PHS's Drew Becher is stepping down

PHS president Drew Becher oversaw many changes at the nonprofit. He was praised as a forward thinker but was also seen as aloof. ( Ed Hille / Staff Photographer )

After five years of Flower Shows, pop-up gardens, and tree plantings, Drew Becher, the dynamic and sometimes controversial president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, is stepping down.

Becher, 45, told staff Tuesday afternoon that he would leave the nonprofit June 1 to move to San Francisco with his partner, Eric Lochner, who has been named chief executive of Achievers, a tech company.

"We're leaving behind a horticulture society that is very 21st century," said Becher, who oversaw the creation of those popular pop-ups, the launch of the multistate tree-planting campaign Plant One Million, and the overhaul of the Flower Show - touted as the largest indoor flower show in the world - to attract a new generation of visitors.

He said his legacy also includes changed attitudes about green space in Philadelphia: "My proudest moment was walking back from the pop-up garden on South Street and three women were in front of me - and as we passed an ugly parking lot, one of them turned to the others and said, 'This space needs to be a pop-up garden.' People are starting to understand the potential of all these underused spaces."

Margaret Sadler, PHS board chairwoman, called Becher a "very forward thinker. He opened up the doors for PHS to explore avenues they hadn't explored before. ... He's a very creative person, and I think has been a real asset to PHS and an asset to the city of Philadelphia."

It wasn't all sunshine and daffodils under Becher's tenure, though. He adopted a corporate business model for the nonprofit organization, which was founded in 1827 and had its first Flower Show in 1829.

He reorganized PHS from top to bottom, and oversaw the layoffs of 22 staff members in 2013. (That followed a lightly attended Flower Show that lost $1.2 million, a downturn Becher blamed on local TV and radio meteorologists, who incorrectly forecast heavy snow during the show.)

"My first day on the job," he recalled, "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.' "

He took the infrastructure from carbon copies and faxes to Facebook and Twitter, and changed the programming to appeal to millennials. He secured $4 million in corporate and foundation funding. Membership increased to 75,000 from 50,000 a few years ago.

"What Drew did was get the message out to a broader cross-section of Philadelphia, and make what the Horticultural Society does more accessible to folks, so that they understand that it's really about improving the environment and the quality of life for the people in the Delaware Valley," said Margaret McCarvill, a board member who will become interim executive director beginning May 1.

Still, among the organization's staff and supporters, Becher never generated the affection and loyalty that his predecessor, Jane G. Pepper, did.

Pepper, who headed PHS for 25 years, seemed to know the name of every employee, volunteer, and donor, as well as details of their family lives, and never failed to thank each one individually after an event or Flower Show.

Becher was seen as aloof. Employees told stories of being snubbed by him in elevators, of rarely being recognized for their hard work.

Chris Woods, director of PHS's Meadowbrook Farms for nine months during Becher's tenure, said he was initially excited by Becher's vision, but became dismayed by his management style.

"It was just a little arrogant and brash, and insensitive to the long contribution that many people had given to PHS," said Woods, now an author living in Benicia, Calif.

Tom Snyder, a longtime Flower Show exhibitor from Willow Grove and a member of the organization's advisory council, said he thought that attitude had led to high staff turnover under Becher. He said some of the changes to the Flower Show did not sit well with supporters, who felt that their voices weren't heard.

"He's tried a lot of things. I think all the things he's tried need to be evaluated," Snyder said.

Still, Becher can point to the success of this year's "Celebrate the Movies" Flower Show: Attendance was up 10 percent from 2014, to 250,000, and the number of children and students doubled, according to organizers.

"Whenever you make changes, people are going to be scared. That's the nature of humans," Becher said. "Things need to evolve, much like our city and neighborhoods are evolving. I don't think traditional means actually to stay put, either."

And he won't.

Becher, who previously held leadership posts at the New York Restoration Project and Washington's Office of Planning, has a few projects in mind.

"My love is creating great spaces, and that's really what I want to focus on," he said.

But first, on June 27, he and Lochner will get married at their home in Chestnut Hill.

Phillips Oppenheim, the same search firm that found Becher, will work to locate his replacement. Becher earned about $265,000, including benefits.

Becher said unfinished business for his successor will include neighborhood place-making initiatives and an airport beautification project.

"That's a really important piece of the puzzle in making Philadelphia a world-class city - that main exit and entrance to the city, and in the Northeast Corridor, doing something along that Amtrak train route that would tell of all the cool things that are happening in Philadelphia," he said.

Sadler said the search committee had not yet convened. But the next president, she said, "will be somebody who will carry on the great legacy and have ideas of their own to expand the presence of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and to carry out its mission."

And, she said, "we hope that they'll know something about horticulture."