When Karen Brookman took over as President and CEO at West Canadian Digital Imaging Inc. last November, she knew there would be business challenges to overcome. Normal, typical challenges of the variety leaders expect to face in a new position. Her first year – dominated by a global pandemic – is nothing she could have ever imagined, the obstacles to overcome unfathomable just a year ago. Nonetheless Brookman, who took over from her father George Brookman, one of Calgary’s great businessmen and philanthropists, has remained calm and undaunted, persevering in her role with practical necessity and realistic optimism.
“In some ways it has been a gift for me to take over the company at this time,” she reflects from her Calgary office at West Canadian’s headquarters. “Because I’ve really had to establish my leadership and trust with the employees across the organization. In some strange way, I feel grateful for the experience.”
The private company’s management team, which includes Brookman’s sister Jennifer and is supported by George Brookman, now Chairman of the board, made the decision early on to survive the pandemic. “There was something, I think, in that declaration that really mattered to our people and was kind of a rally cry,” she reflects. “We said: ‘Whatever is coming, we will find a way to survive this, and we will leave no stone unturned.’ We operated from that place from the beginning.”
The pandemic has delivered both good and bad for West Canadian, which saw its revenue drop quickly and significantly, by more than 30 per cent, at the onset. Management was forced to lay off approximately one third of the company’s 300 employees, resulting in stress and anxiety for everyone. “That’s been the hard part,” she admits, “really trying to understand how and when and what’s going to come back.”
The team that remains, on the other hand, is closer than ever. “There’s this great sense of purpose right now in the work that we’re doing and trying to keep things going, trying to keep jobs in place,” Brookman says with pride. “Everybody’s being, I think, really empathetic and kind to each other. So, I love that. I think it’s funny. It’s sort of deepened our culture in some regards.”
Another positive side effect is a renewed emphasis on creativity and agility within the company. “We have to have a short-term mindset,” Brookman says. “We’re always asking what the new ideas are and how we can execute on them. This has definitely translated into some new business, the obvious one being our large signage business.”
West Canadian recently launched a complete physical distancing signage program for property managers and retailers. “It just took off,” Brookman says happily. “We’ve been crazy busy on that side of the business. The idea originated from one of our employees.”
Working through the pandemic has required a greater embrace of technology, including working remotely – which Brookman confirms has been well-received throughout the company – and better communication with employees. A formalized business-casual dress code has also been implemented.
“We’re really trying to use this time to regroup and restructure for the future,” Brookman explains. “If we can get through this and emerge with momentum, we feel there are good things ahead.”
It’s not the first transformation West Canadian has been through. Founded in 1952 by Calgarian Bill Gillott, the company started as a traditional microfilm and reprographic (blueprint) service provider, mostly for local building architects. George Brookman joined the company as a shareholder in 1984, with the intention of eventually taking over.
“When my dad took over the business it was during a really tough economic time,” Brookman says, “the business needed fresh leadership and a new future. It’s interesting because it’s what we’re experiencing right now in our own succession. It’s like history repeating itself.”
Under his leadership, West Canadian expanded the array of advanced services it provided, with an emphasis on technology and being first to market. For example, it was one of the first companies in Calgary to get into digital imaging, including advanced digital colour capabilities.
“My dad is a true entrepreneur and was always looking for the next latest service we could bring to the market,” Brookman offers. “I think that really helped the company to grow. He talks a lot about his commitment to helping customers become more successful, by bringing leading edge technologies and services into the market. He wanted to be a company that really enabled customer success and a company that customers could trust and rely on to help build their businesses.”
George Brookman also oversaw the expansion of the business into Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Joffre and Sarnia, Ontario, all important to the continual growth and development of West Canadian.
A leader in its field, West Canadian today provides well-designed integrated digital solutions for information and print. It has three main categories of business, each of which comprise a third of total business. Its Flexible Office Solutions involve the complete outsourcing of a company’s non-core essential office services. “From print centres to records centres to warehousing and distribution,” Brookman explains. “The list of services goes on and on.”
The second business segment is digital imaging and content management, which remains busy today, as more companies decide to convert paper records to electronic format. “Particularly since employees are now working from home,” Brookman notes. “We see digital transformation as a growth area.”
Marketing execution, the company’s third business segment, involves helping customers effectively market their companies. West Canadian provides everything from design to signage to printing to direct mail.
“We are working on a new strategic plan,” Brookman reveals enthusiastically. “We want to bring a bit more focus to the business. One of the key areas right now is personalized on-demand digital solutions. Customers today want a very personalized solution, they want to connect with their customers in unique and differentiated ways, and they want everything online. So we’re really looking at how we can take everything that we do and create solutions that will enable them to have a more connected experience with their customers.”
Many of West Canadian’s clients are enterprises trying to connect with large volumes of customers, employees, students or tenants. “We build the solutions to make that happen,” Brookman explains. “Whether it’s a printed direct mail solution, an online solution or access to information.” Some of the company’s largest projects are in the education, retail, government, energy and healthcare sectors.
Born and raised in Calgary, Brookman worked at her father’s company as a teenager. She moved to Toronto in the 1980s to attend Ryerson university, her goal a career in design. After a number of years in the fashion industry and brand management, she came upon an opportunity to launch a Canadian partnership with a successful U.S. legal document management service company.
Under Brookman’s leadership Commonwealth Legal grew from a regional Toronto-based imaging company to an industry-leading, multi-million-dollar national eDiscovery company. “We did very well with that business,” Brookman recalls. “At our peak we had six offices across Canada. We worked with all the top law firms, big corporations and the federal government.”
In 2014 Commonwealth was acquired by Ricoh Canada. Brookman stayed on for five years and ultimately led the services division for Canada. “We actually became their top performing business unit for a few years,” she says.
“I was on this big corporate career track,” she recalls, “and I really, really missed being an entrepreneur. I was actually looking to plan an exit and start another business when my dad approached me about the succession of West Canadian. I said, ‘I am in!’”
Brookman and her husband moved back to Calgary and she started at the company in August 2018 as Chief Innovation Officer, with plans to become CEO one year later. The succession process, she reveals, was much harder than she or her dad expected.
“We worked with the Family Enterprise Exchange (FEX) in Calgary and they were amazing,” she says. “They told us what we were going through was normal – it’s not just transitioning a job, but rather transitioning your life and legacy. There’s way more complexity and emotion than you might think.”
“I’m very proud of us,” she continues. “I think we’ve settled into a new rhythm; we’ve got a great team we’re having a lot more fun now. We’re actually really enjoying it.”
Brookman, her father and their company are heavily involved in the Calgary community, and donate much time, effort and money to various charities. Of note, they hold the West Canadian Cup every summer at Spruce Meadows to support equestrian riders who travel to Calgary from all over the world, as well as Breakfast on the Bridge every June in support of the Calgary Military Family Resources Centre, the Military Museums and the Mount Royal University scholarship program for military families.
In light of their experience with FEX, they became a patron sponsor of it this year. Brookman is also very involved with women’s initiatives, sits on the board of the Women of Influence and supports the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter.
She’s happy to be back home in Calgary, notwithstanding the current pandemic and economic challenges. “Calgary is a wonderful place to live,” she says. “And it’s a great place to build a business. The outreach, the support we’ve had from customers, it’s remarkable. There is support here that you won’t find elsewhere.”
Calm, optimistic, realistic, creative – these are the traits Brookman is wielding to lead her company through unprecedented times. West Canadian is personal to her, to her family, to her team and to her customers, a fact she takes pride in. “At the heart of this business is a spirit of ‘we care’,” she says. “We’re trying to be really good listeners to our customers and businesses in this community. We’re trying to understand what they’re going through and what they need. Success for us means to help this market achieve its goals, become more competitive and build the customer base back up. We are constantly asking: ‘How can we do this together? How are we going to figure this out?’ And that’s helped us through this difficult time.”