Cara Brown, Principal
Company: Brown Economic Consulting, Calgary, Alberta
Contact Info: Tel: 403-571-0118 e-mail: Cara.Brown@browneconomic.com
Web site: www.browneconomic.com
Description: Brown Economic Consulting is a forensic economic organization that focuses on labour market trends and statistics. The firm provides unique economic indicators and assessments relevant to wages and labour market activities in the form of written reports that comply with court standards. It completes these economic assessments on behalf of lawyers and insurance companies to determine different factors, such as the value of loss of income and the value of loss of pension, when an individual's earnings have been interrupted due to anything from motor vehicle accidents to wrongful dismissal.
Background: After graduating with a Master of Arts degree in economics and law, Cara actually purchased the company from her thesis supervisor back in 1991, having run it for him since 1988. Not only has she grown the firm from zero to 12 employees, but she has also established branch offices in concert with 3 Ph.D economics professors in Kelowna, Halifax and in New Brunswick, written a book on economic assessments, Damages: Estimating Pecuniary Loss, and developed on-line software to calculate damages. Cara is a prolific writer and speaker, and has testified as an expert witness more than 100 times in courthouses across Canada and the U.S. "There are probably only three or four expert witnesses in the country that have as much trial experience," she says. Included among the high-profile cases she has worked on is the Milgaard family $10 million settlement.
Unique Feature: The firm's assessments are highly tailored to the individual and reports are heavily researched. "I have a library with 10,000 items in it, which is enormous for a company our size," says Cara. The firm writes reports that withstand court scrutiny; other witnesses will often downgrade strong opinions or conclusions as they wither under harsh cross-examination. This consistency has earned Brown the reputation as a credible and persuasive witness and resulted in a large volume of trial experience.
Competitive Advantage: With an in-house software engineer, Brown Economic has developed practical online calculators - some even free - that lawyers can use to do things like inflation and working life expectancy estimates in preparing for their cases.
Key Success Factors: Each report is written with a commitment to quality and excellence to meet court standards. "We could be required to testify, so one mistake, even small, could be very damaging," explains Cara. In addition, court-imposed deadlines must always be met - and are. "Our commitment to service - for example, not charging clients for small changes - is another success factor."
Biggest Challenge: Cara finds human resources the biggest challenge of growing a business. "Deep down I'm a producer, not a management type," she admits. "But I do it because the employees need company structure. I found that, after you have more than four or five employees, there is an exponential increase in the HR issues you must deal with. As a small business owner, it's difficult finding that balance between doing the work and managing your company. There's a constant tension in setting boundaries around what's best for you and your bottom line versus what employees may expect - which may not necessarily be realistic for a small business." Recruiting and retaining employees has also been a struggle. "I've been in a tight labour market here in Calgary since start-up where economists are easily lured to the big oil companies with deeper pockets and many benefits. At the end of the day, this kind of work is best suited for people who are intrinsically motivated, who understand the high level of accountability that comes with billable work and the reward of contributing to a small business' success." Some of the strategies Cara has used to tackle HR challenges include working on her own personal growth, getting advice from a professional business coach, and holding employee retreats.
Gender Roadblocks: Being taken seriously as an expert witness in court was difficult for Cara when she first started testifying as a young woman in her 20's. "I was naïve in thinking that being young and blonde wasn't an issue," she admits. "It was an uphill battle fighting the image and being accepted as credible and persuasive." Today Cara has a reputation as one of the top expert witnesses in her niche. "In some ways, being a woman has been an advantage because I tend to go the "extra mile."
Biggest Lesson Learned: Looking back, Cara wishes she had better prepared herself for success. "When starting out, I defined success as etching out a "good living' for just myself and believed that anticipating hiring staff was too optimistic or arrogant," she confesses. Cara failed to recognize the fact that her track record as a credible expert witness would attract so much business so quickly. "I didn't say my expectations out loud and embrace them. I should have looked at the fact that I had been in this industry seven years and had a great deal of name recognition. With no employees or proper business planning, I was not prepared at all, and so I was absolutely overwhelmed in the first six months. It was probably the hardest time." Her advice to other women starting out? "If going for the sun and moon is realistic, embrace it!"
- "Be direct and speak your mind (respectfully) to employees, clients and suppliers. As women, we tend to obsess over things and not always confront them head-on, that men simply let roll."
- Accept your limits and set proper boundaries for your employees, especially when a small office permits more familiarity between the "boss and employee" than is appropriate at times. "As a small business, I can't possibly give employees the kind of benefits a 500-employee company would offer."
Future Plans: Cara would like to increase her company's presence in B.C and expand into Ontario, likely through the opportunity for clients to use the firm's on-line calculators. As clients prefer expert witnesses to be located in the province in which they testify, she is seeking partners in Ontario.
Personal Interests: A highly competitive Ringette player since she was eight years old, Cara has been both a national and international champion multiple times, was nominated to Ringette Canada's Hall of Fame, and named in the 2000 edition of Who's Who in Canadian Sport. As it was difficult to give the sport the dedication necessary to compete and also manage the business, she hung up her skates in 2000 and now focuses on golf as a hobby. She has a loving and supportive partner of 12 years. "In not desiring to have children, it's been easier for me than for women with kids who do sacrifice some accomplishments to give time to their families."
How RBC Royal Bank Helps: Cara has been a client since 1995. "Early on, I was looking for a small business loan to purchase equipment and RBC gave me that first chance. They were a lot more helpful than the other banks I approached, that's for sure."