Arnold Chevalier grew up mainly on the Menominee Reservation in Neopit, WI, about 50 miles northwest of Green Bay. His entrepreneurial spirit was evident at a young age.
“My family spent some time in Milwaukee and I shined some shoes on the streets, so I guess technically that’s the first time I earned some money,” explained Chevalier.
When he was younger, he attended school in Milwaukee to learn the HVAC trade. After returning home to Neopit on a mid-winter Friday night, Chevalier found that his propane heating tank was empty and his house was cold. So, he made a few phone calls to arrange for a re-fill and was surprised by the high cost of a special weekend delivery.
“The price per gallon had jumped up just because it was after hours on the weekend. It just made me angry that all these extra costs were being leveled,” he said. “So, I started counting propane tanks in and around the Menominee Reservation.” Maybe he’d start his own company.
A friend of Chevalier, who worked for the Menominee Tribe’s economic development department, handed him a copy of a feasibility study that had been done a few years back. “I dusted it off and updated it and then I took it to the bank in Shawano,” he said.
The bank’s manager liked Chevalier’s plan, but the loan officer he sat down with disagreed. He denied Chevalier’s loan request.
A couple of weeks later, he ran in to the bank manager, who asked him how the business was shaping up. That confused Chevalier. After a quick chat, the manager invited him back to the bank. “Within a few days, I’d gotten a $15,000 loan from the bank to start the propane business,” explained Chevalier.
It was a lot of hard work starting his propane business from scratch. He recalls his first delivery truck “broke down many, many times and there were some late, late nights just keeping that thing running.”
It wasn’t until Chevalier started his business that many Tribal entities, including the school district and the Tribal government, realized that they could get a better price.
“I got in to [starting a business] myself, because I thought the prices were too high and I just didn’t think it was fair,” said Chevalier. “Economically speaking, it’s an area that has limited jobs. So you’re dealing with a lot of folks that struggle through the winter to pay the bills. And those were my customers.”
As a tribal member, he said, “I felt that we as a tribe needed to support ourselves first and foremost.” He feels his propane business was a way he could do that.
About five years in to the business, Chevalier was able to buy a brand new delivery truck. He says he was able to make it his own by adding decals and ‘Menominee Gas’ written across it. “There was even an eagle on the tank itself. So it was personal, you know? It was very personal to me,” he said.
One of his first stops when he got back to the Reservation with the new truck was to his mother’s house. He even called ahead and told her to keep an eye on the driveway. “I still get emotional about that.” he said. “It was a very proud moment.”
When he reflected on starting that business, Chevalier said, “It’s a lot of hard work and you just gotta keep dreaming, you know? Just keep plugging away at it.”
Arnold Chevalier now lives in Stoughton, WI. He spoke with us as part of The Working Lives Project from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. The project highlights the state’s working people.
SONG: “Impossible Air” by Nathan Salsburg