In 1993, Beth Brooke was at the top of her game running Ernst & Young’s national insurance tax practice in Washington, D.C. when the Clinton administration threw her a no-look pass in the form of a job offer.
Armed with the quick reflexes of a Division I college basketball player (Go Purdue Boilermakers!), Brooke grabbed the proverbial ball and ran with it — spending two years in the Department of Treasury playing important roles in healthcare and Superfund reform.
From a blank slate, Brooke led a White House team that created legislation designed to assign liability and get the country back to the task of cleaning up toxic waste that had been festering unchecked for years. The daily negotiations between warring corporate, governmental and environmental factions struck an epiphanous chord in Brooke, who found she had a knack and a passion for public policy.
“It was the best two years I could have ever invested,” Brooke says. “I went there thinking I would learn mostly technical skills, and instead, I walked away learning how to get things done and make a real difference.”
Brooke’s transformational Capitol Hill experience laid the foundation for her new, policy-centered career with Ernst & Young. Today, Brooke is the Global Vice Chair – Strategy, Communications and Regulatory Affairs for the mega-accounting firm, which has more than 114,000 employees in 140 countries and $18.4 billion in revenues.
Officing out of the company’s headquarters in New York and Washington, Brooke shapes the firm’s strategic direction and its position on matters of policy. She is a strong advocate for the accounting profession’s public responsibility to investors in the financial markets, an issue that continues to simmer as firms experience the ripple effects of the Enron/WorldCom financial disasters and the resulting Sarbanes-Oxley legislation.
Some of her job yields tangible results in the quality area. “We — and all the firms, really — have had to do a deep dive internally, challenge what we were doing, and make sure we were doing things the right way for the right reasons,” Brooke says.
Other tasks are more philosophical. On the global front, Brooke visits colleagues, clients, regulatory bodies and investors all over the world in an attempt to “deepen the understanding that what we do matters and that we all have a stake in getting it right so that investors can invest with confidence.” She also spends a lot of time (with other accounting firm representatives) trying to de-mystify for others “the public-interest role of accountants in this new era of transparency” and challenging the industry to deliver on that role.
“What we do matters so much in the capital markets, which today includes a myriad of emerging markets and differing regulatory regimes. I am very focused on trying to meet with the various people who rely on us to better understand what they expect of us and to help them better understand the challenges we face,” Brooke says.
Her perseverance and ground-breaking work in this area last month earned her a spot on Forbes magazine’s 2006 list of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.” Coming in at #41, Brooke follows the Foreign Minister, Vice Prime Minister of Israel and is two slots ahead of #43, First Lady Laura Bush.
Jim Turley, global chairman and CEO of E&Y, says Brooke has a unique talent for making people feel comfortable enough to drop their defenses and participate in spirited, intellectual discussions — the kind that help move issues forward. “This is what Beth does better than anyone that I know, inside or outside the firm: She thinks through an intersection of strategy, public policy, politics, business and regulation and brings those different aspects together in ways that very, very few people can,” Turley says, adding that he often has one-on-one mind-bending conversations with Brooke. “Politically, Beth and I lean in different directions, but we have these very open, candid policy debates related to life. I enjoy those.”
Elizabeth Baker Keffer, publisher of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, has seen Brooke in action when she is immersed in dialogue with key stakeholders about ticklish issues in the accounting field. “I’ve really been impressed with her candor, sensitivity, and communication skills. Beth is so clear about her role and posture at the table — not being defensive, bracing the feedback, and interjecting the right comments at the right moments,” Keffer says. “She’s incredibly thoughtful about the company and its future.”
In this second season of her professional life, Brooke is proof that not all policy professionals come out of the traditional political and non-profit pipeline. A high school valedictorian who attended Purdue University on a basketball scholarship, Brooke majored in industrial management and computer science.
In 1981, she traded her Big Ten Purdue team for a Big Eight accounting team when she joined Ernst & Whinney (now E&Y) as an auditor in the company’s Indianapolis office. Within a year, Brooke was transferred to the tax practice and quickly gained a specialization working with Indiana’s robust insurance industry. Over the next 10 years, Brooke carved out a national niche for herself and moved up the company’s leadership ladder. In 1990, she was named partner and tapped to run the national insurance tax practice in Washington, D.C.
That technical expertise navigating tax law in the managed care industry opened the doors to the inner-workings of the country’s government and to a whole new career. “I would have never dreamed that I had this passion for public policy. And I discovered it through experiences. That is what is so critical to people’s careers — to take risks to discover opportunities,” Brooke says. “A career in business affords you a chance to move around a lot and see many different things. Ernst and Young allowed me the chance to try new things, make a difference… and along the way I found my dream job.”