A 30-year career in the forestry industry might never have materialized if not for the recalcitrant nature of a former professor.

“Midway through my sophomore year at Virginia Tech, I decided I was going to transfer out of forestry and go into agriculture,” explained Brent Keefer, CEO of American Forest Management, Inc., and this year’s visiting executive in the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE). “I had the paperwork ready to fill out and Tom Walbridge said, 'I’m not signing this. You need to stay in forestry.'”

That refusal, coming from forestry professor Tom "Doc" Walbridge, eventually brought Keefer to his current role as the CEO of American Forest Management, Inc., a leading forestry consulting and land management company that guides more than 1,200 clients in the stewardship of forest lands.

The second visiting executive for the college, Keefer attended classroom discussions, met with professors and graduate students, and toured campus facilities, including the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design. Keefer also talked with undergraduate students: Leadership Institute participants, CNRE ambassadors, and members of the student chapter of the Society of American Foresters.

Two people kneel next to a microwave, as observers look on.
Keefer (far right) observes student work at the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design. Photo by Clark Dehart.

Keefer, who previously served as president of the Hancock Timber Resource Group and senior managing director of the Hancock Natural Resource Group, delivered a keynote lecture on economic shifts within natural resources, with an emphasis on how investors are increasingly considering factors such as climate change in their land management strategies.

“Brent’s role in several corporations had him interacting on a global scale with his finger on the pulse of forestry around the world,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “His insights were valuable to us in so many ways as we think about the future of work in the college and the many disciplines of forestry.”

Assistant professor Stella Schons of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation said that Keefer provided a valuable business perspective on the forestry industry to undergraduate students in her Natural Resources Economics class.

“Brent’s presentation on the history and the business of American Forest Management, including its work with different types of forest landowners, was eye opening to the students,” Schons said. “This is a segment of the forestry sector that they can look to join upon their graduation and be successful in. Brent is living proof of the value of the education and training in forestry our college can provide.”

While Keefer offered students and faculty a view forward, returning to Blacksburg was a chance for the Virginia Tech alum to remember his own formative years on campus.

“Blacksburg is a very special place,” noted Keefer, who graduated with a B.S. in forest resources management in 1987, and an M.S. in forest biometrics in 1988. “I did my undergraduate and graduate work here, and I got married and we started our family here. There are a lot of memories, and I have lifelong friends here, so every chance to come back is great.”

Two people stand in front of a building with trees.
Visiting executive Brent Keefer (right) stands with Beyond Boundaries scholar Hunter Manley (left). Photo by Krista Timney.

Keefer, a first-generation student whose parents were strong advocates for education, had the opportunity to have breakfast with Hunter Manley, a meteorology major and a recipient of a Beyond Boundaries Scholarship aimed at supporting high-achieving students from a diverse range of backgrounds. Keefer and his wife Charlotte Keefer have been financial supporters of this scholarship — and the college — for many years.

“One question I brought up was whether or not it was possible to land a job before graduating,” said Manley, a member of the Virginia Corps of Cadets. “The advice I received was that it takes communicating and networking to put yourself in that position, but that no matter how large or small the possibility, your chances will always be zero if you do not expand your comfort zone and put yourself out there.”

For Keefer, arriving at Virginia Tech as an undergraduate was an introduction to academic options and opportunities that changed his career path – and his life.

“Coming to Tech and being on this campus with 25,000 students was an eye-opening and broadening experience,” he said. “I’m from a small town, and just being able to walk around campus and look at different buildings or see posters for lectures about topics I had never considered, that set me on a course and a career where I could travel globally and interact across cultures with so many people. That started here.”

Winistorfer said that Keefer’s presence on campus offered an important perspective on the changing field of forestry and land management.

“It was wonderful to have Brent with us to interact with our faculty, staff, and students,” said Winistorfer. “Seeing forestry and a changing world through his eyes and experiences was a value to everyone who interacted with him. His visit reminds me how very important it is for us to engage with external leaders to validate what we do in the college."

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