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Karen Brooks: Sustaining a legacy of leading with heart, championing Alabama – 2024 Women of Impact

For Karen Brooks, family and career have always been synonymous. Raised in the Phifer Incorporated family business, Karen’s mother inspired her long before she took the step of becoming an ambassador for the company in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. 

“My mother was always equally involved with starting the company. Watcher her and my father build it was an education in itself.” 

Both her father, founder J. Reese Phifer, and mother made a huge impact on her life. After the business was established in 1952, Phifer Incorporated was thriving, and Brook’s was encouraged by her father to represent the family business within their community. 

Brooks reflected on her origin story, “I started working with my father because I wanted to be with him and learn more about the company.” A value her siblings and children hold and followed in as well. “We all worked there. All my kids are involved in Phifer because all careers are at a manufacturing company. There is a place for everybody.”  

Because of the character her father portrayed, Brooks was stirred early on to be a part. “My father led with his heart. He never wavered his kindness. He had employees that wanted to work alongside him to build the company because he took care of everybody around him.” 

As a caretaker herself, Brooks has found herself in many roles focused on others. First and foremost, her role as a mother. Her advice to younger mothers’ stems from her start in Phifer while finding balance being present with her children.

“I was always on-site with them, making sure I was present to pick them up from school. I always knew if I wasn’t the one to pick them up, I wouldn’t get that fresh information. Being a mother was the best job I ever had. Really and truly, it’s the best time of your life.”  

Both in her professional life, as well as her life of service, Brooks has carved out a legendary presence that starts local and reaches across the globe. 

As Vice President and Treasurer of Phifer, she remains closely involved with a company that manufactures products you likely have in your home. Beyond the corporate world, she dedicates her time and acumen to the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, United Way of West Alabama, March of Dimes, and other organizations that serve the Tuscaloosa community and Alabama as a whole. 

Perhaps most of all, her service to the University of Alabama System offers the widest-reaching impact. In her capacity as a member of the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees, Brooks has tackled challenging issues with grace and leadership.

Through her work on the board, her commitment to the betterment of Alabama’s educational, economic and quality-of-life landscape has impacted generations of students, constituents and Alabamians in immensely positive ways. 

Alongside her outsized impact, now, as a grandmother, Brooks’ goal is “to carry on my father’s legacy. I want to set an example for my children.” That example always comes back to, “heart as the key. I literally lead every day with my heart, forming relationships with people built on trust.” She jokes, “I use the heart emoji a thousand times a day!” 

Outside of family, Brooks had mentors and a support system that kept her equipped for leadership. “Paul Bryant Junior was very giving of his mind. He called and asked me if I’d be willing to serve on the board of trustees, an incredibly high honor. It was an unexpected turn, but I started doing both and have loved every minute.”

Additionally, Brooks champions her husband of 53 years as her “rock and biggest supporter.” 

She is also inspired by other women in her family, her sisters. “It still feels like we’re all in this together.” 

As she reflects on what makes a great leader, she mentions all three presidents within the University of Alabama System, saying “they all three share the same quality of leading with their heart and that inspires me more than anything.”  

As for the future, Brooks isn’t slowing down. “My focus is being heavily involved with the entire university system. I’m fortunate they still look to me for advice and counsel to help guide.” 

In her many roles, Brooks has influenced generations for the better. But for herself she says, “the most rewarding thing has been the people I’ve met on this journey.” Brooks’ foundation of relationships and focus on a heart for people is what makes her a 2024 Woman of Impact.

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