By Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska

SealaskaThe regional Native corporation for Southeast Alaska has a new CEO, a new board chairman and a new board member.

Leaders of Juneau-headquartered Sealaska are following a direction set by their predecessors. But they promise some changes, following a recent board election.

Shareholders elected former Sealaska spokesman Ross Soboleff to an open seat. Soboleff is a commercial fisherman and legislative aide who lives in Juneau.

Shareholders also re-elected incumbents Rosita Worl, Sidney Edenshaw and Ed Thomas. A resolution limiting discretionary voting failed.

After the election, the board chose Joseph Nelson as chairman. He replaces Albert Kookesh, who remains on the panel but steps down from the post.

New board member Soboleff was part of an independent slate called 4 Shareholders for Sealaska. Though he was the only one to win, Soboleff says the slate’s message was powerful.

“Most of the board members I’ve spoken to know that shareholders are interested in very positive changes in the company. They and me are in the leadership and we have to figure it out together,” he said.

The slate, and most of the six other independent candidates, criticized the board for allowing corporate operations to run into the red last year.

“I would say central to what we came forward with was a turnaround plan for the company,” Soboleff said.

Sealaska’s businesses lost a total of $57 million.

Officials say that’s changing.

“Overall, it’s going to be operational profit,” said Anthony Mallott, Sealaska’s new president and CEO. The former Sealaska treasurer and chief investment officer replaces Chris McNeil Jr., who just retired.

Mallott says the first half of this year is looking good.

“Of course, it’s purely a forecast. We still have significant financial investment assets, so a significant market fall could take us off that forecast. But right now the forecast is for profits,” he said.

He says that will boost dividends. But Sealaska’s about 22,000 shareholders won’t see the increase until next year.

The Juneau-headquartered corporation still has debts. And Mallott says it’s a significant amount.

“We have $18 million in long-term debt outstanding, indicated as short-term because the maturity on that is this year. But all indications are that we’re going to renew that,” Mallott said.

That means the debt will be paid off later. But if it came due now, Mallott says the corporation could handle it.

One of Sealaska’s top priorities is to buy a new business. It sold off its profitable plastics partnership and a smaller company last year to help fund the acquisition.

Board Chairman Joe Nelson says the corporation continues to look for something closer to home.

“We need to invest in areas that we care about. We need to invest in areas that we need to be passionate about and we want to be the best in,” Nelson said.

CEO Mallott says Sealaska could have up to $50 million to invest.

“We’ve looked at the sustainable food industry. We’ve looked pretty in-depth into the fisheries landscape to see where we may fit,” he said. “We’ve looked into Southeast-based businesses that either tie into any of the current natural resource-based business we have. And we’ve also looked into government contracting.”

Nelson and Mallott say they’ll continue pursing federal legislation opening up more Tongass National Forest land to logging. What’s been called the Sealaska Lands Bill has been stalled for years.