Analysis: RHS feels the strain as Grimsey resigns

A tough year for the RHS has culminated in the resignation of its director general

This year has been tough for the RHS, starting with the untimely death of its president Peter Buckley in December at the age of 65. Giles Coode-Adams took over the post in January.

Noting in his introduction to the RHS's annual review for 2008 that "we are living in challenging times", Coode-Adams warned that the next two years were likely to be difficult and the RHS would need to be prudent — a need reflected in the society's plans for 2009.

Those difficult times were brought into stark relief this May when the credit crunch took a serious bite out of sponsorship at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. The slump in sponsorship saw the number of Chelsea show gardens fall from 22 in 2008 to just 14 this year. Marshalls' contract to sponsor Chelsea has come to an end after three years and, to date, there is no replacement. At stake is an estimated income of £1m a year. Meanwhile, tentative plans for new shows and gardens have been shelved.

More recently, circulation figures for the society's magazine, The Garden, suggested that membership numbers had fallen from 350,000 to 342,000 this year — although the society has subsequently quoted its membership as remaining constant this year at 363,000. But whether membership has slipped or remained static, it stands in contrast to the National Trust and English Heritage, which have both succeeded in growing their memberships as the recession forced many to swap holidays in the sun for a "staycation" break at home.

But what has undoubtedly been the cause of deep anxiety and upset is the organisation's restructuring, currently underway, which will result in the loss of up to 80 full-time posts from the total workforce of 722.

Now, in the midst of this restructuring process, director general Inga Grimsey has announced her shock resignation.

Grimsey, who was brought in to give the charity a strong and necessary commercial boost, says she has "developed with RHS council and staff a new strategy designed to ensure the society is financially sustainable and continues to connect to the needs of the country's gardeners".

In a statement released alongside her resignation, she continues: "Having steered a course of change over the past three years, I feel I am ready for a change myself. I will leave the society well-placed to face the challenges of the next phase of its development."

Grimsey's decision to leave comes at an exceptionally difficult time for the society's staff, who remain in the middle of redundancy consultations - although she will remain in post until the end of the year.

The Unite union, which has heavily criticised the society's handling of the redundancy process and says it is looking at lodging a collective grievance, was quick to make the most of Grimsey's resignation, saying Wisley staff celebrated the news last Wednesday.

Head of communications at the RHS Lynn Beddoe has strongly refuted suggestions that the society has failed to provide proper consultations with staff, saying that it has always "placed, and continues to place, the utmost importance on meeting all its obligations to employees".

Grimsey, the first woman director-general in the RHS's 200-year history, replaced former diplomat Andrew Colquhoun in late 2006. Colquhoun served seven years, roughly the same number as his predecessors Gordon Rae and Christopher Brickell, who brought the society into the modern era as the first director general.

When Grimsey took up the post, the Financial Times said her appointment would "seriously undermine" the "boffins and toffs" image of the RHS, because she was the first woman to run it and because she was neither a gardener nor a scientist but had a background in finance, marketing and business management with Sainsbury's, Levi's and Storehouse.

More recently, she headed up the National Trust's successful commercial activities.

Grimsey's role was to be to make the RHS money, not to plant its gardens: "It's about managing and balancing resources in order to deliver your core purposes. Organisations need people from a business background. As long as they understand the core values, the organisation will benefit," she told HW at the time of her appointment.

She saw the role as more business-focused: "We need to look after our resources. I'd love to see growth in our grow-your-own campaign and our schools outreach, but that depends on us being very good at how we run our commercial business. We've got a very strong brand and we need to think about how we use it."

However, that undoubted commercial strength is thought to have brought her into conflict with some in the RHS who wanted to put more traditional values first — while others suggest it needed to go further, creating closer alliances with the commercial horticulture sector.

Since the restructuring process has got underway, some insiders suggest "empire building" issues have arisen between departments. The redundancies are "across the board" but, reasonably, most departments think they should be left alone.

Shows generate the cash; so does merchandise. Gardeners uphold standards. Marketing has to compete against many other attractions. Science and learning are the central tenets of the charitable aim of the RHS. Plant trials are crucial to many. Publications, too. But all departments must lose 10 per cent of staff. This does not lead to popularity for decision-makers.

Meanwhile, there are very real worries about the impact of redundancies on the horticulural excellence of the RHS' gardens. Gardeners fear redundancies could mean lower standards.

In his statement, RHS president Giles Coode-Adams paid tribute to the "substantial" progress the RHS has made in becoming more relevant to the needs of contemporary gardeners under Grimsey's direction.

"Our gardens have attracted significant growth in visitor numbers, and the RHS is sharing more knowledge with more people than ever before.

"Inga has also greatly strengthened the management of the RHS and instigated a change programme to improve further our ability to deliver our charitable mission and secure our long-term sustainability."

And her successor? The RHS will not say, though insiders expect an outsider to come in from business and to move further into the commercial world.

As Grimsey told HW when appointed: "The challenge is how [the RHS] delivers in the 21st century, because membership organisations do suffer. You have to make sure you stay relevant to current and future members."

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