As he begins a two-year term as board chair of the Calgary Chamber, Brent Cooper is excited by the opportunity that lies ahead. No stranger to the Chamber – he has been involved with the organization for the past seven years – Cooper looks forward to utilizing his skill set to ensure a high level of collaboration at the board level. “The Chamber has an important role to play and I am honoured to play a role in helping steer it; I think it’s going to be a really rewarding experience,” happily offers the Calgary lawyer, who took over the chairmanship on January 1, 2020.
A partner at McLeod Law LLP who focuses primarily on business law, Cooper and his firm first became involved with the Chamber’s Small Business Week (SBW) in 2013 as the official law firm partner. As a member of the Chamber, McLeod Law saw SBW as a way to grow its own branding and messaging. “At that time, SBW was still under-recognized and after our first year involved, we saw it take off,” Cooper reminisces. “The Chamber was absolutely phenomenal. We’ve seen them evolve first-hand.”
Today SBW, which takes place every October, is one of the Chamber’s signature events. With a full week of programming and events specifically tailored to Calgary’s small business needs, it is Canada’s largest celebration of small business. “It’s a really great event,” Cooper says, “and it’s been fun being a part of its growth. Today, we [McLeod Law] see ourselves as partners in SBW.”
Indeed, collaboration is Cooper’s modus operandi. “I know, undoubtedly, other board members are smarter and more experienced than me on any particular issue,” he says. “So, I think it’s really important for me to make sure that their voices are heard by our management team. Then I get to learn along the way. I’m hoping to encourage a lot of interaction and collaboration.”
Cooper originally joined the Chamber’s board in 2014. He has sat on the governance and human resources committee, chaired the policy directions council and was vice chair last year. “It’s absolutely been a positive experience for me, and for the firm as well,” he says. “It’s given us a platform to spread our wings as a firm and express ourselves when it comes to branding and getting involved in various ways with the business community.”
During his time on the board, the Chamber has undergone some major changes, not least of which included the search for and hire of a new president and CEO. Sandip Lalli was chosen for the role and joined the Calgary Chamber in April 2018. “Sandip has been a strong, steady leader during this time of change in the city,” he praises. “It’s been a wonderful experience having her as our CEO. I’ve enjoyed working with her and I look forward to what comes next.”
“Our board of directors are passionate volunteers who generously donate their time, expertise and insights to build a business community that nourishes, powers and inspires the world,” says Lalli. “With Brent as board chair, we will continue to have strong leadership and innovative ideas around the board table. I look forward to all that we will accomplish together in the years ahead.”
Cooper will be the first with a formalized two-year mandate approach to the chair position, and will continue in the role to the end of 2021. “For the sake of continuity, we’re switching to two years,” he explains. “There’s no doubt, having been vice chair and on the board, that you bring a lot more continuity and background to the relationship with the CEO.” While his term will be on an ad hoc basis, Cooper expects to formalize the change to the Chamber’s bylaws during this tenure.
A Manitoba native, Cooper was born and raised in Winnipeg and attended the University of Manitoba. He cut his law teeth in Brandon, where he had a general litigation practice focused initially on criminal, matrimonial and then ultimately business law. In 2000, Cooper, his wife Karen and their two young daughters moved to Calgary.
“I had a great law practice back in Manitoba, but we were looking for something a little bit bigger, opportunities for our kids as they grew up,” he says. “I’ve always considered Calgary the capital of the Prairies. We came here because we thought it was the land of opportunity and because of an attitude that I distinctly recall. My wife and I talked about the ‘can-do’ attitude in Calgary.”
It’s something he’s always experienced here. “This city is entirely open-minded,” he marvels. “They don’t care what your last name is, about your family background or your prior connections. If you can deliver skill with passion this city gives you a chance.”
His chance was at McLeod, which he joined upon arrival in Calgary. “I was one of their first business litigators, and I think the firm’s 21st lawyer,” he says. “We now have 55 lawyers! We try to be really entrepreneurial and bring our services at a price point that is a bit less than some other firms in town. It’s a proven success. Our sweet spot is small and mid-sized businesses and entrepreneurs. We also use technology quite a bit to deliver efficiencies.”
With short-, medium- and long-term plans, and cognizant of the major economic challenges facing the city, Cooper has his work cut out for him. He remains undaunted. “The business world is becoming a more competitive space and we have to continue to focus on making sure the community understands the value that the Chamber brings to our local economy.”
Today, the Chamber’s membership totals over 1,400, with members of every size from every sector. “Membership is strong,” Cooper confirms. “We’re always interested in membership retention and it’s been trending in the right direction the last few years. Obviously, we’re very interested in maintaining that trend.”
Innovation is key, he says, in terms of the way the Chamber delivers events, policy and advocacy. For example, in December it announced a $1-million investment in InterGen Capital, a scale-up fund for Calgary companies that are ready to take the next big step to grow their business. “We’re putting our shoulder to the wheel,” Cooper says proudly. “It’s real money from the Chamber’s investment fund, an expression of our optimism in the local economy and that things can be done.”
Another Chamber-led initiative is the Canadian Global Cities Council (CGCC), an organization of eight chambers from across Canada. “We’re trying to harness the power of the chamber movement by convening forums and events with business people right across Canada,” Cooper explains. “To come together and talk about specific issues that perhaps aren’t being sufficiently discussed.”
In early October, the CGCC held a hugely-successful natural resources and climate forum. “We brought business people from across Canada to come and talk about what we call ‘AND’ conversations,” he says. “Where we could talk about climate change and advancing our natural resources sector, all at the same time. It was really inspiring and indeed important to have people discussing these ever-relevant issues of the day and looking for solutions.”
An agri-sector focused forum was held on January 16, again focused on encouraging “and” conversations, as well as innovations in the agribusiness sector, again with participation from right across the country, including Quebec.
Local sentiment, at perhaps an all-time low, is one challenge the Chamber is tackling head-on. The aim is to change the conversation from negative to positive. “We feel that the economy is ready for more positive discussions and actions,” he says.
“We’ve got to lead,” he reiterates. “We have to take a leadership position, particularly in terms of expressing positive stories that are happening and injecting informed hope into the marketplace.”
It’s equally important that the Chamber remains non-partisan. “We call ourselves the ‘podium of record’ for various government levels,” he says. “We examine every issue through a business filter. Sometimes that means we have to take positions that are less than popular.”
Such was the case with the Chamber’s position last fall regarding city council’s decisions on the division between residential and non-residential taxes. The Chamber’s proposal recommended a change to the non-residential to residential property tax ratio to 3.1:1 by 2021, resulting in a tax split of 52 per cent residential to 48 per cent non-residential. Late last year, the Chamber’s advocacy efforts paid off as the city made this shift.
To improve its policy advisement function, the Chamber recently resolved to develop a government relationship committee with policy as part of its mandate. The idea is to ensure the Chamber is ahead of the curve on policy, by having the committee meet with the Chamber’s policy leadership team, community and board members. “We must be ahead of the curve and future-oriented,” Cooper adds. “We have a good go-to group of members in the community to reach out to when certain issues arise and they help inform the Chamber. This committee will also be able to provide guidance and help identify longer-term issues and trends.”
In addition to his law practice and role as Chamber chair, Cooper also represents McLeod Law at TAGLaw, a global alliance of law firms, as well as teaches and gives seminars in employment and business law. He and his wife are supporters of Calgary Opera and Cantare Children’s Choir, and have been supporters of Spiritus Marching Band Association and École St. Cecilia Charitable Society.
Despite all the economic headwinds bruising Calgary, Cooper’s outlook for this city remains bright. “The can-do attitude is still here,” he insists. “I’m starting to notice, in the circles I travel in, that people increasingly want to convert can-do into will-do. I believe that Calgary is still the land of opportunity.”