Special Corporate Feature

Building a Successful Business on Traditional Native American Values

Frank Bonamie has built a successful business by steadfastly adhering to Native American ideals for caring for people and the environment. His ability to overcome challenges inspires all who want to start and grow a business with honesty and integrity.

F rank Bonamie founded Ongweoweh Corp with the knowledge gained from life experiences and prior business ownership. The now-thriving national multi-product business has consistently and successfully adapted to changing market needs and economic conditions. Bonamie named his company Ongweoweh (pronounced on-gwee-O-way) because it reflects his Native American heritage. He wanted his company to continuously operate on a foundation of Native American values and principles of honesty and integrity while respecting people and the environment. His faithfulness in adhering to Native American ideals of spirituality, respect for the environment, and caring for people has underpinned the past and continuing success of Ongweoweh.

Full-Circle Solutions for Generations to Come Frank Bonamie is a member of and former leader of the Wolf Clan in the Cayuga Indian Nation of New York State. Growing up, his family was always proud of its Native American heritage and ensured he learned its ideals and values. They include honesty, caring for family and community members, and respecting the environment.

Bonamie named his business Ongweoweh, loosely translated to “the original people, to reflect his heritage and serve as a constant tie to his roots. Bonamie founded Ongweoweh Corp. in 1978. As Chairman of the Board and Founder, he has led the company’s growth through the decades. Initially a pallet building company, it now also offers various state-of-the-art services like asset recovery for pallet retrieval and reuse, waste and recycling management and data analytics and reporting tools delivering insights into purchasing cycles.

The core values Ongweoweh is committed to in all it does are respect for inclusiveness and traditions of others, integrity expressed as honesty and transparency, and stewardship focused on improving the lives of employees, community, Native American people, and the environment. The company also values accountability for maintaining strong moral and ethical standards.

“You will hear our employees talk about the Seventh Generation principle, an Iroquois philosophy that takes into consideration the impact of our actions today on generations to come. Our day-to-day actions reflect our efforts to provide full-circle solutions to support this philosophy. We support many communities nationwide financially and with our daily business practices,” says Bonamie. His adherence to foundational Native American principles has paid off in many ways.

The Journey to Success is Paved with Great Leadership To reach the success Ongweoweh experiences today has been a journey. Bonamie first operated a construction business that closed in 1977. General Motors approached him a month later about starting a pallet manufacturing company because it needed a reliable supplier. Initially leasing a barn in Spencer, NY, Bonamie and his two sons built the business and attracted orders from Fortune 500 companies. Eventually, he delegated some of the work to suppliers through brokerage to keep up with the demand.

Today, Ongweoweh is a national pallet and supply chain management company selling and managing 33+ million pallets annually. Bonamie has passed the leadership reins to Sheila Thornton, President and CEO, Kirsten Williams, Vice President and COO, Christine Tsaklas, Chief Financial Officer, and other talented people. He is confident his “great group of employees” will continue to grow the business for their benefit and to support local communities. Including women on the Executive leadership team and in other leadership positions is a source of pride. “As a Native, we are traditionally a matrilineal society, so although it has been a bit of a progression for me as a leader, the kinship and leadership of women is something that is ingrained in my culture and background.”

Bonamie admits his leadership skills have been tested through the years, especially during events like the recession in the early 1990s, the 2008 financial crisis, and, most recently, the pandemic. “Throughout each challenge, I recognized the need to adjust to the environment set before me, be progressive as I evolved my abilities, and pivot as a leader. I have always been a tough but fair leader.” He has kept the company focused on innovation and hosts numerous collaborative events and meetings with innovation as the theme. Employees, customers, and suppliers are encouraged to share their ideas. The 1,600 diverse suppliers are viewed as partners in the business, allowing continued expansion of capabilities and reach.

Thoughtful Philanthropy and Initiatives Ongweoweh gives back to the community in many ways. The company contributes to local community organizations, funds scholarships for the education of Native Americans, and utilizes diverse suppliers. Philanthropy includes the Frank Bonamie Enrichment Scholarship to support Cornell University’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. The program's mission, per the website, is to develop new generations of educated Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who will “contemplate, study and contribute to building Indigenous nations and communities on a global scale.”

Ongweoweh also supports the Ganondagan State Historic Site. This site celebrates Iroquois culture and history in public education programs. Through the Ongweoweh Internship Program, the company provides Native American students and others with professional development opportunities in business.

There are other community and social programs the company supports. Bonamie has also embraced sustainability initiatives. One notable success is the recycling program that helps customers save an average of 20% on commercial waste disposal fees, reduces landfill and CO2 emissions, and saves trees.

Adhering to the Seventh Generation Principle The story of Ongweoweh and its founder always returns to values that center on people. Bonamie treats people respectfully and honestly, giving them the right tools to work with and consistently reinforcing the company’s core values. It is how people are empowered to do their best work and support communities.

“Family is very important. I value those closest to me. Even if not “true” family, they are considered family in my book. Customers and suppliers know they're working with a Native American-owned company, and the values we have today are aligned with the values many Native American communities continue to carry on,” Bonamie says.

Bonamie would like his legacy to be a man remembered as a kind and truthful individual characterized by the utmost level of integrity. “My hope is that Ongweoweh continues with the same roots and traditions it started with. I am confident the company will continue to see positive growth for many years to come. Our core business will always be pallets and meeting the pallet and recycling needs of corporations. As the years continue, our recycling operations will continue to evolve and allow for even greater support of the Seventh Generation principle.” Bonamie is always thinking of the future of people and the planet, a future he has already influenced through his leadership.