Spotting Rick Brandenburg at a turf industry event is easy.
“He’s the one who’s always smiling, laughing and fooling around,” says industry colleague Sam Lang, president of Fairway Green, Raleigh, N.C., describing Brandenburg, professor of entomology, North Carolina State University, as one of the most laid-back guys he’s ever met – always arriving in shorts and a polo shirt with his hands in his pockets, never carrying remnants of a stressed or furrowed brow on his tanned complexion, and ready to tell a good joke at a moment’s notice.
Brandenburg also doesn’t embrace other typical bug doctor traits. “I’m sorry, I don’t have an insect collection,” he explains, laughing. “And when I get home from work I don’t look at the plants in the front of my house to see if bugs are chewing on them. I’m sure my crepe myrtle has Japanese beetles, but it really doesn’t bother me.”
Indeed, when the business day is done, Brandenburg tries to leave work at work. And he’s convinced that this is what makes him a better entomologist during the day.
No one can argue this because the facts support him – in 22 years, he’s helped transform North Carolina State University’s turfgrass research program from a decent one to No. 1 in the country, in addition to stacking up a list of industry achievements that fill a 30-page curriculum vitae.
Can a leader in the turf industry also be a leader in life? Brandenburg is living proof this is viable.
WORK ETHIC & EMPATHY. Brandenburg spent his youth on a 100-acre farm in Wabash, Ind. His parents – Frank and Betty – raised vegetable crops like snap beans and sweet corn, as well as some fruits, including raspberries, for a living in addition to Frank’s work at a local factory. Consequently, after school and weekend hours for Rick and his older sister, Cindy, were spent tending the farm. Awake and outside by 6 a.m. was a daily way of life, weekends included.
“I’m still that way today,” Brandenburg jokes. “I’m a morning person – up and at the office by 6 a.m. If I have to do anything that requires a lot of thought, I need to get it done by noon.”
Though the early hours could be tough, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, this mandate wasn’t something Brandenburg remembers his father pushing. Instead, watching his parents work so hard, particularly during a depression where the work meant more because it was necessary to feed the family, created a sense of farm ownership for every household member. “It wasn’t so much of my dad saying that I had to get up, but he just created this environment where I felt like I was an integral part of the operation and that really motivated me,” he says. “I realized it was important to get up in the morning because if I didn’t there were negative consequences for the overall benefit of the family. I was part of the team that made the place go. I knew what I did made a difference.”
This is the second article in a weekly series that recognizes six green industry leaders. Lawn & Landscape, along with Bayer Environmental Science, honored these professionals at a reception Oct. 26 at the Green Industry and Equipment Expo in Louisville, Ky.
Read the welcome letter from Bayer Environmental Science's U.S. Green Business Director Neil Cleveland.
While Brandenburg got his work ethic from his father, he credits his mother for giving him an overall empathy for others. “There’s a place in our lives to be considerate of others even in the midst of industry activity when you’re motivated to be the best at what you do,” he says. “You can talk to your staff about who they are as people and how their kids are doing and what they have going on in their lives and still do a good job.”
Though Brandenburg didn’t realize this until later in life, one story from childhood really reminds him of how his mother influenced this attribute in him. “I can remember there was this family at church and the father was laid off of work from a factory in town and they had four young boys, so for weeks my parents would take them fruits and vegetables from the farm to help out,” he shares. “Then at the end of the summer, even though he was laid off of work, the guy bought a brand new camper trailer, and I remember thinking, ‘How could this guy who is unemployed and taking free food from my parents that they could be selling go out and buy a camper?’ I thought my mom would feel the same way, but instead she said she hoped taking them all this food allowed them to buy a nicer camper. I just realized what an incredible person she had to be to have that attitude. Most people would say, ‘I wish I hadn’t taken them all of that food.’ But looking back, I don’t think that thought ever even crossed her mind.’”
Throughout childhood, Brandenburg didn’t think too much about insects, but he knew he wanted to be a scientist of some sort. He credits a high school biology teacher for showing him that bugs were a tangible area of scientific study. “He encouraged me to participate in Future Farmers of America weed and entomology competitions where I had to learn and identify different species,” Brandenburg says. “Also, one Saturday when I was a sophomore or junior, he drove me to Purdue and we went to the entomology department and I met a lot of the professors. That was the first time I realized this was an area in which people could make a living. I still didn’t understand or comprehend the impact insects could have on plants or an industry, but I did start considering entomology as an option for the future.”
Brandenburg received his bachelor’s of science degree in entomology at Purdue University in 1977 and his Ph.D. in entomology from North Carolina State University in 1981, where his advisor, Dr. George Kennedy, served as a positive influence. “I was so impressed with his professionalism, ethics and commitment to doing things the right way,” Brandenburg says. “He taught me how to take what I do seriously and do it well and correctly.”
In 1981, Brandenburg took a position teaching at the University of Missouri. He stayed there for four years and says the highlight of this time was meeting his wife, Janice. “And she’s been the black sheep of her family ever since,” Brandenburg jokes, adding that in fact her mother was integral in getting the two of them together. “I met Janice at church and she pursued me like it was going out of style. Her family and I get along very well.”
In 1985, Brandenburg brought his new family back to North Carolina to return to his alma mater to teach entomology, and he’s been there ever since. This year, Rick and Janice celebrate 22 years of marriage. They have three children – Chris, 18; Ashley, 15; and Caleb, 12. Chris begins his pursuit of a communications degree at North Carolina State University this fall – “he has visions of working for ESPN,” Brandenburg says. “They grow up so quickly – you hear that and you think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah…’ But then you find as they get older there were never truer words said to you. It seems like yesterday he was just born.”
None of his children have an interest in insects – “the kids think it’s goofy that dad kills bugs for a living, but when they were younger they thought it was cool,” Brandenburg says. But dad has taken an active role in something they all can enjoy together – sports. Over the years, he’s coached his children’s basketball, softball and baseball teams. “I think sports have a positive influence in children’s lives by teaching them the value of teamwork.”
Though entomology is “not a 40-hour-a-week job,” Brandenburg says he’s been able to make time for coaching because Janice “has been so supportive. She was a school teacher for nine years and when we had our first child, she abandoned her career and stayed home with the kids. She’s been incredibly supportive to give me that chance to focus on what I do and to recognize how important it is to me.”
CENTER OF THE CENTERE. Being in North Carolina, Brandenburg is truly at the center of turfgrass research. Because the area is considered a transition zone and has both warm- and cool-season turf, research done on the turf varieties there can have a much broader regional impact, showing applications to treat Northern and Southern insect problems. This is why Brandenburg takes his job – particularly the extension aspect – so seriously.
This extension role includes being approachable for the turfgrass industry and responding in a timely fashion. For extrovert Brandenburg, this has always been a favorite part of his job, and Lang says it shows. “The really good industry researchers interact with the industry and are easy to get along with,” Lang says. “Rick is like that – he stands out. The first time I sent him an e-mail with a question I remember being surprised by how quickly he got back to me. He takes the extension aspect of his job very seriously.”
For Brandenburg, being accessible is important because “I’m the go-to person when it comes to turfgrass entomology,” he says. “I know lawn care operators are in a position where they have to deal with problems quickly or it’s costing them money. So I do the best I can to try and respond as quickly as I can in some fashion – whether it’s by phone or e-mail – so I can help them when they are in a bind. I see it as my responsibility.”
Brandenburg also spends enough time talking with and listening to lawn care operators that he comes up with research projects that have instantly usable solutions in the field vs. ones that take weeks to put into practice, Lang adds. “Many times scientists come up with hard-to-implement answers for the industry and that doesn’t help us day to day,” he says. “Rick comes up with tools we can use and implement immediately to deal with every day problems. It’s a godsend.”
This happens to be what Brandenburg considers a job perk. “What I like about the type of research I do is it’s short-term problem solving research rather than basic research that provides insight and may provide something of significance 10 to 15 years down the road. I would rather think, ‘How can we work today to make life easier next year for lawn care operators? Can we find a short-term solution to make their work more productive?’ And when those lawn care operators come back and say we’ve helped them put out some fires, I enjoy that – it’s a good feeling when you make an immediate impact and they appreciate it and say thanks.”
In addition to conducting necessary research and fielding regular phone calls and e-mails, Brandenburg and his team send industry members alerts through his Web site – www.turffiles.ncsu.edu – and these have also proven invaluable for LCOs like Lang who use the information to proactively deal with problems on clients’ sites. “The alerts tell you what the current problems are on turf and what you have to do to deal with them – I couldn’t live without them,” Lang says.
Much of this activity stems from NCSU’s Center for Turfgrass Environmental Research & Education (CENTERE), which Brandenburg started in 2001 along with two center codirectors Fred Yelverton and Tom Rufty, who are both professors of crop science at NCSU. Yelverton and Brandenburg are also specialists with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. The goal of the CENTERE is to find better ways to manage North Carolina’s 2.2 million acres of turfgrass. The trio was able to create the CENTERE by securing $600,000 for environmental research and educational programs related to turfgrass via a North Carolina General Assembly bill. The funds come from taxes on the sale of fertilizer and seed to people who are not farmers – such sales had previously been exempt from the sales tax.
“This was absolutely huge for turfgrass research in North Carolina,” Brandenburg says. “We went from being a good program to being one of the top and highest funded programs in the country.”
Looking at Brandenburg’s list of accomplishments, it’s easy to see how he was named a William Neal Reynolds Professor at North Carolina State University this June – one of the highest distinctions available to NCSU faculty members, recognizing and supporting outstanding achievement in research, teaching and extension.
In fact, one may wonder where Brandenburg finds the time to do it all. For Brandenburg, every day is different, but answering industry inquiries is certainly a priority. “Some days I’m analyzing data and writing manuscripts. Other days I’m preparing a PowerPoint presentation for an upcoming talk, writing grant proposals or traveling to an industry event. I give a lot of talks around the country at various conferences. Every day I’m answering e-mails.” In fact, Brandenburg has addressed turfgrass insect management to audiences in more than 30 states and in foreign countries, including Australia, South Africa, Canada, Singapore, Argentina and Indonesia.
Even though Brandenburg prides himself on not making his career his life, he says his wife Janice would say he works too much because he’s constantly responding to e-mails from home. But, he sincerely declares, “I try to remove my entomologist hat when I leave the office.
“What’s unique about growing up on a farm is you never escape from it – you are there 24 hours a day and there is always something to do staring you in the face,” he adds. “But when the day was over at 6 p.m. and it was time for dinner, we typically didn’t do anymore work. Sure, we could have worked into the night many times, but we developed a lifestyle where each workday had to come to an end. I try to keep that mind-set today. Even though I take great pride in what I do and I hope I have an impact and am valued and appreciated by others, I know I won’t end my life saying, ‘I wish I spent more time in the office.’”
PEOPLE BEFORE PROJECTS. In the research world, owning a project and having your name stamped across the top is a huge feat. The goal of every researcher is to publish their data. This is also part of what secures a professor tenure down the road. Once a professor earns their tenure by meeting certain criteria, he or she can focus on what they love to do and really frame their roles in a university and an industry.
Since he gained his tenure in 1993, Brandenburg has been able to focus more on two roles – what he enjoys doing, which he believes naturally increases productivity on those project types, and what the industry really needs. Both of these charges are part of his job responsibilities, which amount to 70 percent extension and 30 percent research. However, Brandenburg notices there is an odd thing that happens as a professor goes through the tenure process. “So much about gaining your tenure is about focusing inward, and in some ways this process has a tendency to disrupt the flow of teamwork,” he explains. “So if you spend the first part of your career looking out for yourself, then that works against you when you finally gain tenure and have a staff you need to work with.
“And, today, this process has become more challenging for young people – the bar has been raised,” Brandenburg adds. “In some ways, I’m glad I’m not going through it now – it would cramp my style.”
Brandenburg’s style is a combination of the concern for others he learned from his mother and the teamwork approach he insists should be a priority over individual accomplishments on the job. The latter he has tried to perfect by garnering tips as he watched colleagues become successful at building teams whose members respect each other and work together.
The greatest lesson Brandenburg learned regarding teamwork comes to him from Mike Villani, his grad school buddy, colleague and co-author of his 1995 book “Handbook of Turfgrass Insects.” In 2001, he passed away at the age of 48 from pancreatic cancer. “He was an outstanding turfgrass entomologist – I viewed him as one of the best in the industry,” Brandenburg says, adding that what he’ll never forget are the conversations that took place at Villani’s memorial service. “No one talked about what a great entomologist he was or how many books and research reports he published. Instead, they talked about what a great person he was – what a great father, husband, friend and colleague he was. Even though he was one of the best, he didn’t let that in any way drive his decisions or affect his motivation. While most people take great pleasure in being successful themselves, he took great pleasure in letting other people be successful. He put people before projects. His name was almost always the last author on any project even if he managed the whole thing. He wasn’t the boss, he wasn’t the head scientist – he was a coordinator. I think this is why he was remembered in such a personal way.”
What does this mean for Brandenburg? “It reminds me there is an incorrect perception out there that putting people first makes you less productive,” he says. “In this career, I truly believe the opposite is true. You can have an impact and be more productive if you take the approach of putting people first. Then people are willing to step up to the plate and help you out. They cooperate with you and you get more loyalty. And then you’re remembered in the way you want to be remembered.”
How does he emulate Villani’s model? He believes teamwork means each member of your team feels they have ownership of a project so they feel they are integral to its completion – the same way Brandenburg felt fundamental to the family farm growing up. “It’s about creating an environment where people do things because they want to do them,” he says, adding that his team includes three full-time technicians, in addition to graduate students he hires during the summer months. “I let them run various areas of projects and let them be the lead communicators on those areas. By doing this, I give them responsibility and, sure, there is one more opportunity for something to fall through the cracks this way, but I’m willing to accept that. This gives people empowerment and a sense of accomplishment. It makes the team better and more productive and it makes the end results better in the long run.
“And, in our roles, there are always people demanding answers from us,” Brandenburg continues. “And for the first few years on the job I remember freaking out about getting tests out on time, but that just made things miserable for everyone. Now, I realize there is no reason to stress. If there is something affecting when research needs to be done, such as rainy weather, in most cases there is nothing we can do about it. So we just have to be good communicators on these facts and realize the work will still get done – and it will get done right, which is the most important part. We still get a lot of contracted research operating this way, so we must be doing something right.”