Susan LeBoutillier started LeBeau Gardens in 2013 to help attract new customers for her landscape business LeBeau Landscapes.
Photos courtesy of Susan LeBoutillier.
Rebirth, re-germination and restoration are common lingo in the turf and landscape maintenance industry, but it's typically reserved for plant material, lawns and perennial beds - not people.
Susan LeBoutillier, founder of Lebeau Landscapes in 2012, is bucking that notion, and quite a few others, as she continues to rebound into a field that her family helped make legendary in the Philadelphia region.
She's from some a famous landscaping-gardening family and her resurrection in the industry months after the financial collapse of her family's Waterloo Gardens is a testament to her drive to honor the industry that her grandfather and father helped shape, using prestigious Main Line Philadelphia estates as their clay.
Her grandparents, James and Anna Paolini, founded Waterloo in Devon, Pa., in 1942. They opened a location in Exton, Pa., in 1959. That site started as a growing-greenhouse space for Devon. In 1970, it became a second garden center. The company continued to grow and expand into surrounding markets until the 2008-2009 recession began taking its toll.
Sadly, in 2007, the family-run company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection because of economic pressures from its bank after the purchase of a building in Warminster, Pa., where the company had a garden center. The Warminster store closed in 2008 followed by the Wilmington store three years later. The Devon store closed its doors on July 15, 2012, to consolidate in Exton. Finally, the final Exton location was liquidated and sold to satisfy bank debt.
"It breaks my heart," LeBoutillier says. "It's like my heart has been pulled out. It's tragic that Waterloo does not exist. What happened was really frustrating because we all wanted it to continue to succeed."
Owners: Susan LeBoutillier and R. Alan Rice
Headquarters: Downingtown, Pa.
Markets: Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties, Pa
Services: Landscape design; construction and planting installation; property maintenance (excluding lawn maintenance); and seasonal installations
Employees: 12 full time, 2 part time during the growing season
She worked there for nearly three decades as an adult, and plenty of years before that while growing up, before leaving in the midst of the collapse. First, she started her own landscaping company, LeBeau Landscapes LLC, and then this past September added the Dowingtown, Pa., garden center, LeBeau Gardens.
The garden center expansion provides an additional and overt presence that can help attract new customers for the landscape business. On site, LeBoutillier can house samples, specimens and displays that demonstrate landscape design principles. When she opened LeBeau Gardens, LeBoutillier was just hoping to "survive" the year with help from standard Christmas services, including wreaths, trees, garlands and retail shop sales, then start doing much better business at the center and in the field this past spring.
However, her new sense of freedom, and the responsibility she feels for carrying on the family name, is most important to LeBoutillier. That and employing people again and donating to charities.
Wearing many hats
LeBoutillier has many roles in the new companies, including the important role as "dreamer." She says, "I try to figure out where we are and where we're going. Someday, I'll be able to pass off some of my jobs, but right now I feel lucky to have them and wouldn't change a thing."
In taking on Alan Rice as a partner this past year, she's added masonry construction to the company's services. "He's taking our company to another level," she says. "We worked together years ago at Waterloo."
Perhaps she was priming herself for a departure from Waterloo and starting on her own when she studied landscape architecture at Temple University, then graduated from Cabrini College with a business degree (2007) and from Temple with an MBA (2009), initially figuring it would help the family company. Now, she says the MBA has given her confidence to start her own company and expand it with a garden center. "I was never not a risk-taker, but now my risks are educated risks," she says.
LeBeau's entire staff worked at Waterloo at one time or another. LeBoutillier says they are "the best of the best."
She wrote a business plan for her final MBA project, and later adapted it for the garden center. She says it's most important to know who your customer is, to develop a brand and put it all down on paper, but also to be confident enough to work one day at a time, and to be open to good fortune and for allowing passion for the industry to help ease the rite of passage.
"Alan and I agree that the biggest lesson for us in our professional and personal lives is to treat everyone with respect and dignity," LeBoutillier says. "Whether it is a client with a small or large job, an employee or a vendor, we believe that everyone should be treated fairly."
She's already been able to apply lessons - good and bad - learned at Waterloo to her own operations. Planning is essential, she says, and to never underestimate the need for a budget or a strong brand or the need to reach out to customers.
"You need a strategy," LeBoutillier says. "And that strategy can't keep changing all the time. You have to be consistent, trust your employees and build a strong team."
One worry she does have is whether or not she can remain healthy enough to keep what she's started - restarted - going. "I'm not afraid of working the hours," she says.
LeBeau Gardens features "the best of the best" designers from the now defunct Waterloo Gardens.
The current garden center location along Route 113 in Chester County is prime. The traffic never stops. The center is 3 miles from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which fits with LeBoutillier's hope that it can be a destination. Her former customers from main line locations like Villanova, Devon and Wayne are driving a little further "because, yes, it's mine."
Business - expenses and income - will be split equally between the landscape design work and the garden center. She says thus far their budgets have been similar, but the uptick in landscape work ought to grow organically. "The more garden center customers, the more landscaping they'll need," she says.
But there's still "bread-and-butter" accounts, like the 40 clients whose houses LeBoutillier still decorates for Christmas, and those who do annual plantings and garden and landscape maintenance. "They are the foundation of our existence," she says.
And in a tough Philly market, foundation is important. She says her strength remains in landscaping, in good listening skills, developing innovation solutions at fair prices. Her long-term relationships with so many past and continuing clients is also an obvious plus.
"I've done a lot of work for a lot of people for many years," she says. "After 25 years in the industry, both Alan and I have proven to our clients that we provide value, quality and dependable services. That's also how we feel we differentiate ourselves. We are committed to providing our expert advice and services at a reasonable price, whether it be building a wall, fireplace, or maintaining a property."
The best of the best
LeBeau's entire staff, at one time or another, worked at Waterloo. "They're the best of the best," LeBoutillier says. "They have a passion for plants and their jobs."
They're folks like Linda Price-Bacci, who also came along from Waterloo's landscape design division. "People work here because they want to be here," she says. "Every day I drive into the drive, everything is so colorful, the grounds, everything. It feels like home, so I don't have any problem working 10 hours a day. You're just so happy that you're here and it makes you feel so good. We even know what each other is thinking. Susan will go to ask me to do something, and I say, 'I just did it.'"
"We're on the same page, especially with branding," LeBoutillier adds. "We're united now. At Waterloo, the brand always kept changing. Now we can have the brand we want."
"This community has been incredibly supportive," she says. "It's so sad at the loss of Waterloo, so they're just happy another garden center is around. I don't feel too much pressure. I feel like it's going to work."
J.F. Pirro lives and works in Quakertown, Pa., and is a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact him at email@example.com.