Transitioning from being CFO of a for-profit organization to a nonprofit comes with its rewards and challenges, as Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s CFO Bob Mermelstein can tell you.
After a career in for-profit finance in a variety of industries, Mermelstein left the for-profit side of things 14 years ago to pursue a completely new way of working in finance.
Since then, he has developed his career into an effort to improve and beautify the city he calls home through financial leadership positions at nonprofits based in Pittsburgh. As the current finance chief for one of the 10 largest botanical gardens in the United States, Mermelstein’s role consists of driving success for his team and organization, managing incredibly passionate employees, and dealing with the challenges of today’s work environments.
CFO, Pittsburgh Botanic Garden
- First CFO position: 2000
- Notable previous companies:
- Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
- M. Davis Group
- Ditto Document Solutions
- Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC)
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ADAM ZAKI: What was the biggest difference you noticed as a CFO during your transition from for-profit to nonprofit?
BOB MERMELSTEIN: I grew up on the for-profit side, so I understand what that’s all about. The biggest difference I’ve seen since is that while for-profit and nonprofit employees can be passionate about what they do, employees of nonprofits are emotional about what they do.
They live and breathe our mission, which can be good and bad. For people working in this sector, it’s not just a job or career. They work to achieve a lifelong dream of doing something good, and in our case, that’s cultivating a living, breathing museum that showcases the plants and trees of the Allegheny mountains and plateau.
You’ve been in nonprofit organizations since 2011. What has made you stick around?
MERMELSTEIN: Well, first of all, it’s because they’d have me. But when I took my previous role at Phipps Gardens here in Pittsburgh, I stayed for more than six years, and I took it as a real opportunity to learn about how nonprofit finance works. I began to understand our role in the communities we serve and the major differences between for-profit and nonprofit finance.
In Pittsburgh, we know a lot about bridges. I’ve learned to run things using the iron triangle method, the same shape used to design the hundreds of bridges across our city.
So, during that process, I met and became friends with the executive director of the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens, so the transition to this role just made sense. I like working with the board here and driving the organization forward positively. I’m beyond normal retirement age, whatever that means, so it’s not about money for me anymore. It’s about making a positive impact on the organization and my community.
As an organization that employs passionate people who can’t work from home, with back-office staff that theoretically can, how do you balance that and simultaneously instill some type of culture?
MERMELSTEIN: You’ve been talking to my accounting manager, haven’t you? Those are the conversations we are having all the time. We’re aware you can’t do horticulture from your living room; you can’t do visitor experience from the kitchen counter. But my accounting manager is home today, as am I. It’s such an interesting economy nowadays, where you have two groups of people who can and others who can’t. That brings up an element of fairness into the equation. Some would say, ‘you chose to do what you do, and I got to choose what I do, and what I do allows me to work from home.’
By nature, nonprofits are very flexible with their employees. If someone had an appointment it would be fine to work from home for the day, but we are not an organization that generally allows any of our employees to work from home. We understand we have to position our work environments [within] the labor market and make sure we aren’t missing out on talent because of in-office policies. We’re talking about implementing policies like remote days, but it’s become a battle between us Baby Boomers and everyone else.
How have you approached succession planning? Have you thought about this for your current role?
MERMELSTEIN: Certainly it's about having all systems and processes well documented. Ideally, when I leave this role, my accounting manager and other people who work directly or indirectly for me won’t [also] be retiring. Setting up your team with consistency is extremely important when planning for the future. But there’s a balance to that because having a young team around you when you’re ready to leave or retire isn’t an ideal situation, either.
My accounting manager has been with me for a couple of years, and he is just getting to the point where he is very comfortable with what he does. I’m in a situation where if I were to leave, that side of the business would be taken care of. That said, there is so much in the organization that the CFO does that no one else does that isn't well documented, and there’s no support for that. If I left today, the organization would have a huge hole. As executives, especially CFOs, planning your departure is a process, much more than just a two-week notice.
You’ve worked your whole career in Pittsburgh. You’ve now dedicated the latter half of your career toward making the community better. What’s the inspiration?
MERMELSTEIN: I was born and raised here. My parents were both midwesterners born not far from here. They settled in Pittsburgh after my father finished serving in Korea. My siblings and I all grew up here and went away to school for our undergraduate degrees. But, in classic Pittsburgh fashion, we all returned home for graduate school and never left again.
Pittsburgh was the front and center of steel and coal in the early 1900s. This is a blue-collar-built town. The origins of this place are people who came from steel mills and coal mines who worked hard to develop a community and a life for their families for generations. That has become ingrained in the fiber of this city. It’s evident in the way we show passion for our sports teams, especially the Steelers. I enjoy that about this town. When you travel to any event, any city around the country, you know when there’s a Pittsburgher in the room.