Leaders, too, must follow

Friedl Bohm believes people are allowed to make a mistake once.

“But if you make the same mistake three times over,” he says, “you’re an idiot.”

Bohm, who for the past 13 years has been head of the world-renowned NBBJ architectural and design firm, claims his biggest mistake came when he was just starting out in the architecture field.

“When you’re young, you’re so eager to make things happen,” he says. “You forget anybody has been there before.

“When you’re 18, you always think your father is the dumbest person in the world. When you turn 30, your father is the wisest person in the world. Early on in my career, I didn’t realize that. I was not listening enough to the voice of wisdom. I’m listening more these days.”

And to a lot more people. The 58-year-old civic leader readily points to several in Central Ohio who have guided him along the slippery slope to success:

  • George Skestos, founder of Homewood Corp.– “The person who gave me my first architecture job.”
  • John Miller, the retired owner of JM Real Estate — “He gave me my first planning job.”
  • The late Mel Schottenstein, who was a founder of the Schottenstein, Zox & Dunn law firm and co-founder of M/I Schottenstein Homes — “He was always a great mentor and supporter.”
  • Frank Wobst, chairman of Huntington Bancshares Inc. — One of Bohm’s nominators for Junior Achievement’s Central Ohio Hall of Fame and “one of the more fascinating individuals that I know,” Bohm says. “He’s always willing to help and advise.”
  • The late Art Cullman, professor emeritus of marketing at The Ohio State University and a frequent business adviser and investor — “He was a guru of marketing at OSU and helped me in the community.”
  • Jack Kessler, chairman of The New Albany Co. — “He’s helped me businesswise and also as a friend.”

In addition to this blue-chip collection of mentors, Bohm says he admires and learns from a number of other business leaders in corporate Columbus. These include John F. Wolfe, publisher and chairman of The Dispatch Printing Co., whom Bohm says he looks up to for his “laid-back stewardship” in the community; and Les Wexner, chairman of The Limited Inc. and Intimate Brands Inc., “for his incredible creativity and for his willingness to always be ahead of other people — not just in his thinking, but in his commitments.”

He also admires Dimon McFerson, retired chairman of Nationwide, “for what he’s done for the city. He really stepped up and did a lot of things for the city he didn’t have to do.”

Even within the development field, Bohm has found role models like Jeff Keeler, chairman and CEO of The Fishel Co., whom he admires “because he built an incredible national business with very, very straight-forward values,” and Bob White, chairman of The Daimler Group, “who created a very, very successful development group from nothing,” Bohm says.

Bohm’s willingness to learn from others has helped him transform the eight-member urban planning group he established roughly 30 years ago into a 900-employee, international architectural firm with projects in 20 countries and an annual construction volume of more than $3.5 billion. Notable projects in Central Ohio include Nationwide Arena, One Columbus, the Vern Riffe Center, Crowne Plaza, Three Nationwide Plaza and the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute.

Although Wobst says in his nomination letter that Bohm “has concerned himself and his firm with helping to define the modern architectural character of downtown Columbus,” Wobst also notes that “perhaps one of his most important roles has been as mentor. He is known to have helped many young entrepreneurs start their own new ventures.”

These ventures include Transmap Corp., The Daimler Group and Travel Partners.

“Friedl always finds time to help friends who need his advice,” says Ken Ackerman of The K.B. Ackerman Co., who also nominated Bohm for the Hall of Fame.

Nearly all of Bohm’s other community involvements reflect a dedication to education, too. He has been a trustee and board chairman for The Wellington School in Upper Arlington, a board member at Muskingum College and currently serves as chairman of the Advisory Board of the School of Architecture at The Ohio State University.

Education is something everybody needs and no one can take it away,” says Bohm, a Fulbright Scholar who earned two master’s degrees. “If you have an education, then everything else falls by the wayside.”

Bohm also serves on the boards of Huntington National Bank and M/I Schottenstein Homes. In addition, he gives at least 7 percent of NBBJ’s profits back to the community each year.

Bank One President David Lauer, yet another of Bohm’s nominators, calls Bohm “a family man, a true professional and a giver to his community.”

Bohm has also given of himself as a diplomat, serving on the Special Advisory Committee to the Austrian Chancellor, being named Honorary Counsul for Austria in 1993 and receiving the Grand Decoration of Honors in Silver for services to the Republic of Austria in 1995.

Bohm, the son of a Austrian politician, says his scariest moment came when he was just 4 years old and still living in a Soviet-occupied area of Austria. It was near the end of World War II and he and his brother were wandering the fields at a relative’s farm.

“A British fighter plane started using my brother and I for target practice,” Bohm recalls. “My brother pushed me down a hole.”

He’s convinced that’s the only reason he lived through the attack.

Another close call came more recently, when Bohm, father of three grown children, learned that his son had walked through Pushkin Square in Russia this summer just minutes before a bomb exploded there, killing seven people and injuring at least 50 more.

Brushes with death like that, he says, “put everything in perspective.”

“Family — that’s the most important thing,” he says. “To me, that’s the greatest accomplishment in life.” How to reach: Friedl Bohm, chairman, NBBJ, [email protected] or 244-9907

Nancy Byron ([email protected]) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Friedl Bohm, chairman of NBBJ, spends every Christmas in the kitchen, cooking one of his favorite Viennese specialties, Weinerschnitzel, for his family. Occasionally, he’ll do the same for friends visiting his ski lodge in Utah.