FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Karen Brookman
February 19, 2019
I knew her by name but had never met her – no surprise, given her connection, that when she returned to Calgary last year it was to take her current gig as Chief Innovation Officer. Does that mean ‘heir apparent’ in dad’s company? “No, I’m a partner. And I do have a stake in the company – I wrote a cheque”.
The company is West Canadian, ‘dad’ is George Brookman [I interviewed George in 2015 ], and an important role in transforming and growing one of Calgary’s well known companies into the future – something she’s very keen to tell me all about, and I was keen to learn what kind of innovation she’s chief of - but first lets start at the beginning:
Karen Brookman was born in Calgary – her mom, an ACAD graduate, artist, stay-at-home mom. Dad, she says, “taught me entrepreneurship and work ethic over the breakfast table – I started tagging along with him to the office on Saturdays when I was five. We are very close.” She adds that she is very close also with her younger sister.
Her school days, she calls well rounded – lots of sports and did ‘OK’ academically, better when she started to take it seriously. Swimming, piano, Junior Achievement, youth group and choir at church, president of her sorority and working part-time and summers at dad’s company. High school at Western Canada High. University at Ryerson in Toronto where she studied fashion design. Leaving Calgary – doing it in Ontario (i.e., being away from home) was dad’s ‘non-negotiable’ idea.
She obtained a B. Applied Arts from Ryerson, loved her first design job at fashion house 'Mr. Leonard', designing knitwear, visiting manufacturing plants in Asia etc.. Her 30 years in Toronto took some twists and turns before she came back to Calgary. With a partner she began Commonwealth Legal – an imaging business providing specialized services to law firms, leapt-upon an opportunity for legal document management at a conference in Chicago (managing documents in the cloud), tied up rights for Canada and had a strong run from 1994-2014 when she sold the six location firm to Ricoh Canada. As part of that deal she agreed to stay for two years, but stayed for four. She had opportunities to chase some rungs up the Ricoh ladder ... but returning to Calgary proved a stronger tug.
During her time there she met husband Allan Megarry – their paths crossed in both business and sailing circles; they’ve been together 15 years, married for three; two children from Allan’s first marriage.
So, why sell? “A combination of things – more competition, cost of staying current with technology was becoming prohibitive and the timing was very good. We put together a list of five possible acquirers – all five submitted letters of intent, but it was Ricoh who really saw the value. I was enjoying a very good life, but wanted to push the envelope … it was time to find a new opportunity. In November, 2017 dad and I were both attending a conference at Lake Louise – we spent the weekend discussing the future of West Canadian, and six months of conversations let to a decision. I moved back to Calgary last August. Dad is still CEO, Sid Nieuwdorp is President and I am Chief Innovation Officer.
What does a CIO? “I’ve gotten re-immersed in Western’s business, leading the development of a strategic plan for our future – exploring taking the company national, the concept of what it means for ‘West Canadian’ to be ‘Canadian’, developing an adopting new technology offerings with more efficiency and customization and exploring partnerships with software firms.”
Why are you successful? “because when I get up every day, for the most part, I am happy. My ability to set a goal, commit and persevere until I achieve it. I feel proud of my ability to affect people around me in a good way – and I have a great quality of life.”
What has held you back? “it took me a while to find my lane. I’m in a good place right now. I’ve sometimes made decisions based on instinct – with results I didn’t like. I’m now ‘more researched’ in my decisions.”
How do you see your business –digital information business – going forward over the next quarter?
… actually, really well. We’ve come through a very tough time – we’ve stabilized, growing our year-over-year numbers, finding new customers and doing more business with our existing customers. We’re going through a cultural transition – this is a period of change for us.
And over the next five years?
… I see us having a more diverse industry – our firm doing business more widely in Canada and the U.S. – and technology makes us more capable of handling our client’s needs anywhere in the world. Information is a vulnerability – so security issues will become more significant and people expertise will be as important as the new technology tools.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… people with a can-do attitude who are interested in leading positive change. Value, best outcomes. Quality trumps price. You can’t save your way to success – you have to invest to grow.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Karen and West Canadian, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… when you do business with me I’m all in! I follow through – I’m a straightforward communicator, I like to build trust by having a reputation for doing extraordinary things well. I believe, if you are going to do anything, do it well and tell truth …
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I would describe myself as visionary, creative – pushing limits. Collaborative. I like to surround myself with really strong people. I can be tough. I ask people to bring their best and to have a lot of fun.
… YES, it’s full interwoven!
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… Uncertainty – volatility in the world. I worry about my family. The weight of being the next generation …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… moving to Toronto at 18 – it sounded good until I got there. I was out of my element, afraid. I begged to go home but Dad got angry. He told me to tough it out. Something happened to me – I had to survive there. I created my own identity. I left as ‘George’s daughter’ came back as my own person. Another, we almost lost Commonwealth in 2012 – we had a failed merger attempt – at appoint where our alternatives were to ‘do a bad deal’ vs. turn around the business. Dad backed me, at huge risk, and we turned it around in a year. I learned what is possible when a group of people come together with unwavering resolve – and we never looked back.
… sailing, love to cook – entertaining, travel.
What do you read?
… I prefer books over devices, Good to Great is a favourite; currently reading Driving Digital Strategy by Sunil Gupta and All the light we cannot see by Anthony Doerr. I like historical novels, the combination of history and a great story.
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