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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 18, 2004 18 years ago

Bruised, Pruned But Budding Again

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A lesson for not-for-profit and corporate boards. What happens when directors are out of sync.

Bruised, Pruned But Budding Again

By Matt Walsh

Editor

When Dona Morgan, director of facilities at Sarasota's Selby Gardens, shows off the newly renovated Christy Payne Mansion behind the gardens' gates, you see Morgan's pride in the transformation she helped bring about.

She gives off the feeling of a survivor of a storm who has rebuilt a shattered home, happy to put the tumult behind her, stronger as a result of it. Morgan oversaw the restoring of the historic mansion to its original luster, giving it new coats of paint, new fixtures, new furnishings. She replaced porch screens with new windows, opening new perspectives that are fresh and help forget the past.

Nearly a year has passed since the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens encountered what one of its former board members described as "the Perfect Storm," a year-long internal tsunami that blew a path of destruction through the not-for-profit organization, a storm powerful enough that some wounds are still unhealed.

Eight board members quit in a span of 10 months between the end of 2002 and October 2003. A year ago, the board fired its popular and internationally known executive director, Meg Lowman. A month later its chief operating officer quit. At least four key staff people left around the same time. Large donors and former board members pulled nearly $400,000 in pledges. And after the federal government indicted the gardens for its handling last summer of a rare orchid smuggled into the country from Peru, Selby in April pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime under the Endangered Species Act, paying a $5,000 fine and submitting to three years' probation.

Were it not for the gardens' deep roots, planted by its founding benefactor Marie Selby, the confluence of controversy could have leveled the world-renowned, $3.2 million (annual revenues) not-for-profit organization.

But today Selby Gardens is increasingly showing signs of recovery. The Payne mansion's renovation is the most visible one. The gardens also recently completed the first phase of a trail of 13 gardens that line the iron "sea oats" fence surrounding the perimeter of the property along Mound Street and Orange Avenue. Nine donors contributed $105,000 to fund those. Stroll through the gardens with Morgan, and she'll point out other signs that the botanical garden is moving ahead in small and big ways.

A small thing: Morgan says the staff has become more attuned to its visitors' experience, meaning it has planted more plants of color along the trails to liven up what previously was mostly a bed of solid greens. Big things: It recently secured about $430,000 in grants - half from the Selby Foundation and half from the state - to restore the coquina siding on what was William and Marie Selby's bayfront home. In April, the annual Orchid Ball attracted 475 attendees, up from 368 the year before, generating close to $100,000. And last month, Selby hosted an international orchid conference that helped reinforce the world's orchid experts of Selby's still-high stature in the orchid world.

Internally, Selby's staff appears to have pulled together in spite of not having a chief executive officer for a year. After the board voted to dismiss Lowman last July and then after Chief Operating Officer Shawn Farr quit a month later, the board in November 2003 appointed Morgan and Larry Perkins, director of finance and administration, as co-chief operating officers. Morgan joined Selby in January 2003 after having spent 13 years in charge of Tropicana Products Inc.'s campus in Bradenton. Perkins joined the gardens in October 2003, after practicing public accounting for more than 20 years in Sarasota.

One of their first joint decisions was to make the operating of the gardens more collaborative and participatory with the staff than previously. As Morgan tells it, "We put eight experts in a room instead of one" to make decisions. They meet with the senior managers every other week to discuss their short- and long-term goals and strategies. On off weeks, Morgan and Perkins bring together representatives from each department for post-mortems on recent events and planning for upcoming events.

"Make them feel needed and valued," Morgan says. "We empowered them."

Nan Summers, Selby's newly hired director of marketing and communications and a 23-year veteran of Walt Disney Co.'s Imagineering Division, attests to Morgan's claims. "When I was up in her office, staff members came in and said, 'We think we'd like to take care of this this way.'" Morgan says that would not have happened a year ago.

To help clear up confusion among the staff and build a sense of direction, Selby Chairman Barbara Hansen suggested Selby's mission statement be reviewed. Morgan and Perkins at the end of 2003 polled the staff members to determine if they knew Selby's mission. Most were unsure. None could recite the mission statement. Morgan says they appointed Mike McLaughlin, director of horticulture, to write a new mission statement.

When McLaughlin presented his work, the staff approved, the board approved unanimously. (See box on page 7)

Morgan and Perkins also asked the board to prioritize Selby's previously approved goals and objectives. Topping the list:

× Install a temperature alarm system to secure the gardens' plant collections - a goal that had been on the list for more than five years.

× Complete the renovation of the Payne mansion.

× Add to the gardens' utilities infrastructure so it could support larger events. Toward this, Morgan has upgraded the electrical systems in the 1930s-era Payne mansion and extended wiring to the gardens' south point, where its popular stained-glass pavilion looks out to Sarasota Bay.

Morgan says the staff has been making more improvements to the garden in recent months than was done in the three years prior. With a $10,000 grant from Florida Power & Light, Selby purchased a backup generator for the greenhouse. "That was on the goals and objectives list for 10 years," Morgan says. Selby also installed a $13,000 temperature alarm system.

The staff is becoming more customer oriented, too. Before, the physical focus of the gardens was on plant research and a natural vegetative state. Morgan says the staff is now more in tune to a tidier, more groomed garden that will appeal to visitors. Selby also just recently began supplying customer comment cards.

The efforts appear to be bearing results. Total attendance year-to-date is up 12% from a year ago, to 184,000 visitors. Admission revenues are up 27%, thanks to the higher attendance and an increase in prices. The efforts of events director Sharon Gellman, who previously worked at the Plaza in New York City, have produced solid bookings every weekend through the remainder of the calendar year. Membership stands at about 9,000, up from 5,000 in 2000. "Things are happening here," says Perkins. "People are showing their support. I hear people all the time: 'We're here for you.'"

Even the board of trustees appears to be in sync. Morgan, who saw and felt how the previous year's turmoil affected the board, observes: "The board members are all on one page. We're in harmony now." Says a board member: "The acrimony is gone."

About the only thing missing to complete Selby's recovery from last year's storm is a new executive director. Finding that person has been delegated to board members Marty Cooper, Michael Saunders and Chairman Barbara Hansen, who recruited a committee of influential Sarasota professionals and not-for-profit leaders, including Kumar Mahadevan, executive director of Mote Marine Laboratory; Debra Jacobs, chief executive officer of William G. and Marie Selby Foundation; Wilma Hamilton, former superintendent of the Sarasota County School District; and Alex Quarles, chief executive officer of the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation. The committee also hired the recruiting firm of Korn Ferry International to conduct an international search.

Cooper says he hopes to have an executive director named by the fall. Says Hansen, the board chairman: "We're not going to settle for second-best. I don't settle."

As Morgan leads a tour of the gardens, she picks up a discarded cup, an abandoned bottle of cola - a mother straightening her home. She talks of plans to replace concrete sidewalks with attractive pavers and new plantings just outside the Selby home. You can't help but get the feeling Selby is moving forward again. Says Morgan: "Mote Marine has had its day. The Ringling Museum had its day. Selby is next."

By Matt Walsh

Editor

If you broach the topic of last summer's turmoil at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens with current and former members of the board of trustees, it's like pinching a nerve.

They don't want to touch it. It hurts. They don't want to think about it. And they especially don't want to talk about it on the record. It's too sensitive.

They want to move on.

As one former board member told us: "I want to forget about that period in my life. It was the worst experience I've ever had with a board." Said another former board member: "A thoughtful piece needs to be written, but I don't want my name in the paper. I don't want to get in the muck, but I'm happy to help you get the straight story."

The straight story is difficult to sort out. Talk to 10 eyewitnesses of a crime, and they'll tell you 10 versions of the same incident. Talk to, say, six of Selby Gardens' past and present board members - all accomplished, strong-willed professionals and leaders - and you get six versions of the same story.

Piece those versions together, however, and you get an instructive lesson for all corporate and not-for-profit boards of directors. If the board is torn, split, out of sync, so the organization will be.

The facts and incidents of what occurred at Selby Gardens over the past two years already have been well-publicized. As noted in the accompanying story, one board member referred to them as "the Perfect Storm," the convergence and culmination of a series of internal and external events that cut a destructive path through one of the community's most treasured assets.

In summary: Eight board members quit in a span of 10 months in 2003. The board fired its popular and internationally known executive director, Meg Lowman, last July. A month later its chief operating officer, brought in to assist the executive director, quit. At least four key staff people left around the same time. Large donors and former board members pulled nearly $400,000 in pledges. And the federal government indicted the gardens on felony charges for its handling last summer of a rare orchid smuggled into the country from Peru. Selby in April pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime under the Endangered Species Act, paying a $5,000 fine and submitting to three years' probation.

When the Perfect Storm hit off the North Atlantic coast, the causes were natural. When Selby Gardens' Perfect Storm struck, the causes were largely manmade, a result of decisions and actions by a board whose members had fallen out of sync.

To a degree, Selby's recent turmoil actually began to take root in the mid-1990s. By then Selby Gardens, almost in spite of what could be called a benign board of trustees, had developed one of the most valuable collections of orchids, bromeliads (from the pineapple family) and epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants). It had become the world's foremost site for identifying bromeliads and had a library of more than 80,000 dried plants and 1,200 new species. And thanks in part to Meg Lowman, a young, accomplished ecologist who became Selby's director of research in 1992, the gardens had become recognized worldwide for its research on "canopy ecology," the study and conservation of tropical rain forests, home of most epiphytic plants. Selby had an internationally respected team of researchers and scientists, and Lowman was one of the main drawing cards.

In spite of all of its acclaimed assets and scientists, however, Selby in the mid-1990s also was an underperforming, undercapitalized and undermanaged asset. It reported four consecutive years of operating deficits from fiscal 1996 through fiscal 1999. It had gradually outgrown William and Marie Selby's bayfront estate and needed to expand physically and financially. It needed funds to buy the residential properties across the street from its main entrance and bring its existing horticulture facilities up to modern operating standards. But to illustrate how the gardens were ill-prepared to go to the next level, an ex-board member says: "The roof of the administration building was so leaky, they had a family of raccoons living in the third floor."

So in mid-1999, a national search began for an executive director to replace Dr. Mark Bierner, who had decided to go back to university teaching. The search didn't include the hiring of a search firm; a board search committee recruited through advertisements in The Wall Street Journal and professional horticulture journals. A member of the search committee told GCBR the uninspiring responses led the board to conclude that the best candidate was already in its midst: Lowman. "We wanted a Ph.D., someone young, vigorous, known, with the vision to give the gardens an international reputation, someone to take it to the next level," says a member of the search committee.

But for all of Lowman's reputation, scientific and personally charming attributes, some board members say they were concerned about her lack of management and business experience. Her prior experience had mostly focused on ecological research and writing. After a half-dozen meetings with Lowman about her lack of business experience, a majority of the board "bought into the concept," says a former board member, of hiring Lowman as executive director/chief executive officer, with the proviso that the board also hire a chief operating officer. "She wasn't hired to be a nuts and bolts person," says the ex-board member. "Do you want an accountant or someone with vision? A good leader doesn't do all the work; he surrounds himself with people who do."

Lowman, who did not return GCBR's call, agreed to take steps to improve her management and administrative skills. Shortly after she became executive director in November 1999, the board sent her to Duke for management training and brought in a consultant to help her.

Meantime, the plan to hire a COO to run the gardens while Lowman focused on the big picture and fund-raising gave in to other demands. "Do you fix the roof or hire a COO?" says the ex-board member. Money was limited.

As Lowman's first year unfolded, the board charged her with crafting a chart of organization, job descriptions for all employees and writing a strategic plan and new mission statement. The mission statement was key, for it would become one of the elements that would lead to board strife and Lowman's departure. In Lowman's statement, eventually adopted by the board, there's no mention of Selby's focus on epiphytes. The new mission statement embraced a broader vision, which played to ecology and conservation in general.

Lowman accomplished her first year's goals.

"Selby was humming," says the ex-board member. "Meg built a qualified team around her."

But here's where the board members began to split. When October 2001 came, there was a changing of the guard. Robert M. Scully, who owned and operated a well-known nursery in Dade County and the nation's largest mail-order orchid business, became chairman.

Sculley was an orchid man. He had been a volunteer at Selby and in 1999 did an evaluation of Selby's greenhouse systems. He knew horticulture and was interested in the gardens.

According to several board members, Sculley was much more hands-on than his predecessor; he was seen more at the gardens and showed more interest in the day-to-day operations. A former CEO, he thought like a CEO and thought of Selby as a business. He encouraged management by walking around. He thought the CEO should be on the scene. Often times, however, Lowman was not. She was traveling or speaking on behalf of Selby in her national and international ecology circles.

Sculley took note: Sprinkler systems weren't functioning; fungus was growing in the greenhouse. The gardens were looking a bit scruffy. Some staff members complained that the boss wasn't around.

In the executive committee, composed of four board members, including the chairman, there was a split over Lowman's management. Two board members, as one board member puts it, "wanted to hold her feet to the fire. The other two said this was a professional who needs her space to function."

Sculley was accused of micromanaging Selby and undermining Lowman. "Micromanaging is a broad, condemning term," Sculley says. "The fact that we regularly were asking for performance and accountability does not make one a micromanager."

Nonetheless, what Sculley saw as his fiduciary duty as chairman to be involved, other current and former board members say the line was sometimes blurring over Sculley's involvement. What's more, board members say, Sculley's own management and leadership style was abrasive and badgering on several occasions. One board member almost quit over a confrontation with Sculley. At least four board members did quit because they no longer wanted to serve with Sculley as chairman.

As this internal board conflict sizzled, Sculley and a few other board members partial to orchids began questioning the gardens' mission, in particular Lowman's interest in canopy ecology and what these board members perceived to be a lesser emphasis on epiphytes. "We felt she was taking us in areas that we really didn't want to go," says board member Marty Cooper, an orchid grower and former head of an ITT manufacturing division.

The storm was building. It grew greater in the fall of 2002 when the board decided it was time to hire that chief operating officer it intended to hire when Lowman became executive director. Board members say they wanted to keep Lowman as executive director because, regardless of her management skills, she was beloved in the community. Says an ex-board member: "Meg was Selby Gardens, and Selby Gardens was Meg. She lived, ate and breathed Selby Gardens."

With Lowman's support of the chosen candidate, the board hired Shawn Farr, an executive with the Annenberg Foundation in Pennsylvania, in May 2003 to be COO. It was a big move. All of sudden the board added a $100,000-plus expense to its already tight budget.

Farr's hiring didn't work. Lowman resisted giving up control, an expected instinct. After all, she had a track record. In a memo to the board in May 2003, Lowman delineated a page and a half of accomplishments during her three years (see box).

Suddenly, all of the elements converged. On June 5, a Virginia nurseryman walked into Selby Gardens with what the government later called a smuggled orchid from Peru. It wasn't just any orchid. The beautiful flower sparked an 11-month controversy that brought a federal criminal indictment against Selby and ultimately a guilty plea to a misdemeanor. While many Selby board members say the gardens could have beaten the charge, the time and expense of defending Selby could have been disastrous financially. The board decided to plead guilty to a lesser charge and move on. Needless to say, though Lowman had little to do with the orchid controversy, it happened on her watch.

While the orchid crisis raged, the Selby board changed chairman again. Replacing Sculley was a diminutive Longboat Key woman, Barbara Hansen, a certified judge of flower arranging for the Garden Club of America and on the governing board of the Chicago Botanical Garden. These credentials and her tiny size mask her toughness. For eight years, she served as mayor of Barrington Hills, Ill., a small town near Chicago. In 2000, Hansen survived four surgeries to deal with pancreatic cancer and a near-fatal bout with staph infection. At one point, she wasn't expected to live. Fellow Selby board member Marty Cooper says Hansen's toughness reminds him of Margaret Thatcher.

When Hansen took on the chairmanship, she thought she could work with Lowman as a team to bring Lowman back into the board's favor. "We got along," Hansen says. "I wanted Meg to stay because she was a wonderful force. I thought we would be great fund-raisers."

At the same time, Hansen says, board members were "strongly encouraging" her to bring Lowman's job to a vote. The Lowman-Farr relationship continued to deteriorate.

On July 26, the board met. Several members attended by conference call. Hansen asked board members to vote yes or no on whether to ask Lowman to resign. But she also asked each board member to state why he was voting the way he did.

"It was like a jury room," recalls Cooper. "Several board members were in tears."

A supermajority voted to seek Lowman's resignation.

"We knew we were going to take a tremendous amount of flak for this," Cooper says. "The community loves Meg Lowman."

Since Lowman's departure, Selby's chief horticulturist, Mike McLaughlin, was asked to write a new mission statement. Here's what Selby's staff and board agreed to adopt:

"The mission of The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is to understand and conserve tropical plants - with emphasis on epiphytes and their natural habitats - through programs of research, education and horticultural display that promote appreciation of plant life and provide enjoyment for all who visit the Gardens."

OLD MISSION STATEMENT, 2000

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens passionately pursues knowledge about tropical plants and their habitats and applies that expertise to advance their conservation and display.

NEW MISSION STATEMENT, 2004

The mission of The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is to understand and conserve tropical plants - with emphasis on epiphytes and their natural habitats - through programs of research, education and horticultural display that promote appreciation of plant life and provide enjoyment for all who visit the Gardens.

LOWMAN'S THREE-YEAR

ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Here are 15 of 28 accomplishments former Selby Gardens Executive Director Meg Lowman supplied to the board in May 2003.

× Membership has increased 46% over the past three years.

× School students up from 2,226 in 1999 to 4,271 in 2002, up 92%.

× Private events up 14% from $129,474 to $147,235 over three years.

× Two new departments were organized: Marketing in 2001 and Facilities in 2000.

× Budget deficit for FY '96, FY '97, FY '98 and FY '99 moved to figures in the black and have remained in the black.

× Budget up 25% over three years from $2.57 million to $3.4 million.

× Implemented ongoing training and professional development for over half of the staff, annually.

× The Tuesday in the Tropics lecture series was initiated to attract internationally respected researchers to Sarasota to educate the public and staff.

× Research personnel made 152 presentations, 37 expeditions, (34 national and 13 international), and attended 15 conferences (4 national and 11 international).

× Over 1,600 new accessions were added in the Greenhouse Research Plant Collection over three years.

× Meg Lowman won the Eugene P. Odum Award for Excellence in Ecology Education from the Ecological Society of America in 2002.

× Selby Gardens was named one of America's Top Ten Botanical Gardens by Country Living Gardener magazine in March 2003.

× A new perimeter delineation is completed.

× A new pavilion and events venue at South Point is completed.

× The first permanent conservation exhibit is on display in the Visitor Center.

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