Western innovator: 'Serial entrepreneur' hits ranch
'If you want to be innovative, you have to be a risk taker'
By MATTHEW WEAVER
COLBERT, Wash. -- Fred Brown's father always told him to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.
While in the ninth grade, Brown was working on the family ranch in northern Alberta. One day, he tripped and fell face-first into a cow pie. It was 46 degrees below zero.
"It froze to me before I could get it off," he said. "Right about then I said, 'Maybe I should listen to Dad.' That was a defining moment."
So Brown decided to pursue engineering and his interest in computers.
He is founder and CEO of Next IT, a Spokane software company formed in 2002. The company develops speech recognition software designed to mimic human-to-human conversation.
Brown offered a demonstration of the Next IT technology designed for Alaska Airlines' website. On his laptop computer he asked the software out loud what flights from Spokane to Seattle were available and to play some Willie Nelson music, and it provided replies to his questions.
"The whole smartphone, iPad revolution that's going on -- we are changing how we are interacting with technology," he said. "(Next IT is) making the experience of doing that easier."
It could also have applications in agriculture, he said, noting that ranchers and farmers are constantly using technology to monitor the markets and their crops.
Next IT is Brown's seventh company.
"I have a sickness, I'm a serial entrepreneur," he said with a smile.
Brown is also a problem solver. It's something you learn on a ranch, he said.
"If you want to be innovative, you have to be a risk taker and you have to be self-reliant," he said. "If you're out there 20 miles from your house on your horse and he's not behaving, you've got to figure it out."
Brown has maintained a passion for rodeo competition. He keeps 50 horses and 50 to 100 head of horned cattle. There's demand for the beef, Brown said, but it's difficult for him to sell directly to consumers.
That's one reason he joined the Livestock Processors Cooperative Association as a board member in April.
Brown said the association's Odessa, Wash., slaughter facility will be good for ranchers.
Done correctly, Brown believes the business model for the plant could be used in other locations, expanding the cooperative's reach to more markets.
"I'm very interested in building it and making it successful," he said. "I think there's untapped potential for people to buy locally grown product."
The 7,000-square-foot plant is slated to open next May.
Brown and daughter Mallory are also working on a marketing program for the cooperative to connect ranchers with buyers.
Rosalia, Wash., horse breeder Charlie Reed has known Brown since he was a seventh-grader.
"If he's going to put in that processing plant, he'll try to put it in the best he can and for the best interest of the cattle producers," Reed said.
Sue Lani Madsen, past president of the association and a consultant working on the processing facility, said Brown has been an asset since joining the board.
"He has that attitude where you're willing to take a risk, but you take it because you've checked the variables and done everything you can to be successful," she said.
Longtime friend and association president Willard Wolf pointed to Brown's ranching background and successful businesses.
"He's just a guy who's been very successful in life and yet he doesn't put on any flair," Wolf said. "He's a person who tells you what it is and that's the way it will be."
Occupation: Founder and CEO of Next IT, board member of Livestock Processors Cooperative Association
Birthplace: Grand Prairie, Alberta
Hometown: Colbert, Wash.
Family: Wife, Leslie, and four daughters
Education: Two years on a rodeo scholarship at Northwest Community College, Powell, Wyo., bachelor of sciences in civil engineering from Gonzaga University, master of science from Texas A&M University