The Botanic Man

No horticulture experience? No problem. Jim Duncan's "green thumb" nurtures the bottom line and keeps this garden growing.



Jim Duncan, executive director of hte Memphis Botanic Garden, takes a break in the shade of a favorite tree, a Chinese chestnut.

photographs by Amie Vanderford

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As he guides a motorized cart through this lush oasis, Jim Duncan gestures at some of his favorite specimens of flora and fauna — a massive Chinese chestnut tree, a luster leaf holly bush, panicle hydrangeas heavy with bloom. Driving slowly past a koi-filled lake, he peers down at the seven-pound albino catfish dozing in the water, and says, “When I spot him for the first time in the spring, I can breathe easy. And he may think the same thing about me, glad to see the old white-haired guy made it through another winter.”

As the executive director of the Memphis Botanic Garden (MBG), Duncan tours these 96 acres each morning to see what needs attention, and again in the afternoon to see what tasks have been accomplished. A decade ago, aside from attending occasional functions at MBG’s Hardin Hall, Duncan had never set foot on the grounds. And after he took the job in 2004, a friend reminded him, “You don’t know a grapefruit from a gladiolus. How you gonna run a garden?”

But run it he has, right into the black, increasing membership by 400 percent and attracting visitors at record levels. “He took a struggling nonprofit and turned it into a clearly defined, debt-free organization,” says Janet Misner, outgoing president of the MBG Foundation, which operates the garden through a management agreement with the city. Describing Duncan as a blend of coach, teddy bear, and taskmaster, along with humorist, businessman, and visionary, Misner says MBG has thrived under his leadership: “His management style brings out the best in his staff.”

Duncan points with pride to improvements that range from My Big Backyard, the beautifully designed showplace for children and families, to the Nature Photography Garden, which debuts this month. But he’s quick to credit others for each accomplishment during his eight-year tenure. “We’ve enjoyed lots of success here,” he says. “It’s we, not me. This is not a one-man show. I have really great staff.” On the other hand, he adds with a twinkle, “They have no doubt who they report to.”

 

“Back into my brier patch . . .”

A native of Itta Bena, Mississippi, this Ole Miss graduate came to Memphis in 1965 to coach football and basketball, first at East High School for five years, then Ridgeway High for three.  After speaking one night at a school banquet in 1973, Duncan was approached by the father of a student about a job in pharmaceutical sales. “I loved what I was doing, and I wasn’t really interested, but after eight years in coaching, it was getting harder to pay the bills,” says Duncan, who was raising two children at the time. He discussed the opportunity with his “wife and best friend, Elizabeth,” who said, “Maybe you ought to talk to the guy.” After he did,  Duncan knew he should take the job or he’d always regret not trying it.

That leap into a new career carried the former coach into sales and leadership positions in various cities with the Mead Johnson division of Bristol-Myers Squibb, and later with Smith & Nephew. While spending a lot of his time “in negative situations fixing things that were wrong,” he built a history of success. For instance, as district director in Atlanta, Duncan transformed the lowest market share in the U.S. into the highest performer. Eventually he returned to Memphis and started his own consulting business.

In 2004, Duncan’s reputation prompted a call from Allie Prescott and Associates, the firm that was leading the search for an executive director for MBG, which was floundering under high debt and low morale. Though owned by the City of Memphis, MBG receives only 10 percent of operating costs from the city and must raise the 90 percent balance. “I talked to the search committee and they described [MBG’s] situation as upside-down financially. But I was always good with turnarounds,” says Duncan, who after accepting the job told his wife with a big smile, “I have been thrown back into my brier patch.” 

To guide the nonprofit out of this prickly position, Duncan and his staff focused on resources that would generate “earned income” — facilities to rent, plants to sell, special programs to promote. “We put together a revenue sheet for each department,” says Duncan, “and tracked the revenue each month. Our watchwords became, ‘Every decision has a financial implication.’ And that’s revenue.”

One of the oldest areas of the Memphis Botanic Garden, the Rose Garden, which was once located in Overton Park, boasts 75 species of roses.

 

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