It’s a humble business run by a humble, Midwestern man.
Rick Brandt is chief executive officer and president of family-owned Brandt, a manufacturing company and supplier of agriculture inputs, born in Illinois and now headquartered in Tampa.
The company had revenue of $30 million in 1995, when Brandt stepped in as CEO, at 29 years old, and, in 2022, had more than $600 million. Growth—his ambitious ideas are certainly to thank for, but he’d probably never admit it.
He can deny it, but under his leadership, in addition to the extraordinary topline revenue growth, Brandt has had 24 acquisitions.
Humble he might be, but that has never stopped him from dreaming big and daring others to change his mind.
THE BRANDT NAME
Brandt was established in 1953 by Brandt’s father, Glen, and his aunt, Evelyn. At 99 years old, Evelyn still maintains office hours today. Brandt’s father passed away two years ago, his mother in 2009.
Dad was very entrepreneurial. He also bought into TradeMark Nitrogen, of which Brandt is now owner and CEO.
“He was very entrepreneurial. He had like six jobs at one time. He had a used car lot. He had a gas station, he farmed and he started the fertilizer company,” Brandt says.
Brandt has one older sister. His mother was a stay-at-home mom. He, admittedly, never intended to work in the family business. He, instead, wanted to be a stuntman, he says.
“I didn’t mean to go back. When I was a kid, we were probably the most successful company in town … out of three,” he says with a laugh. “But [my parents] were always very conservative so you weren’t allowed to act proud of anything that you accomplished and you weren’t supposed to let anybody really know how much you had accomplished.” Once, he was scolded by his dad for some meager landscaping at his home because he feared those driving by would know it was a sign of success for Brandt.
Born in Springfield, Illinois, and raised in Pleasant Plains, with a population of 700, he had a quiet upbringing. He graduated high school with a class of, about, 70 people.
His parents built a home in Bonita Beach, Florida, which led to the family spending more time in the Sunshine State. Over the years, they bought two more contiguous to the first. One home was damaged due to a fire, the others were, ultimately, lost in Hurricane Ian in 2022. Much was lost, including a refrigerator that, Brandt says, they still can’t figure out where it ended up.
“[When my parents bought the first home] they were spending more time in Florida. Brandt was doing a lot more business in the southeastern United States,” Brandt says. “Then, my dad was involved with TradeMark Nitrogen out in Brandon, which I own now. So, he had a lot of stuff going on here. And my mom was down there a lot more, with the house, and it was her dream that I go to Florida Southern, because she was a big Frank Lloyd Wright fan. [Wright was the architect of several buildings at the college.]”
Brandt did end up attending Florida Southern College, in Lakeland. But he had a little too much fun while attending FSC and, eventually, earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of South Florida, in economics. He says he didn’t leave FSC because he wanted to, but adds that everything happens for a reason.
“I never would have imagined that I would leave Tampa and move back to Pleasant Plains, or anywhere in Illinois, for 30 years. I think I was probably there longer than I intended,” he says.
But as with many people’s stories, there were several pivotal moments for Brandt that he wouldn’t have experienced if he had not made it back home. He spent time at a dude ranch in South Dakota, for one, at the behest of his father. But, back in Illinois is where he’d find his leadership footing as CEO and meet the woman he would later call his wife, more on that later.
Now, back in Springfield, Brandt took advantage of the global expansion that was happening at the company to get out of town and travel as much as he could.
By 1995, Brandt was named CEO and began to eye more expansion opportunities.
“I knew the future of Brandt was not in Springfield,” Brandt says. “I think I’m entrepreneurial, too. And probably more of a risk taker than [the board was]. I was coming up with all these ideas about acquisitions. I wanted to grow the company.”
At the time, Brandt had a cautious board.
“In 1999, we were looking at an acquisition of a very small fertilizer company, in Illinois. I had the authority to spend up to $300,000, without board approval, and this guy wanted $350,000 for his business. I went back to him and said, I’ll give you $290,000 for this company and you can have whatever you want for inventory.”
And that was that. Brandt now began becoming much more clever in how he would lead the company and achieve the growth it has now seen.
“We started doing a lot of acquisitions. That was a total game changer for the company,” he says.
While navigating the “new” company, Brandt found the love of his life in his now-wife of 27 years, Kristie.
Business and his parents’ properties already brought Brandt and Kristie to Tampa often, but then their daughter, Sierra, began attending the University of Tampa.
“I asked [Sierra] one day, ‘are you ever going to move back to Springfield?’ She said no,” Brandt recalls. Brandt moved to Tampa in 2010, with Kristie and Sierra following in 2018.
From there, Brandt credits his executive team for beginning to diversify the company in a new way and really making Tampa home. They set up a holding company structure, splitting the company into smaller operating companies.
“They said, let’s split the company into all separate companies. Brandt Inc. will be the parent company, which will be headquartered in Tampa,” he says. And Brandt agreed and hasn’t looked back since.
They also took all the employees of Brandt and put them into their own corporation, which they called Team Brandt. They created a completely new model for the Brandt family of businesses.
“It was kind of one of those things that, in hindsight, you think why didn’t we do this sooner?” Brandt says. “It made sense for so many reasons. But really what triggered it was, how do we get to Florida?”
Sierra, who just turned 23 years old, now has an ownership stake in the company, but she was raised with the Brandt business in her blood, so to speak.
“She’s always grown up in the company, especially when we got into NASCAR. She wanted to be part of that,” Brandt says. “I always told her, you do what you want to do. If you want to be part of [the company]. That’s great. If you want to go do your own thing. That’s great. But I think you have to, at least, want to be an owner.”
Keeping the company in the hands of the family is important to Brandt. But he notes his large employee base, blood relation or not, are also family. One employee, he says, has been with the company for 50 years.
“In figuring out a way to bring the third generation into the company, it’s not just a matter of do you want a job? It’s how do I make this company intriguing to her and, to some degree, that entire generation of kids?” Brandt says.
One way? Fast cars.
GO BIG OR GO HOME
The company is returning for its 13th season, with driver Justin Allgaier, for the 2023 NASCAR Infinity Series.
“For me, NASCAR is a pure marketing initiative,” says Brandt. “While I’ll freely admit that I like to go fast and win, NASCAR enables us to engage with our customers in unique and enduring ways.”
In addition, Brandt lists a series of benefits of being involved in NASCAR, from helping to build a winning culture to creating unique experiences for customers to generating awareness with prospects.
“I wasn’t a NASCAR fan until I saw my name on the side of a race car,” Brandt says.
Brandt also has a soft spot in his heart for music. A collector of guitars, but not much of a musician himself, he says, he’s now beginning to work with talent in helping them achieve their dreams of stardom.
Right now, he’s currently working with an up-and-coming musician named Kelsey Hickman, a singer and songwriter originally from Springfield, now living in Nashville.
“We’ll be dropping a record over the next few months. We actually started a company. It’s called GB Records. I decided to do GB for my dad, and also for ‘go big or go home,’” Brandt says. “It’s a challenge and it’s fun. To me, I might lose a hell of a lot of money or might make a lot of money, but either way, I’m going to have a lot of fun doing it.” ♦
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