Breakfast with The Eagle: Eggs and bacon - please, hold the toast - with Michael Beck
Beck is starting his fifth year as executive director of the garden, which was founded in 1934 during the depths of the Great Depression so locals could sell their farm harvests. Over a hearty breakfast at No. Six Depot Roastery and Cafe in West Stockbridge, (Beck ordered fried eggs over easy, with greens, but no toast — "my new diet to try to stay away from the carbs.") Beck confided that he was surprised by his unanticipated mid-career leap into uncharted territory.
Beck was born in the big university town of Muenster, Germany ("home of the famous cheese"), where his father, Hans, was studying. The Beck family soon relocated to Japan, where Hans worked for the Tokyo office of Deutsche Bank. Michael spent his formative years there attending a large German school for expats, with a brief detour to London.
When he was 15, Beck moved back to Germany with his brother, Andreas, his half-sister Julia, and his mother, Christine, completing his high-school education in Bavaria. Then, studying chemistry at Princeton University, Beck said, "I fell in love with America and the idea of coming here."
After earning a master's in chemistry at Columbia University, Beck realized "it would be a long haul to get the doctorate I wanted, and I realized it wasn't really for me." Shifting gears, he entered NYU School of Law.
Beck gained his law degree, passed the New York State Bar Examination in 1999 and joined Fish & Neave, an "old, established patent boutique law firm" in Manhattan.
Moving on to Paul Weiss, a major general practice law firm as it was opening a patent specialty, he represented Gillette during the "razor blade wars" with Schick over a series of patent suits and countersuits. The next stop was at Boston-based Goodwin Procter's New York law office.
Then came the road less traveled as Beck and his Australian-born partner, Beau Buffier — now chief of the antitrust division in New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office — visited the Berkshires for a 2003 Memorial Day weekend getaway at Wheatleigh in Stockbridge.
"We didn't know anything about the region, but we had such a lovely introduction, ate well and did culture," he recalled. "We said if we ever decided to have another place, this would be it, but we had no plans to do that."
After a few more visits, they embarked on house-hunting expeditions in search of an older home "with a lot of character." In 2004, they settled in at an 1810 historic house on Swamp Road in Richmond as a weekend second home. In 2006, they married in the backyard.
With opportunities for a partnership at Goodwin Procter fading during the Great Recession, Beck left the firm in 2011. Spending weeks at a time in Richmond, he befriended his next-door neighbors, interior and garden designers Matthew Larkin and Elaine Grant.
Larkin, the board chairman of the Berkshire Botanical Garden, persuaded Beck to join the Garden's board in early 2012. "I didn't have non-profit expertise, but I love looking at gardens and being inspired by them," he conceded. "I got very familiar, very fast, with this great organization."
In search of a new executive director, the board prevailed on Beck to serve as interim director, starting in October 2013.
"I liked the organization and wanted to help move it forward, but I didn't know how long this commitment would last," said Beck. The search continued, but by March 2014 the board decided to make his temporary assignment permanent.
"I was an unconventional prospect and didn't have a long track record with other non-profits, but I certainly knew what the organization was about," said Beck, 47. "Even though I was a corporate patent lawyer, there were some skills that would transfer, and it seemed to work out."
It only took a few months to learn the essentials, Beck recalled — "the day-to-day management, plus the strategic thinking and reporting to the board, those were all learning opportunities."
The challenges included full development of the 15-acre campus, notably the 1790 Center House renovation and expansion. The recently completed $2.4 million building project is the key to expanding adult and youth educational programming, as well as special events, Beck said.
There are so many cultural organizations in the Berkshires, Beck commented, "and you're always fighting for attention, to be more on people's radar." In the Botanical Garden's case, the strategy focused on expanding May to October visitation to year-round.
Attendance totaled about 23,000 last year, a 30-percent increase over the previous year. The Garden's $1.2 million budget produced a virtually break-even result for 2017, and the membership roll stands at 1,200, with an increase targeted for this year.
"We're focusing on being relevant to younger visitors who'll hopefully consider becoming members, as well," Beck said, citing a recent beer-brewing class and members-only perks, such as dinner and a movie in the Center House, as well as garden-focused trips he leads to destinations such as Italy, Ireland, Seattle, the United Kingdom and coastal Maine.
"As long as there are challenges and opportunities for growth for the organization, I'm happy to continue helping make those a reality," Beck said. "I love what I'm doing."
Clarence Fanto can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-637-2551.
On the Menu ...
Where we ate: No. 6 Depot Roastery and Cafe, 6 Depot St., West Stockbridge.
What Michael ordered: Fried eggs, bacon and greens, no toast.
What he's looking forward to: Launching an audio guide for visitors in addition to on-site guides, and enhancing the visitor experience by adding sit-down food and beverage service.
Price: $8 before tax & tip.
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