Was Drew Becher Too Ambitious for Philly?

As a change agent in a city that resists change, the soon-to-depart PHS president attracted countless critics. How right were they?

Drew Becher and Rachael Ray at the 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show.

Drew Becher and Rachael Ray at the 2014 Philadelphia Flower Show. | Photo: Bradley Maule

Let me be frank: I have no facility with plants or flowers; anytime a green thing comes into contact with my fingers, it wilts and dies, as though my antidepressants are leeching through my pores. Still, I’m deeply attuned to the flora of our city. For one thing, we’re fortunate to live in a verdant metropolis with an enormous park system. For another, we have a robust horticultural society that presents the largest flower show in the hemisphere. And lately, well, we’ve got these pop-up gardens that celebrate plants and flowers — and also offer beer. We mustn’t forget the beer.

And I’m not alone. Residents of Philadelphia care deeply about our ample green space. That’s why it hasn’t surprised me to be on the receiving end, for several months now, of rather urgently phrased whispers about potential problems at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). The problems, people told me, all related to its president, Drew Becher, and the changes he’s implemented since he arrived in 2010 to replace Jane Pepper, who was president for 29 years before she retired. Modernization is never easy, and change agents have it especially hard in this town. But the level of vitriol directed at Becher surprised me — and this was coming from people outside of PHS, without an ax to grind.

Last week, when the organization announced that Becher would be stepping down in June, someone wrote to me of a community-wide regret that he had “been allowed his reign of terror for so long.” On Facebook, the expressions of contempt were more muted, but the sentiment bubbled beneath the surface. Journalists and urban planners wrote things like “I imagine some of us saw this coming” and “surprised it took so long.” I heard tell, second-hand, of employees dancing in the office, singing “Ding-dong, the witch is dead” after the announcement, a story I don’t think was meant to be taken literally. But there’s no question some are glad to see him go: I witnessed that firsthand the day after the announcement when I was with a former highly placed PHS employee and we ran into a current highly placed PHS employee. The two of them hugged, and the current employee said, with a broad smile, “Yesterday was a good day.”

One person even sent me an email asking if I’d heard his nickname: Drew Bitcher. Oof.

All of this got me thinking: What had Becher done? Had he murdered a gardener? Embezzled funds? Slapped a colleague with a trowel? I decided to talk to some folks about his departure and puzzle out all this anger. With very few exceptions, no one wanted to speak on the record, even when they said something nice. Still, I did manage to glean some information from sources I trust. Mainly, this is a story of an organization that needed change, but whose board didn’t necessarily choose the ideal person to modernize a place that had been largely the same for decades. An out-of-town pragmatist with an ego tries to bring change to a city built on consensus? It was bound to be a rocky relationship.

The Six Things People Talk About When They Talk About Drew

1. Philadelphia Green / Parks Revitalization Program

Founded in 1827 by some of Philadelphia’s most august names — Joshua Longstreth, Nicholas and Thomas Biddle, George Pepper and Thomas Hibbert — PHS was long one of those venerable institutions that seemed synonymous with Old, Old Philadelphia. Think: Social Register, the Union League, Quaker restraint. It went through many waves of change before Becher came along, of course, most notably in 1974 with the introduction of something called Philadelphia Green. This was the brainchild of visionary president Ernesta Ballard, and it represented a radical shift for the organization, expanding its mission beyond botany and exhibitions and into community gardening. Becher today praises Ballard for that decision: “Thank god she got us into urban greening and beautification,” he says, noting that most of the other horticultural societies in the country are now defunct because they didn’t change with the times. Ballard’s innovation allowed the organization to thrive.

Philadelphia Green started with community gardens but kept growing until it was a cluster of programs — parks, tree-planting, gardening, public landscapes — that was better known in some spheres than PHS itself. Nancy O’Donnell, former director of public landscapes at PHS, describes going to conferences wearing a Philadelphia Green badge and watching other attendees from across the country react with awe when they noticed it. “There was a lot of pride associated with that,” she says. “Philadelphia Green programs were a model for many cities around the country.”

By the time Becher arrived at PHS, Philadelphia Green was so large that it required a six-panel foldout brochure to explain all of its programs. It was, as O’Donnell notes, a beloved brand, and Philadelphians get attached to their brands, that’s for sure. One of the persistent knocks against Becher has been that he “killed” Philadelphia Green. As it happens, he did kill the name, but he kept the majority of the programs. That sounded to me more like a branding decision than a programmatic one.

“Yes,” Becher explains, “we actually got a grant from the William Penn Foundation to update our brand. We had a massive amount of sub-brands. The Philadelphia Green brand, in some instances, was more readily popular than the momma brand PHS, which has been around for 186 years. The goal of [the change to Philadelphia Green] was to make sure that PHS is front and center. It was a total brand realignment.”

But there was one significant programmatic Philadelphia Green change that remains a point of contention, though I can’t get anyone to talk about it on the record.

Before Becher came, PHS used to have a very robust role in city park projects, from landscape architecture and design to day-to-day planning and development. That role has changed significantly, with the Fairmount Park Conservancy taking over much of what PHS once did. Several people mentioned this change to me, and claimed the once collaborative relationship between Parks & Rec and PHS is over — and irrevocably damaged. One former employee, who worked under both Pepper and Becher, said the devolution of the partnership symbolizes the larger issue of frayed connections. “PHS is kind of on their own right now — a little island,” he told me. But PHS director of communications Alan Jaffe says that the organization actually continues to work with Parks & Rec — the projects are simply on a smaller scale.

Becher knows that not all the changes he’s made have been well-received, whether by individuals or agencies. “I’ve worked in seven other cities,” he says, “and people are always going to be resistant to change. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Philadelphia or if you’re in Chicago or you’re in Dayton, or whatever — I mean, it is always uncomfortable.” But he’s found PHS as a whole to be quite adaptable. “That’s the lovely thing about this organization: it allows people to try to change, to try to implement new things.” If the new changes don’t work, he says, well, you scrap them, but it’s important to try. “We’re the oldest and largest greening and horticulture society in the country, and we didn’t get that way by staying put,” he says.

2. Big vs. Small

Another perceived change seems to be one of scale. One thing that has made PHS so beloved over the years was its willingness to work at the neighborhood level, building civic commitment and good citizenship through horticulture. While the organization still does this, there are those feel the Society has moved away from the micro. A community activist told me that PHS once made a tremendous difference in lower-income communities but that Becher’s leadership seems to have shifted the emphasis toward more high-profile projects like the pop-up gardens. She wants to see PHS return to a focus on initiatives like the Garden Tenders workshops, in which residents learn how to start and maintain community gardens. Garden Tenders was converted from a free program to a pay program two years before Becher came onboard, but it’s telling that people seem to think adding a price tag to a community program is one of the changes he’s made. The notion is in concert with the perception that the organization now cares less about people who have less.

The scale of many of Becher’s initiatives is grand. Under the PHS Civic Landscapes initiative, seven areas of the city are getting heavy-lift projects, like I-95 medians, meadows around the airport, and greening the western approach to the Ben Franklin Bridge. But then, this kind of large-scale design isn’t surprising from Becher, whose last job was executive director of the New York Restoration Project, and who worked before that as chief of staff at the Chicago Park District during the years when Millennium Park was created. Can we really expect him to be equally invested in sprucing up a community garden in Southwest Philly?

Becher’s predecessor, Jane Pepper, was very attuned to the neighborhoods, always looking for community buy-in and individual residents’ approval when assessing neighborhood change. That’s not who Drew Becher is. His point of view is better represented by a big-picture community development and investment-oriented programs like PHS Philadelphia LandCare, says Todd Baylson, who was associate director of governmental affairs, planning, and policy at PHS until 2012. LandCare is not the kind of situation, he notes, where Becher has to go around to residents “asking permission to hang flower baskets.” In fact, flower baskets really don’t come into it.

3. The Primacy of Design

Good thing, too, because according to a story that ran in the Inquirer, Becher isn’t one to gently ask permission before he acts. He told reporter Samantha Melamed: “My first day on the job, I was handed a Palm Pilot and a flip phone, and I basically said, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ I held up my iPhone and said, ‘We’re going to start working with these.'” There is no one to whom I’ve spoken who didn’t think all the technology needed to be updated, but Becher can be startlingly direct, as that quote demonstrates. One person who has enjoyed working with him (but won’t go on the record) thinks it’s a communication problem more than anything else — and the fact that he has utter faith in the rightness of his vision.

One part of that vision has been aesthetic. “He has a strong belief that people care about design,” Baylson says. Another former employee told me: “He thought our designs were shit.” In fact, design was not top of mind for the organization under Pepper, who was happy to see a trashcan, a little paved area, maybe a couple of trees in a garden — nothing extravagant. Big design contracts went to outside landscape firms. Becher changed all that, bringing a sleek design emphasis to every aspect of the organization, from improved materials to an Iron Chef-style design contest at the Flower Show. This could have a downside too. For instance, at one point he expressed concern about the appearance of community gardens. These were places where people were focused on growing food, building community, securing the right infrastructure to put in water lines. Getting fancy new fences? Not a priority for most people.

One former employee thinks Becher’s concern with curb appeal may have been somewhat misconstrued: “Gardens are so much more than how they look. They represent community, and social relationships, and work. In many cases PHS staff have worked hundreds of hours in these places alongside neighbors and others. I think Drew was probably kinda saying, ‘These places need to look more crisp, and that will help us raise money and get more people interested.’ And what people heard was, ‘We need these places to look nicer, and the heart and soul part is less important.’ The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”

4. Too Slick for Philly?

Thing is, Philly is all about heart and soul. Crisp? Less so. Even as we fight to change that — to pick up our litter, to improve our public spaces — a pleasing sense of disorder seems to be embedded in our character. William Penn was once disappointed when he came back to Philadelphia after a sustained absence because the city had gotten dirty and its residents were drunk. And while that’s a little embarrassing, I think many of us would say, Well, at least we hadn’t turned into snobs! There is nothing people in Philadelphia hate more than pretension and pomposity. We are wary of slickness and of moneyed satisfaction — even the wealthy among us. All of this, I think, presents a problem for a non-Philadelphian like Drew Becher, who came from high-profile stints in other cities and found himself in this weird small town/big city where a culture of political favors and mutual back-scratching still flourishes. Heck, half of our city’s legislature went to the same high school.

Philadelphia is outgrowing its parochialism, but it hasn’t gotten there yet, and someone like Becher was probably not the right person to make change at a historical, hidebound organization that plays nice with other organizations and agencies. The job called for diplomacy and self-effacement, many say, and that wasn’t Drew’s style. His professional bio mentions that he’s friends with Bette Midler, for god’s sake. And he talked in the pages of Philadelphia magazine about buying clothes in London, taking Uber, and serving great wine. In Philly, it’s okay to be part of the elite, but you should probably say you take SEPTA.

5. Too Corporate

Along with Becher’s perceived flash there was his determination to remake PHS internally. The new building is the perfect example of the Old Philly vs. New Philly culture clash that Becher embodies. The old PHS was musty and dusty. People had separate offices with quirky knickknacks. The renovated building, which one source told me cost $1.4 million with an additional drawdown from the endowment that the board of directors had to approve, is sleek and modern, like that of a sophisticated landscape design firm. It’s also an open-office environment. One non-employee told me that Becher controls what goes on people’s desks. A current employee laughed about that, saying it was an exaggeration of an HR memo. I got my hands on that memo, which turns out to be a fairly standard Clean Desk Policy — nothing unusual in university facilities, healthcare offices or, indeed, open offices. But it was very unusual at PHS.

And that’s the point, I think: The office culture there went from comfy and relaxed to corporate and uptight. Though some might see this as an internal issue exclusively, culture change can often signify larger changes in overall organizational identity. Most people at nonprofits are not accustomed to working in the corporate world, so many of Becher’s workplace changes were disconcerting. Also unpleasant: the largest layoff in the organization’s history and huge turnover besides, which also happened under his watch. There were layoffs and furloughs under Pepper’s watch, too, but it sounds as though she handled them more humanely. I remember the first time my once-relaxed office fired someone and made them leave on the same day, having instituted actual HR procedures a few weeks before. I was appalled. Of course, now it’s standard practice. Becher was living in the world of standard practice and he brought it to PHS. People who’d been there for years were living in a world of kindness and humanity that corporate environments don’t encourage. That’s a genuine internal conflict. Did he do a good job of communicating why becoming more corporate would lead the organization to be more successful? Doesn’t sound that way.

The Inquirer article described Becher as “aloof,” and quoted a former employee as saying he had a “brash and insensitive” management style. Becher doesn’t quite know what to do with all these personality complaints about him. “I know one of the persons in that article who was quoted was asked to leave PHS,” he says. “I’m not sure that was a bang-up job of journalism. But I don’t know. Everyone has personality issues or whatever, but I’ve made a lot of friends here. I’m going to remain close to a lot of people in Philadelphia. I love this city and it’s been very good to me and my partner. I vacation with friends here. So there you go.”

6. Strategic Decisions

I worked at a nonprofit once for a new CEO who was loathed by most employees. He was disliked by many on the board of directors, too. He was egotistical in the extreme, and imposed a corporate culture on an organization that was used to being messy but happy. And poor. We were used to being poor. The reason the unpopular president stayed was because he made the organization money. He turned it around and saved it from almost certain death. And now he’s gone from that organization and everyone rejoiced at his departure. Being obnoxious and a bad boss didn’t make him a bad president, though it’s good his tenure was relatively brief.

Becher came to PHS with an immediate fiscal concern: how to sustain funding within a constantly shifting landscape of philanthropy and foundations. He believed traditional strategies would no longer work; new ones would have to be employed to keep the organization thriving. While employees and stakeholders were thinking about the shape of PHS’s soul, Becher was thinking that having a casino as a sponsor for the Flower Show was a smart move financially. That partnership with Sugar House earned Becher a writeup in a trade magazine under the headline “Philadelphia Flower Show’s New Sponsorship Strategy.” Good for business, but since when was PHS a business?

The Flower Show has always been PHS’s jewel in the crown. “People love it,” Becher says. “They’ve been going to it all their lives. They brought their kids to it. It’s like a piece of the family.” Since Becher arrived, it’s also been more dramatic, more glam than ever before. Some would say it’s become more garish. Certainly, 2012’s “man cave” with recliners and TVs was not a graceful touch, earning embarrassing headlines like “Philadelphia Flower Show Marred by Appearance of the Dreaded Man-Cave.”

“The Flower Show is a fundraiser,” Becher says, when I ask him about the casino sponsorship and the man cave. “People forget that a lot of times.” In keeping with that reminder, there’s more merchandising at the show now too, but then, PHS has more to sell. Oh, PHS had a mug and T-shirt before, but now there’s even PHS cider. “There’s a lot of emphasis,” a former employee says, “on products and trends, and it’s all fine, but it didn’t use to be trendy. It was more like, ‘We’re just solid and lumbering and pretty self-effacing, kind of Quaker-y, not really calling attention to ourselves, giving more credit to our partners.” Now, she says, “it’s like we’re taking all of the credit for everything.”

The PHS press release announcing Becher’s resignation gives him a lot of credit for increasing membership since he arrived (it has more than doubled, says communications director Alan Jaffe); he also figured out a way to increase the appearance of membership. Two years ago, PHS changed the way it defined its members. “Membership had been counted in member-households for many years,” Jaffe explained to me. “Many people joined as a household — particularly around Flower Show time — so this seemed the easiest way to add up the numbers. But most of those households consisted of parents and at least one child, so we weren’t counting everyone who enjoyed membership. Two years ago we began looking at households as 2.7 people (the average size). Our numbers now represent individuals as opposed to households.”

The press release also mentions the pop-up gardens, which have indeed become “an iconic brand in Philadelphia.” The pop-up gardens have been phenomenal for PHS’s profile and for the city as a whole, but Becher admits they are sometimes only revenue-neutral. Plus, with three pop-ups scheduled for this year, one source says PHS staff is overbooked, trying to get work done on other scheduled projects as well. But Becher thinks the pop-ups have been great for the city, and the people who live here. Again, it may be a matter of thinking big vs. small.

PHS touts Becher’s ability to get funding; it says he’s secured $2 million to support programs and services “in the past few years.” Funding from the city has increased under his watch. Funding from the William Penn Foundation has decreased. As of last year, the Society was still operating at a deficit. Flower Show revenue has been up and down.

One former employee says: “It isn’t like he turned it around. It’s like he did some good stuff and he did some bad stuff. And he alienated a lot of people.” If that latter part is true, what are the implications? Will the organization have to rebuild trust from people across Philadelphia — people who are, after all, potential members and donors? Will it have to rebuild relationships in city government and with other nonprofit organizations? How much damage has been done?

Maybe not as much as the naysayers think — at least, if you look at the Society’s fates through a long lens. After all, this is an organization that’s been around since 1827, and has cycled through 35 previous presidents. Becher’s tenure is a blip on the screen of its history, and as a person who thinks big, Becher knows that. He says he wanted to put the Society in a larger context, to bring the Flower Show to other cities and countries, to export Philadelphia’s excellence. He took examples not from his predecessor, but from the Royal Horticultural Society in London, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t have. But more than one person told me he was too ambitious, as though Philadelphia were getting too big for its britches.

This is an old problem. In 1832, after a successful flower show, a PHS member advocated in the National Gazette for an “experimental garden” building in Philadelphia:

“And why, may it be asked, should Philadelphia lack such an institution? If taste, wealth, and professional zeal be requisite, where in the union shall more be looked for? … In Europe, horticultural and botanical institutions abound. In Great Britain, even provincial towns are ornamented by them, often too, of considerable extent and rich in vegetable treasures culled from every clime. And shall it longer be said that Philadelphia, which claims to take the lead in all that is elegant and refined, the Athens of a vast empire, is destitute of an institution so eminently intellectual?”

You hear that? He’s already anticipating the objections, and trying to substantiate the city’s claim to bigger things.

He probably didn’t last long.