President and CEO, C.W. Brown Inc.
The weekend of Renee and Charles W. “Charlie” Brown’s daughters’ respective high school and college graduations in 2011, the couple had a huge party including their family, friends, and staff. “Charlie spent that night with everybody who was important to him. It was an amazing night,” Renee recalls.
The following night, Charlie died of a sudden heart attack sometime in his sleep. “It’s so cliché, but your life can change in an instant,” Renee says now.
Renee knew that her husband would have wanted a memorial service at the Armonk headquarters of C.W. Brown, the general contracting and construction management business they'd built from the ground up. “I knew he didn’t want to do a church service, because Charlie wasn’t religious,” Renee says. “We chose to have a great ceremony in our office. The building it was in now was our dream. I knew that was the right thing to do—it was everything Charlie.”
Renee and Charles W. “Charlie” Brown founded C.W. Brown in 1984. While their business and marriage was an equal partnership, Charlie had been the face—and the name—of the company, sitting on dozens of boards and building relationships that led to huge contracts with Club Fit, Westchester Medical Center, and Westchester Community College. And now that her soulmate was gone, both the state of the company and their three daughters were solely Renee’s responsibility. Renee took the summer off to spend time with her daughters, who were grieving the loss of, as Renee describes, their “happy, fun-loving, prankster, awesome dad.”
While the staff was also in mourning, she says, her office team of 25 employees kept the business running smoothly. “We set the business up in a way that we surrounded ourselves with good people,” Brown says. “Nobody missed a step. I was fortunate to have that time.”
When her youngest daughter started college, Renee went back to work. “It felt comforting to be back,” Renee says. “That’s where I’ve been every day for twenty-eight years. I don’t think I’d know what to do if I wasn’t there.”
Renee and Charlie had what C.W. Brown Director of Business Development and Marketing Erin Griffin Loosen describes as a “storybook marriage." They also had a successful business partnership and collaborative relationship. Now, there would be no more collaboration. “We talked about everything, and maybe we’d go back and forth. Now I have to make this decision, and I’m stuck with it,” Renee says. “There’s nobody else to help. It is scary sometimes. But I had to put on my big-girl pants, because there are a lot of people depending upon me. It made me grow up a little bit more.”
The business has continued to flourish, and Renee thinks of how excited Charlie would be during every success—such as a relationship with Columbia University C.W. Brown worked two-and-a-half years to get. “For a second, you think, ‘I wish I could tell him,’ but he’s not there to share a big win,” Renee says.
When asked if there have been changes, both Renee and Loosen, who sat in on the interview, burst into laughter and say in unison: “Jeans on Friday!” Charlie wore a suit and tie every day and expected his staff to also wear business attire. “It was a detail he was hung up on from a professional standpoint, but it was something I could give back as a morale boost,” Renee says.
Loosen says Renee has exhibited incredible leadership under pressure. “I worked directly for Charlie, and I couldn’t get out of bed some days afterwards,” she says. “I asked Renee how she does it, and she said, ‘You have to have a smile on your face.’ We’ve watched Renee and learned from her strength. She chooses every day to live and honor Charlie.”
One way Renee has honored Charlie’s legacy is by setting up a fund at Charlie’s alma mater, Westchester Community College, to expand a mentorship program there. In lieu of flowers, she asked the hundreds who mourned Charlie’s death to donate to the program, and $60,000 has been raised so far.
Renee is sometimes angry and sad she won’t be able to fulfill the plans and dreams she and Charlie wanted. But, Renee says, “At the end of the day, there’s nothing I can do about it. It happened in an instant. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. I can wallow in it, or I can move forward. I needed to be an example for my girls and show them that it’s okay to be happy. I had to choose to live.”