Like other long-standing businesses in the horticulture industry, Chalet Landscape, Nursery and Garden Center had modest beginnings. Lawrence J. (L.J.) Thalmann Sr. founded the Illinois-based company, originally called L.J. Thalmann’s Architectural Landscaping, in 1917 out of his home.
“He enjoyed life, and his life was landscaping,” says Larry Thalmann Jr., L.J.’s son, who is retired now but once led the company his father started. After L.J. graduated from high school, he rode his bike to his landscape clients, pulling a red wagon full of gardening tools. He maintained his landscaping business while attending Northwestern University’s American Landscape School at night.
“He started the business with a wheelbarrow, a shovel and a dream,” says Larry Thalmann III (though he prefers to go by Larry), L.J.’s grandson and the current president of the company.
Anniversaries have a way of making one reflect on the past, and this year marks a century for Chalet. Much has changed over the past 100 years, including the market, customers, and the company, which is No. 11 on Garden Center magazine’s 2016 Top 100 list. Certain traditions have survived the decades, however, including Chalet’s commitment to its customers.
For years, L.J. operated his business out of his home, until the 1940s, when construction on the Edens Expressway began. An old chalet that housed a restaurant was right in the future highway’s path, and it was condemned and put up for auction. Whoever bought the building would have to move it.
“Being of German heritage, he had an appreciation for the architecture. He thought it would be a shame to tear it down for the construction of the highway,” says Diane Thalmann-Stanton, L.J.’s daughter and Larry Jr.’s sister, who ran the company with her brother and is now retired. “He wanted to preserve the beauty of the building and thought it would make a great home for himself. He also loved a challenge, and moving a building posed a challenge.”
With a $751 bid, he won the chalet, and he moved the building in 1948 in three pieces to Wilmette, Ill., on land he had bought six years earlier. The chalet became both the headquarters of the company and a home for L.J. and his wife, Elaine, and Diane and Larry, who were teenagers at the time.
Because of zoning restrictions, L.J. could not promote the business with signage. In advertisements, they included a sketch of the chalet so potential clients could find them easily. Eventually, customers started referring to the business as “Chalet,” so the Thalmanns decided to make it official and change the name.
“[My parents] were customer-oriented, and we are a company that goes by the customer. They make our business,” Diane says. 100 years later, that tradition continues today.
Changing with the times
Chalet makes it very clear, right on the company’s website, that honoring your history does not mean remaining stagnant.
“We will be aggressive in determining our future direction,” the website reads. “We will celebrate, but not be held prisoner to the past. We will be aware that no matter how distinguished our history and reputation have been, the past cannot be the future.”
Chalet was solely a landscape design, build and service company until the 1950s, when L.J. and Elaine added a 9,500-square-foot garden center. The founders embraced the retail side of the business and enjoyed interacting with customers.
“We were open seven days a week, and people would come in on Sunday, and my dad would say, ‘Where are you going? You’re all dressed up there and you look so nice,’” Diane says. “He knew how to charm the women. He always made everybody feel very welcome. He had a wonderful personality.”
Like many garden centers, Chalet has tried to diversify the business to combat seasonality, even going so far as to offer mopeds and sailboats. Sailing was one of Larry Jr.’s passions, so he brought that new segment to the business during his tenure.
They first sold small sailboats that could fit on the roof of cars, Diane says.
“People would come in for a bag of fertilizer and go home with a boat on top of their car,” Diane says. “It made sense because of Chalet’s proximity to the lake. In those earlier years, it was a nice complement to our business, as the busiest time was in the hot summer months when the spring frenzy of the garden center business died down.”
As interest in this new department grew, so did the size of the boats they were offering. Forty-foot boats would be parked in front of the store, and because they all looked similar, and Chalet always replaced them, Diane says this gave the impression they weren’t selling any at all. The department was also labor-intensive.
“This involved a very large commitment of time and energy to prepare the boats for delivery and launching in the harbor. Customers would typically spend the winter shopping for their new boat, but they would want to take delivery in the spring when the harbors opened for the season,” she says.
And that meant additional chaos during the spring season.
“It was a constant quest to find something that was a non-seasonal business to supplement the seasonal business that we were in,” Larry III says.
Though some products and categories came and went for Chalet, the Pet Essentials department that Diane brought to the company remains one of the most successful categories. Diane recalls when she went to Chicago to learn about operating a pet division and and how she and her mother would go to pet shows on the East Coast. They had an eye for products, of course, but there were other reasons they became a go-to pet source for customers.
“We started a pet show where we actually built runways, and our customers’ pets would model our dog clothing,” says Diane, who also grew up with dogs, mostly black Schnauzers and German Shepherds. “We carried everything from bridal gowns to false eyelashes for dogs.”
Diane and Larry Jr.’s legacy goes beyond diversification. They were also instrumental in the vast growth of the landscaping business, which is now housed in a 28,000-square-foot facility in North Chicago, and includes over 160 green fleet vehicles, plants and supplies.
This expansion, which Larry III continued, meant that the company needed more plant material. It was becoming difficult to rely solely on suppliers for plants, and customers wanted a more established product than what is traditionally offered, Larry III says.
“Because of the area we are in, which is very mature and established, our customers look for larger, more mature and unique plant material. And it became obvious to us when we couldn’t find it elsewhere that we needed to grow our own,” Larry III says. “In 2004, we purchased a farm in Salem, Wisc.. 45 minutes from us here, and we launched Thalmann Farms.”
They grow about 25 percent of their plants at the boutique nursery, which allows them to grow specific items they need efficiently.
A new generation
Though Chalet is 100 years old, Larry III says many of the most drastic business changes have occurred within the past decade, since the 2008 recession.
“Through the early 2000s until the recession, the garden center business was just outstanding,” Larry says. “Not just ourselves — I know the entire industry was just booming, and we’ve come out of the recession to a completely different world. We’re in a different generation of customer now. What’s important to us today is to make sure we stay relevant to our customer.”
Before the recession, every year on May 1, Chalet launched several hundred varieties of roses. They previewed the event with a rose catalogue so customers could make their decisions ahead of time.
“They would show up early on the day we put the roses out. They’d sit outside, waiting for the gates to open,” Larry III says. “We jokingly called it the ‘Run for the Roses.’ They’d knock each other over to get their selection of roses as they were put out, and that doesn’t happen anymore. We don’t have true gardeners anymore.”
Remaining relevant means finding out what will make customers respond and “run” like they did for roses. They may not line up every May 1, but customers do rush to the store at the end of the week now, ever since Chalet launched its “Farm Truck Friday.”
“We load up the truck from the farm with farm-fresh plants they are not going to see elsewhere,” Larry III says. “We publish it every week to get people excited about it, and we do it on a Friday so it doesn’t compete with our weekend business. We have people show up 30 minutes to an hour ahead of time, and we typically sell out within an hour.”
For customers who prefer shopping online, Chalet is catering to them, as well, but not trying to compete with Amazon. Larry’s son Lawson, who studied economics in college and worked in financial services and technology before joining Chalet this January, is leading the charge to build a local e-commerce store.
“We have the serviceable area on the North Shore of Chicago, so we have 10 or 11 towns that we list on our website, and we say we will hand deliver to those locations. And what that looks like right now is literally me grabbing the product off the shelf and running it out to the customers’ houses, right on their doorstep. And it’s fantastic,” Lawson says. “I’m excited for the growth there just because the reception so far with customers is incredible. We launched May 4, just in time for Mother’s Day. We are dipping our toes into actually selling plants online.”
Lawson says that during one of the 25 deliveries he made on Mother’s Day, he met a woman whose daughter lives on the East Coast. The daughter knew her mom loved Chalet, so she ordered a custom arrangement for her.
“She actually welcomed me in and offered me some freshly baked banana bread,” Lawson says. “For me to get out there, just starting off in the business, it’s great to learn who our customer is on their own time, in their own setting.”
Lawson, who is 27 and considered a Millennial, is focused on the technology side of Chalet, and is also working to make the landscape billing process more efficient. He also has a grasp on a generation that garden centers have been trying to figure out for years.
“People my age want to consume experiences and not material things. Most of us are limited financially, so we need to be creative with what we buy,” Lawson says. “People want what they can post on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat to boost their status. The people that have ‘high status’ (a lot of followers) are those who go on awesome trips around the world, eat at cool restaurants (not necessarily expensive), cook themselves creative and healthy meals. The garden center industry needs to frame plants as a way of life, an experience, not a material good.”
The Chalet calling
Maintaining a company that is a century old often requires family dedication and leadership to keep the business going, and for each generation, their reasons for joining Chalet vary.
For Larry Jr. and Diane, it was never a question if they would join the family business. Work and home were one in the same. Elaine did most of the buying, and the kids developed their own roles and specialties, as well.
“It was very exciting to work for my father. He was a very industrious man,” Larry Jr. says. “I always wanted to be in the family business. That’s where my life was.” Back then, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles all pitched in, even if they weren’t officially working for the company. It was a similar experience for Diane, who was also motivated by the opportunity to build the Pet Essentials segment of the business from scratch.
Lawson did everything from cashiering to landscaping to watering plants when he was in high school, as did his younger siblings, Carleigh, 25, and Jack, 22, who have all expressed interest in working for Chalet. As his parents required, however, he pursued his own interests outside of the company for a few years, but felt the pull to be a part of Chalet.
“The story of our family over the past 100 years, growing this business, brings me a lot of pride and joy, and it’s hard to imagine not being a part of its future growth,” Lawson says. “The quality of life when working for Chalet is amazing. I’ve worked in desk jobs where you’re staring at a computer all day, and every day is similar. The people at Chalet love what they do and it makes spending your days there much more pleasant.”
Larry had a very different experience from his dad, aunt and son. After his parents divorced, he grew up on the East Coast with his mother. Business matters weren’t discussed at the dinner table, and horticulture was not a passion of his. He pursued dentistry at first.
“I had an undergrad degree in chemistry, and when I decided I didn’t want to be a dentist, I worked briefly in the pharmaceutical industry,” Larry says. “My father encouraged me to come back in 1984. The calling of the family business was always there, though, and is a very strong siren. It’s just too strong to ignore. That is enough to get you here. What keeps you here is developing a passion for what you do. And I’ll tell you what, I don’t think anybody reading your article is going to disagree that our industry is a beautiful industry to be in.”
He had the advantage of joining the business with a fresh perspective.
“What I learned very quickly was that I couldn’t rely on myself to do things,” Larry says. “I did not grow up in the business, it was not in my capability to carry on the things the way my father or my grandfather did. It was more important to me to grow the business and develop the organization, and that meant developing people.”
Chalet has a tradition of long-time staff, and it’s not unusual for someone to work for the company for 20, 30 or even 40 years. During his first eight years with the company, Larry III’s focus was learning the business. When he became president in 1992, he shifted his priorities to growing the company and embracing and implementing the concept of organizational development.
“That was instrumental in our growth during that time. Hiring good people, developing a good team and empowering them, and that’s where we are today,” Larry III says. “I don’t take credit for a lot of what we do here. I take credit for being smart and hiring really good people who are better than I am at the things that they do. That’s the kind of environment where people can grow, develop and thrive. They are challenged, and job satisfaction is high, which nurtures and develops long-term employees.”
Recognizable and expert employees often lead to good customer service as well.
“We have a customer experience manager whose job is to make sure the customer experience is top notch,” Larry III says. “It’s a big part of our culture. We are in a very affluent community that is very demanding of customer service, so we have to respond to that.”
When asked what it means that her family is continuing the business, Diane talks about Larry’s leadership and what he’s brought to Chalet.
“I’m absolutely delighted that Larry’s entire family has an interest in it,” Diane says. “My nephew has got such organization. My parents did not have that organization, nor did Larry [Jr.] and I. We had managers but not to the extent that Larry has developed it. I’m so pleased with the business. I wish my parents could see what my nephew has done.”
The next century
Back in 2007, Chalet, with the help of Larry’s wife, Amy, who has an interior architecture background, had big plans for modernizing the outdated retail store and property. Then the recession hit, and they were forced to adjust. Amy, who Larry III refers to as the “director of taste,” made it work by installing LED lighting around the store that was efficient yet soft, similar to what you’d have in your home. Plus, she made the store easier to navigate.
“I redesigned the old layout of the store to give it an easier flow for customers. We took our centralized information counter and dispersed it into smaller counters throughout the store, with better access to the computers, so we would have more immediate answers to our customers,” Amy says. “We changed the flow outdoors as well and added cashiers, a separate exit and entrance and made a better flow for the customers to get in and get out with their nursery plants.”
A few years after the recession, Larry III developed a future plan with the help of family and staff, called Vision 2020, with ideas he wants to implement by the year 2020. That date is fast approaching, and many of the goals revolve around services the family wants to offer to customers.
“We’ve been working with an architect, and we’ve created a dream plan that addresses our top goals of our facility,” Amy says. “We’d love to have a café here. We’d love to have dog grooming. If you’re coming to buy your pet supplies, you can shop while your dog is getting groomed. We’d like to add a yoga studio … those types of services that are inviting and create a destination.”
Like every construction plan, there are hurdles they will have to jump, including a code requirement that calls for more parking and new storm water management. But just like L.J. and Elaine worked around zoning restrictions that prevented signage, this new generation is hopeful it will find solutions.
Though they’d like to add services, the future of the company primarily lies in the green side of the business.
“My focus of the business was to get back to our roots,” Larry says. “When you really sat down to look at where we were making our money, our bread and butter was in the roots of our business, which was our garden center business.”
Part of that means expanding options for customers, whether they prefer DIY projects or want more hand-holding, and making shopping more convenient.
“One of the big focuses of our restructure here would be to put a bigger design presence and a bigger landscape presence at our facility in Wilmette,” Larry says. “They happen to be in two different places now … to marry those two operations and have a bigger landscape presence here, so we’re able to service the customer from here and eliminate all of those gaps.”
For now, they are celebrating their century in business. While the Thalmanns are not stuck in the past, they respect their history. They share historic photos and then-and-now moments on social media, and have created an 100-year logo that’s on company apparel and online. Larry III also commissioned work for a new truck that resembled one used in the early days of the company. They’re enjoying this moment.
Customers have congratulated them on this milestone, sharing their own memories of working for or shopping at Chalet. At the same time, Larry III and everyone involved at the company are looking ahead.
“I created a vision back in 2012, and it just paints the picture of what I saw the organization looking like in 2020,” Larry says. “It’s something I shared with my staff, and got buy in, and rounded it out a little bit. Will we be identical to that? Maybe not, but it paints a pretty good picture of what we’re shooting for and who we aspire to be.”