The Botanic Man

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



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.

 

 

 

In its shady retreat planted with hydrangeas and caladiums, the Blecken Pavilion can be used for weddings and receptions – or simply for quiet reflection.

 

“We diversify . . .”

Key to beefing up that revenue are the number of events MBG has developed. “Our philosophy was that since we didn’t have any home-run hitters, we’d create a lot of singles,” says Duncan. “I’d rather have our revenue spread over 100 events than over two. So we diversify.” In addition to holding more plant sales (one in fall, winter, and spring), and renting its space to numerous clubs for meetings and plant shows, MBG hosts monthly wine-tastings from February through October, a weekly Farmers Market from spring through fall, and various holiday-related events, including the Mother’s Day Tea that drew 500 people this year. It has also branched out with Dog Day Afternoons, complete with sponsors, entry fees for dogs, and contests for best and ugliest costumes; and a Girls Night Out, where “big girls” have play dates with their buds, make jewelry, nibble on chocolates, and sip vodka-infused herbal drinks. “Seventy-five women showed up,” says Duncan. “It was such a hit we’re going to host it again.” Meanwhile, MBG offers many versatile spaces — from Hardin Hall and the Goldsmith Room to several outdoor pavilions and specialty gardens — for weddings, luncheons, conferences, and parties. Today, says Duncan, 88 percent of MBG’s total revenue comes from income.

Besides beefing up revenue, Duncan wanted a better handle on predicting money flow, especially with the Live at the Garden concert series, which started in 2000. “We decided to make it a separate business unit that ran on a calendar year, instead of a fiscal year,” says Duncan. Evaluating it seasonally made it more predictable, he explains, as did negotiating vendor contracts with flat fees instead of percentages. After the early years of losing money, the series — which attracts audiences of up to 6,000 — now operates in the black, with reserved season tickets selling out annually. Bigger plans are also in the works: MBG is in the first phase of raising $8 million to $10 million for a permanent outdoor stage.

 

“Best of all, it’s paid for.”

If keeping a full calendar of paid events helped secure the garden’s bottom line, so has its membership, which soared from 813 in 2004 to 3,500 today. This increase, Duncan believes, reflects MBG’s efforts “to give people a reason to visit.” In its 60-plus-year history, the attraction has always boasted an array of horticultural highlights, and quite a few have been added in recent years. The blockbuster, which pulled in 800 family memberships within eight months of its 2009 opening, has been My Big Backyard, a three-year culmination of planning, design, and $5.75 million in fundraising. “We had been talking about it forever,” says Duncan, “and we had a stakeholders’ committee made up of landscape architects, staff, parents, grandparents, and interested volunteers.” The committee solicited proposals and hired designer Cindy Tyler, who created children’s gardens in Denver and Atlanta. As for Duncan’s role: “I was somewhat the voice of reason in terms of money. We reached a $2.5 million projection cost and I said, ‘We gotta stop.’” 

Almost every local foundation took an active part in building My Big Backyard, as well as private donors, nonprofits, and corporations. “It was very successful, came in under budget, and best of all, it’s paid for,” says Duncan.

The result is a charming, two-and-a-half-acre children’s village with both storybook nostalgia and high-tech touches that teach everything from bird identification and the colors and shapes of seeds, to how to build a rain barrel. 

Pausing in his vehicle at The Raindrop Stop — where “thunder” rumbles every 30 seconds, followed by misting, then gentle rain, then a gully washer — Duncan watches with a grin as kids hesitate before dashing through the downpour.
Then he moves on and points out other features: the swing designed to look like a chrysalis, the support beam from an old sequoia tree found on the ground in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the House of Rock where children “can make lots of racket,” and a guest house that serves several functions, including a classroom.

 

“It’s a joy to watch these kids’ excitement . . .”

Indeed, the education that takes place at MBG puts it head and shoulders above others. “The average number of children served per public garden in the U.S. is 11,000,” says Duncan. “We served more than 44,000 just last year. We’re four and a half times the national average.” Some of the kids who visit, he adds, live in neighborhoods “where they don’t see much of the outdoors,” says Duncan. “It’s a joy to watch their excitement over fish, geese, ducks, woods. And we’ve got four acres we just let grow, so there’s lots of room for exploration.”

MBG’s education programs also extend into 192 area schools as the staff is always open to new ideas. For instance, “we talked to elementary school teachers who told us TCAP tests often include questions on prehistoric times, yet not enough attention is given to it in school curriculum,” says Duncan. “So we took an area that wasn’t getting much play and transformed it into the Prehistoric Plant Trail. The Fern Society helped us lay out a fern path, and we found some old ‘dinosaurs’ from an amusement park.” The area even boasts a pit with “dinosaur bones” so kids can pretend they’re paleontologists. And Duncan adds, always with an eye to that watchword, revenue, “We had 87 ‘prehistoric’ birthday parties out here last year, all paid.”

 

 

 

A children's village that charms adults as well as kids, the two-and-a-half acre My Big Backyard was completed in 2009 and can be rented for private parties.

 

“People will remember the mustard spots.”

Meanwhile, MBG continues to add attractions, including the Delta Garden that’s filled with ornamental cotton, peas, beans, cucumbers, and other other native species, and the fragrant Herb Garden that contains 2,000 plants and 500 varieties. “We maintain that we’re the largest herb garden in the South,” declares Duncan, then adds with a smile, “and if somebody asks me how many we have, I say one more than anybody else!” 

Opening this month is a new exhibit, the Nature Photography Garden, designed primarily with birds in mind — as well as those who love to capture their images. “In fall and winter, the plants will have tough waxy skin higher in fat content to give energy when the birds migrate,” says Duncan, “and in spring they will have high carbohydrate fruits and berries.” Completing the scene are vines to support the fruit, a large birdbath, and concrete that’s “pervious” — i.e. water doesn’t run off but instead soaks through to the ground. Throughout the area are pathways, laid out by a nature photographer with good light angles, so that the photographers can set up their tripods on any part of the pathway, three to five feet from the subject.

That’s not to say that cameras aren’t clicking every day in some area of this green haven. As Duncan rolls past the Japanese Garden of Tranquility’s red bridge, he says, “We claim this is the second most photographed place in Memphis.” And the first? “Graceland.” 

Glancing around the edge of the lake, Duncan mentions that earlier he saw a Canada goose sitting on her nest. “Ah, there she is,” he points — just as her mate swoops in, almost grazing us in his flight. “He saw me point, and he’s protecting her.”

As he tools along on his tours morning and afternoon, Duncan keeps his eyes peeled for eyesores, or what he calls “mustard spots.” “You can be wearing a $250 tie and have a mustard spot on it and people will remember the mustard spot. So we pride ourselves on keeping the place clean and picked up. I spend a lot of time explaining why that’s important. But if our staff understands that, we get results.”

 

“If Jim hadn’t come along when he did . . .”

Married 47 years, with six grandsons, Duncan coaches a sixth-grade basketball team at St. John’s United Methodist Church, is active at Christ United Methodist, and serves on the boards of the National College Football Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Council of Urban Forestry. He also finds a few hours for music, reading, or an occasional movie. But his wife, Elizabeth — development director for the Salvation Army — good-naturedly tells him he spends too much time at work. 

“I don’t really count the hours,” says Duncan, who oversees 44 full-time employees and a top-line revenue budget of $4.75 million. “It’s a fun job, and I love the staff. I’d match them against any I’ve ever worked with. They’re hard-working and creative.” 

One of those staffers is Rick Pudwell, director of horticulture, who in his 17 years at MBG has worked under six directors. “All of them had their strengths,” he says, “but Jim is the first who has been tenacious in keeping our finances in the black. I’m sure that if he hadn’t come along when he did, [MBG] would have ceased to exist in the form it is now. Instead we have been able to add some major new gardens and increase our staff in spite of the slow economy.” 

Acknowledging that Duncan “is definitely not a plant man,” Pudwell says he’s quick to learn — but his real strength lies in “taking care of the business end and giving us the freedom to make horticulture choices.” Perhaps best of all, adds Pudwell, “Jim embraces change. He’s not afraid to try something new. He really loves for us to stand out from other gardens in our region.” 

And MBG does stand out. Among its honors are having its hosta trail named one of only 15 nationally recognized trails by the American Hosta Society, and My Big Backyard designated as an Outdoor Classroom by the Arbor Day Foundation. MBG also achieved Level Four Arboretum status through the Tennessee Department of Urban Forestry and was recently named the first Center of Excellence for Urban Forestry in Tennessee.

But Duncan’s not resting on any laurels. Instead he keeps an eye out for new programs and looks forward to seeing MBG “move into the elite status of U.S. public gardens.”

“We’ve got more to do,” he asserts. “I can never envision saying, ‘My work here is done.’ The garden just keeps evolving.” 

 

Marilyn Sadler is senior editor of  Memphis magazine. She’s also a longtime fan of MBG, an avid gardener, and a tree-hugger from way back.

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