By Jean Campbell
PHOTO BY TERRY FARMER
Evelyn Brandt Thomas is a well-known business figure in central Illinois and beyond. She and her brother, Glen, co-founded Brandt Fertilizer Inc. in 1953. The company, now simply BRANDT, has grown to be an international giant in agriculture. She is also recognized for her community leadership and giving back through her philanthropic activities. And we would be remiss not to mention that Brandt Thomas is an outgoing, fun-loving person who can be seen bidding on cattle at the Illinois State Fair and attending NASCAR races to cheer on BRANDT-sponsored driver Justin Allgaier.
Brandt Thomas has two big reasons to celebrate this year. It is the 70th anniversary of BRANDT, and she will celebrate her 100th birthday in August. “I don’t like surprises, so I am planning my own party,” she says with a smile. “I can promise there will be food, drinks and lots of people.”
Brandt Thomas was born and raised on the Brandt family farm in Salisbury Township with parents who emphasized a strong work ethic. She attended Springfield High School where she took two years of shorthand, typing and bookkeeping classes. Then she took accounting classes at Illinois Business College. At the same time, she was keeping records for the family farm.
Brandt Thomas’ formal education and hands-on experience prepared her to take on the financial management of the new company, while Glen focused on sales. Her husband, Gordon R. Thomas, who had earned an agriculture degree from the University of Illinois, also joined the company and was responsible for soil testing.
In the 1950s, there weren’t many women pursuing careers outside the home. “I was a pioneer at the time because I was a female business owner and was working in the ag industry,” she notes. “My strength was keeping records on everything. That earned me the nickname of ‘the Hawk’ because I sent the bills, collected the payments and held onto the money. Nothing got by me.”
Over the years, BRANDT built a reputation as an innovator in agriculture technology. “We started by selling liquid fertilizer when most farmers were using dry fertilizer,” she recalls. “When farmers saw how crop yields increased, they became believers and longtime customers. That was just the beginning.”
Today, BRANDT manufactures and sells more than 300 agricultural products in 80-plus countries. The company began its international expansion in Mexico in the mid-1980s. Brandt Thomas was active in the expansion, traveling to Mexico, Brazil and Europe.
“Our goal has always been to help farmers grow new and better crops,” shares Brandt Thomas. It’s very rewarding knowing that we are contributing to food supplies around the world.”
Brandt Thomas lost her husband in 2003 and her brother in 2020, but she still has family helping her lead the business. Her nephew, Rick Brandt (Glen’s son), joined BRANDT in 1991 and was named CEO and president in 1995.
During her career, Brandt Thomas has been lauded by many organizations for her business and civic leadership. She was one of the 2008 Women of Influence recognized by Springfield Business Journal and Security Bank. The next year, she received the Athena Award. In 2011, she was selected by Illinois Agri-Women as Outstanding Business Woman in Agriculture. She received an honorary doctorate degree from UIS in 2014 and was inducted into the Senior Illinoisans Hall of Fame in 2020. In 2022, she was named The State Journal-Register First Citizen.
The charitable work of Brandt Thomas and her husband has been recognized as well. The Association of Fundraising Professionals awarded the couple its 2002 Outstanding Philanthropist Award. Key aspects of their philanthropy have been education and agriculture. Brandt Thomas established numerous scholarships with many named in memory of her husband. Scholarships are available to Pleasant Plains High School students, the National FFA Foundation, women in business at University of Illinois (both Champaign-Urbana and Springfield) and students enrolling in agriculture at Lincoln Land Community College. Brandt Thomas and The BRANDT Foundation also partnered with LLCC on the Kreher Agriculture Center with funding for the simulation lab and the soil lab also named in memory of Gordon R. Thomas.
Beyond education, The BRANDT Foundation supports food banks, health care institutions and many other organizations. A special project for Brandt Thomas has been the Educational Center for the Visually Impaired.
Brandt Thomas became involved when the Lions Club held an event where it roasted her to raise funds to build the new center. The mission of ECVI is to improve the quality of life of individuals who are blind or visually impaired by providing education, training and development services and programs. With support from BRANDT, the center opened in 2018, adjacent to the company’s headquarters. Visual impairment is personal for Brandt Thomas because she was diagnosed with macular degeneration in 2000.
Brandt Thomas’ other passion is BRANDT’s sponsorship of race car driver and Riverton native Justin Allgaier. Earlier this year, at the NASCAR race in Daytona, she was thrilled to broadcast the announcement, “Drivers, start your engines.” Brandt Thomas says the sponsorship is not only fun, it helps expand BRANDT’s presence in many markets.
Even on the brink of her 100th birthday, Brandt Thomas is not slowing down. She still goes into the office, visits employees at company plants, travels and is involved in the community.
“Staying busy is therapy for me,” she says. “This company is like a child I raised. We’re a family. Many employees have thanked me for sharing my values of honesty, integrity and work ethic with them.”
When asked if there’s anything on her bucket list, Brandt Thomas says a recent addition is to spend more time with old friends that she’s known for many years. “Other than that, I feel like I’ve been there, done that, and I’ll keep on going.”
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