Top CEO, Nonprofit: Sohmer grows BRIT to become local, international force

Robert Francis

When Sy Sohmer announced his retirement from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) earlier this year, he knew he was leaving behind an institution that has grown to be known and respected around the world. “My life’s dream has been to create and lead a botanical organization of international renown,” said Sohmer, BRIT’s president and CEO for more than two decades. “As a scientist, you are always looking for that one-in-a-million discovery. Well, in 1993, I made that discovery – at BRIT.”

Since joining the privately funded international, scientific research and learning center in 1993, he has helped transform it from an organization with an annual budget of $175,000 and a staff of three – housed in a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Fort Worth with about 400,000 dried plant specimens and a botanical and horticultural library of some 50,000 titles – to an organization with an annual budget of $3.2 million and a staff of 30, housed in a 70,000-square-foot high-profile building adjacent to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.

The organization also has risen from relative obscurity to its current stature as a high-profile group locally, nationally and internationally. “Sy has served as our executive officer for more than 20 years as BRIT has grown and found its place among the great botanical research institutes of the world,” said Harry Bartel, BRIT’s board chairman and a partner at Cantey Hanger LLP. Founded in 1987, BRIT conducts global research, with major projects in Texas, Europe, Peru and the Pacific islands. In the last 10 years, BRIT scientists have located and described scores of species previously unknown to science. BRIT’s herbarium is among the largest in the United States and is the largest U.S. herbarium that is not part of a university, botanical garden or broader natural history museum. BRIT now possesses over 1.1 million specimens and over 150,000 titles in its library. It is home to major educational and research programs that are global in their reach and vision. BRIT’s endowment has grown from zero to nearly $60 million. Sohmer has been significantly responsible for raising funds for the institute, according to Bartel. “His invaluable accomplishments have put the institute on solid financial ground for many years to come,” said Bartel. “To recognize Sy’s contributions to BRIT, the board will name him director emeritus and will present him with the 2015 International Award of Excellence in Conservation.” Some of that fundraising focused on building BRIT a new home. Much of BRIT’s work once took place in a nondescript warehouse tucked away on the east side of downtown Fort Worth. BRIT didn’t move to just any new home. The organization is now housed in a building designed to accomplish several key goals: reduce energy and water consumption, enhance indoor environmental quality, and use recyclable and renewable materials. The move in 2011 to the $48 million LEED platinum-rated facility located in Fort Worth’s Cultural District gave BRIT a more public face and since then the organization has maintained a higher community profile. At the same time, BRIT has been reaching out to increase its international presence. In 2010, BRIT launched the International Award of Excellence in Sustainable Winegrowing, honoring wine professionals who use innovative, sustainable practices in winegrowing and winemaking.

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Sohmer officially retired on July 31 and Patricia Harrison, BRIT’s vice president and director of education, will serve as interim director during the search for Sohmer’s successor. Sohmer plans to stay active even as he is leaving his current post, remaining committed to the goals of BRIT. As Sohmer said at the opening of BRIT’s new headquarters in May 2011: “We’re proud of this organization and its place in this world. What we do is important to the future of this planet. Everything we do is important to you, your children and all of those that follow you. [What we do is] all in the name of plant diversity. The planet depends on being able to preserve this diversity.”