Layoffs at Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Drew Becher, PHS president, cites low show attendance and other problems.
Drew Becher, PHS president, cites low show attendance and other problems.
Posted: June 28, 2013

Since March, when the 2013 Flower Show had its lowest attendance in more than a decade, layoff rumors have traumatized staff at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the show's producer.

On Wednesday, the rumor came true - 22 of 133 full- and part-time jobs were cut and two more downgraded to part time. The changes affect almost every level except the top - including communications; development;  Green Scene magazine; human resources; landscape management; library; marketing; programs; and Meadowbrook Farm, the PHS estate garden, greenhouse, and retail operation in Abington Township.

Eventually, five of the eliminated positions will be reincarnated as different jobs and filled with new hires. Even so, the reduction is PHS's largest in decades and possibly ever. The nonprofit was founded in 1827.

"It's never good when [layoffs] happen, but I do believe organizations go through this, and I think that shortly that you'll see what's coming out the other end is much more focused," said Drew Becher, PHS president since 2010.

The layoffs are expected to save $1.2 million, the amount of lost ticket sales alone at this year's Flower Show. Becher said that when the current fiscal year ends Sunday, PHS would be $1.8 million in the hole, the second time in four years the nonprofit has faced a deficit.

Besides staff reductions, Becher said he has shuffled his management team - three "chiefs" now instead of five senior vice presidents - and instituted pay cuts for top earners, including himself. He would not be specific but said the cuts were "substantial reductions in line with" those made by his predecessor, Jane Pepper.

In 2009, a year before retiring, Pepper faced a budget deficit of $765,000. She laid off six and ordered 5 percent pay cuts for management. Her $200,000 salary took a 10 percent hit.

PHS and Becher have historically declined to release his compensation. According to PHS's most recent tax documents on file with the IRS, his salary is $248,506; retirement and other benefits add $16,504.

PHS staffers still employed described themselves as in shock over the day's events and saddened by the loss of colleagues. None would speak on the record, having been told to refer media inquiries to PHS spokesman Alan Jaffe.

One of those lost colleagues was Mia Mengucci, nursery sales manager since October at Meadowbrook Farm, which was bequeathed to PHS in 2003 by the late horticulturist Liddon Pennock Jr.

"It was a good opportunity and I think I gave it my all," said Mengucci, also a popular lecturer at the Flower Show. "I know this is a business decision. This is a really sad day."

The 2013 show attracted 225,000 visitors, 17 percent fewer than 2012, even though the show was open to the public for an extra day. Becher placed most of the blame on local TV stations, which he said "hyped up" forecasts for a major snowstorm that never materialized, scaring visitors and tour buses away.

(Other complaints, voiced by those who saw the British-themed show and those who stayed home, included high prices for tickets and parking and bad food at the Convention Center, home to the show since 1996.)

Becher cited other problems affecting PHS's financial health: a drop in government grants, mostly state and federal, from $5 million in 2012 to $4.5 million in 2013; a downturn in foundation support, which averaged $2.5 million in recent years and are projected to be $1.8 million in 2013; and a low rate of individual philanthropic support.

For decades, individual support has been a flat 5 to 7 percent of the budget. Based on PHS's size, Becher said, it should be closer to 20 to 25 percent.

"With all these other issues, we could have managed our way through by tweaking here and there, but everything was exacerbated with the issue of the [Flower Show] shortfall," he said.

Over the spring, Becher raised more than $100,000 from members to help with that shortfall, and PHS has filed a claim on its event insurance policy. A similar claim filed in 2001, when the "storm of the century" failed to arrive but affected attendance anyway, resulted in a $900,000 payout.

Going forward, Becher said PHS has pretty much wrapped up its major civic landscape projects, such as redesigning Logan Square and the Rodin Museum, and would be "refocusing," starting in the fall, on smaller projects around the city.

"We'll take a more neighborhood approach this time around," he said.

And some education programs will be eliminated.

Major initiatives - such as PHS's City Harvest program, which provides fresh produce from community gardens to food cupboards, and Plant One Million, which aims to plant one million trees in Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware - will continue.

"And we will keep investing in the Flower Show," Becher said.

But the 2014 production will go on without two top managers Becher hired with great fanfare not long ago.

In mid-2011, Barrett Robinson was recruited from the New York Restoration Project, where Becher had been executive director. Robinson was made senior vice president of operations to oversee Meadowbrook and the Flower Show. He left in May, according to PHS, to pursue other options.

And Christopher Woods, the well-known designer of Chanticleer, the public garden in Wayne, and a trusted Flower Show consultant, came to PHS from California this past September to be director of Meadowbrook, which Becher wants to become a significant revenue source and retail and horticultural attraction.

Woods resigned this month to return to California, citing a new job for his wife.

PHS and both Robinson and Woods have declined further comment on their departures, which by all accounts stunned staff.


Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Harold Brubaker contributed to this article.


 

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