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Uneducated Single Mom Is a Model CEO

Management: Exec started by answering phones, became a mannequin, then restored a failing firm with skills learned in fashion world.


NEW YORK — Amber Brookman never waits for opportunity to knock on her door.

"You've got to take chances," says the president and CEO of Brookwood Cos. Inc. "I run at life with my arms open wide and I'm not afraid of anything."

That drive lifted Brookman from life as an uneducated single mother to the upper echelons of corporate America, where she helped pull the New York textile converter and finisher from bankruptcy to profitability in just a few years.

With no college education or formal business training, Brookman hit the corporate world with only her nerve and determination to keep her going. It was a long and bumpy ride between growing up as a "bucked-tooth Valley Girl" (as she describes herself) in Sherman Oaks and her ascent to the leadership of Brookwood.

A mother at 18, she went looking for work but was restricted to administrative posts that had her pouring coffee and answering phones for her male superiors.

The slender blond soon turned to modeling, a move that freed her from office politics. Her 10-year career sent her around the country and gave her the self-esteem she needed to move into a corporate setting.

"I was tall and skinny and I hated calling people Mr.," said Brookman, who looks far younger than her 54 years, thanks to her love of sports and mountain climbing. "But modeling helped me for a time, and then I knew I wanted to get into business."

In 1975, she joined Allied Chemical, which is now known as Allied Signal, first working as a fashion design coordinator in the firm's fabric division.

Allied taught Brookman the textile industry and gave her the business savvy necessary to leave in 1984 to begin her own division--Amber Brookman Fabrics--at Coated Sales, another textile company. But trouble hit a few years later as Coated Sales came under financial distress.

Brookman became Coated Sales' chief operating officer in 1988 and helped place the company in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection so it could restructure. Coated Sales was relaunched in 1989 as Brookwood Cos. Inc., with Brookman as president and CEO.

After a couple of frustrating years, Brookman turned Brookwood into a healthy company. She cut costs, reduced the company's dependence on military contracts and directed more sales to the commercial side. Now clients include Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and JanSport backpacks.

Last year, company sales topped $77 million.

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