able to provide opportunities for our families, especially young families, to look after themselves, to look after their children, to create opportunities and jobs. One of the ways we see that happening is by asking corporate Canada to invest in us. When you make friends with First Nations people, it’s for life.”

With a commitment to building strategic partnerships and investing in Indigenous owned businesses we can contribute to a brighter future within First Nations communities. Find out more about PFN Group of Companies by visiting www.pfngroupinc.com

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