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A history of achievement

May 13, 2013
A history of achievement
Brian Lawson

One of the perks Brian Lawson enjoys as senior managing partner and chief financial officer of Brookfield Asset Management Inc. is the stimulation of international travel. Mr. Lawson loves experiencing something new and different in interesting pockets of the world where Brookfield does business.

Take Dubai, for instance, where Brookfield operates a real estate investment fund and global construction business, and where Mr. Lawson marvels at the juxtaposition of 21st century modernism and old-world markets.

“There are these remarkable gleaming new office towers. Then you go across the river in a wooden dhow, powered by what looks like a pretty old combustion engine. They zip back and forth as a ferry bus service, and in the space of one minute, you’re in the old souks – small shops and stands in narrow winding streets where there is gold and spice and jewellery. You can really see history,” he says.

Mr. Lawson, 53, recently made his own history for Brookfield when he was named Canada’s CFO of the Year for 2013. As the 11th winner of this annual prize, he joins some very elite company.

“It was pretty humbling to get the call. It’s an amazing recognition. I had to ask myself, ‘why me?’ And I immediately knew why. It’s the marvellous group of colleagues I work with. I recognize that this selection is a tremendous accolade for the firm and all of our finance people,” he says.

Mr. Lawson, who has been CFO at Brookfield since 2002, is credited with having led a financial team that designed a solid capital structure which not only helped the firm survive the financial crisis, but thrive during adverse times.
Having strong, quality assets, a stable associated revenue stream, and simple, transparent financing meant that lenders were very comfortable with the firm’s credit profile. “As a result, we were able to successfully refinance loans that matured during the financial crisis and maintain access to capital to fund new initiatives as well,” he said.

Mr. Lawson started with Brookfield’s finance group doing accounting and financial reporting but also became increasingly involved in the organization’s workout and restructuring activities – finding that he immensely enjoyed the analysis and problem solving presented by that aspect of the job.

In the late 1990s, Mr. Lawson moved into investment banking and corporate finance. This new role principally involved negotiating terms and structuring corporate finance transactions such as equity and debt issues for Brookfield and its affiliates. Mr. Lawson was also involved with a number of capital market activities – principally raising capital for the firm, but also gaining valuable experience with various merger and acquisition activities.

All of that experience was invaluable training for Mr. Lawson when he was named as Brookfield’s CFO.

In addition to financial reporting, managing the firm’s capital structure and risk profile are key elements of Mr. Lawson’s job. “The most important element of our approach is that a strong risk culture is embedded throughout the firm. Everyone is alert to it,” says Mr. Lawson, who explains that Brookfield has a risk-averse philosophy, with the firm owning high-quality, long-life assets with secure cash flow streams. They are match funded in almost all circumstances with long-term, fixed-rate, investment-grade debt, with recourse only to the specific asset or business being financed.

During Mr. Lawson’s tenure as CFO, Brookfield has evolved into a large global asset manager. Today, it owns and operates assets worth roughly $180-billion with operations in 20 countries – principally in Canada, the United States, Australia and Brazil, but also in the United Kingdom, Europe, Chile, Colombia and India. About 45 per cent of Brookfield’s revenues are derived from the United States.

The company’s focus is on property, renewable power, infrastructure and private equity. Brookfield Property Partners is the firm’s global public property company, and it is preparing to begin trading on the Toronto and New York stock exchanges. Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners, created in 2010, owns 195 hydroelectric facilities and seven wind farms in Canada, the U.S. and Brazil.

Mr. Lawson explained why he has remained at Brookfield over the past 25 years.

“It’s the people and the culture. It’s a very dynamic and stimulating place to be and a lot of that is because of the energy, intelligence and creativity of my colleagues. I have been able to work in a number of different roles and it’s also given me the opportunity to work with many great people outside our organization. It’s been a real privilege and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the chance to be here all these years,” he says.

Mr. Lawson credits Jack Cockwell, Brookview’s Group Chairman, with whom he’s worked for the past 25 years, with having imparted great values and business judgements. “One of his expressions is ‘train hard, play easy,’ meaning that if you practice hard, then the actual game is much easier – demonstrating the benefit of being prepared and doing your homework.”

Bruce Flatt, the firm’s CEO, has also been an invaluable mentor and business partner. “We really do operate much as a partnership in the firm,” says Mr. Lawson. Mr. Flatt offers “tremendous leadership – not just with the senior leadership team but with the entire firm. He has a great ability to be supportive, approachable, relaxed, empowering, while still clearly setting the path and being in charge,” he adds.

A good work-life balance is important to Mr. Lawson, who says his personal time tends to be focused on family. “We really enjoy skiing and travelling. Annual camping trips in Algonquin Park are quite special,” he says.

Giving back to the community is also important to Mr. Lawson, who along with his wife Joannah has established a charitable foundation. “Our particular emphasis is on supporting and sponsoring initiatives that improve the health and well-being of our communities, including the environment. We have a shared belief and passion that access to ‘clean’ food is critical to individual health, quality of life and dignity, and is the best form of preventative medicine, which is the key to having a viable health-care system,” he explains.

Mr. Lawson has also devoted time to many volunteer organizations over the years, including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Oolagen Community Services, a children’s mental health organization; and Community Food Centres Canada, among others.

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