FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with George Brookman
November 17, 2015
George Brookman is becoming very much a ‘Mr. Calgary’ kind of guy. I’ve crossed paths with him a few times, but only recently sat down for this interview to get acquainted.
He is affable, in every sense of that word. Open, friendly and entering his office full of memorabilia, plaques, awards etc … it’s like a George Brookman museum. A comfortable place, comfortable chairs, comfortable discussion.
I asked, how’s business? “Challenging. We’ve let fifty-five people go since January 2015.” Yikes. I guess I should have expected that – but being welcomed there I didn’t sense gloom or foreboding. Where is there? By day, most days, he’s waist-deep running West Canadian. But he’s very much a man about town who is a tweeter, blogger, community activist, linked-in guy, busy volunteer (former Calgary Stampede Board Chairman), corporate director and frequent CBC Radio commentator.
Born in Calgary – lived here all is life. He has one younger sister. His mom was a war bride, from Holland, and homemaker. His soldier dad was one of six kids, son of a baker trying to make a go of it in Sibald, AB. They moved to Calgary – where his dad worked in real estate sales, owned his own real estate brokerage, operated a ball team at Sheppard (the Brookman Dodgers). Then, bankruptcy – left a huge impact on George growing up. He attended Henry Wise Wood High, but dropped out in his grade twelve year – shifting from part time employee at Woodwards’ Department Store to full time on the food floor, then to housewares, then housewares manager at nineteen. George regaled me with stories of cornering the Calgary market on pressure cookers one year for great profit …
A quest for a better life beckoned. Married at twenty, a move into real estate sales with Montreal Trust at twenty-one, then Knowlton Realty in office leasing – then to the ‘other side’ at Manulife where we was deeply involved in development of new buildings. Then to ATCO as VP of Real Estate Development, building four buildings. In 1982, the NEP era dealt a blow to many. An introduction to West Canadian came via a Rotary member – led to a job as COO, then realization he was is in pretty deep in a troubled business. He sought to return to ATCO, and they offered to take him back. Encouragement and reminder from his wife, “you didn’t create this” inspired him to carry on to turn the business around. Then ownership the following year - and thirty-two years later, he’s still going strong.
George recalls what he said at that pivotal point, “I’m going to drive this thing into the ground or into the sky" and "that day changed my life.”
He’s lectured at the Haskayne School, taught at SAIT in the Business Admin. Certificate program – he’s been honoured for his accomplishments and community contributions by CBE, SAIT, Bow Valley College and the University of Calgary.
Why are you successful? “I’ve always reached out to people. I learned to look at the sunny side of life. I’m optimistic. I try to find the better side of a situation. I try to surround myself with good people. Getting involved in the community. Rotary. I own this company because I joined Rotary .. and met someone who introduced me to this opportunity thirty-two years ago. And, my dad taught me to be frugal.”
What has held you back? “My dad’s bankruptcy made me more cautious than I should have been. In terms of things I wish I’d done … I wish I’d travelled more. I’ve been to many places I’ve not enjoyed them as well as I could have. And, I grew up too fast!”
George told me the story of how, many years ago, he went to visit a customer who was upset – had a major complaint. On the way he bought two coffees and some cookies which he asked the receptionist to bring in once their meeting was underway. He found the gesture disarming and it contributed to a resolution of the problem du jour. George instituted a ‘ten boxes of cookies for each salesman’ program that involved visiting every customer at least once a month. The tradition continues, and West Canadian spends $2500+ every month on cookies.
How do you see your business – document management company focused on digital imaging – going forward over the next quarter?’
… in Alberta, business is as tough as I’ve seen it in thirty-two years, industry wide. Architects, engineers and the energy industry are our largest customers – everyone is in a state of ‘hunker down’. I am hopeful we’ll be through this, out of this, by 2017.
And over the next five years?
… our industry will be more about storage, about BIG-DATA, less paper, more print-on-demand.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I like quality but I don’t pay for the most expensive item! I live moderately. People with enthusiasm, optimism, energy. People who (I’ve borrowed this quote from my friend David Chalak) “don’t say whoa in a mud hole.”
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose West Canadian, choose George Brookman, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… we believe in good quality – we don’t squeeze the last cent out of a transaction. I like everybody to win. Cookies for our customers every month. We answer our own phones.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… inclusive. But not always democratic. We’re about working together.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I worry about my country, our traditions, our business …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… Ron Southern – he’s been a huge influence on my life. He taught me to think bigger than most people do, taught me to always be 100% professional, taught me to ‘never be afraid to walk away from a deal’ and that ‘it’s never the good deal you missed that will break you – it’s the bad one that you do’. My dad. My wife. My boss, at Woodwards’, Sandy Watt.
Work-life balance – do you have it?
… lots. Ride my bike. Used to ski and ride horses a lot – now I spend most of my time here, this business is my hobby. I sit on several boards. My kids – two daughters, one son-in-law and two grandchildren. My 2nd daughter is getting married soon, so we are busy planning that …
What do you read?
… constantly! I’m in a book club. Non-fiction mostly. Recent and favourite reads: Dead Wave, Garden of the Beast, The White City … and many more.
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