What sealed the closure of the iconic Waterloo Gardens? To celebrate our 25th anniversary, we’re bringing back this popular story from 2014.
Nature once filled Susan LeBoutillier’s days. She could wander into any number if greenhouses in spring and summer and take in all the beauty, making bouquets as she pleased. “I like dirt, flowers, the smells,” LeBoutillier says. “It brings me right back.”
It was a happy childhood, not unlike Lucy LeBoutillier’s, her sister-in-law. Lucy worked summers on a Connecticut flower farm. Her family decorated nine Christmas trees in their home. “It’s a bug in you,” Lucy agrees. “I just love being in nature. It centers me for everything I do.”
For both, the family business was Waterloo Gardens, a Main Line mainstay that employed hundreds over seven decades, until the company’s deflowering. Its last Exton location was closed in the summer 2013, and the Devon store that was so beloved was shut down the year before. Five years prior to the closing of the Exton store, financial problems had already begun to mount. The upstart Warminster branch was a $10 million failure. It’s now rightfully regarded as “the big mistake.”
That same year, Waterloo opened another garden center in Wilmington, Del. Its fate wasn’t much different, as the recession and the collapse of suburban home building cut demand for landscaping services, flowers, ornamental trees, fountains and patio furniture. In 2008, the Warminster store was closed. Wilmington followed suit in 2011. Zelinda (Linda) LeBoutillier also died that year. She owned and operated the company with her husband, Bo, who’d passed away a decade earlier. Their only son, Roberts (Bobby) LeBoutillier, became Waterloo Gardens’ CEO and president. He would be the company’s last.
Waterloo quickly went to pot—and not the clay variety Bobby’s sister, Susan, spins as a stress release once a week at the Wayne Art Center. One of those therapeutic pots now holds M&M’s. It is found upstairs at LeBeau Gardens, Downingtown, on a long farm table. Susan, now 54, has moved on. The new business is named after her father—though it’s a different spelling.
One of Bobby’s four sisters, Susan was once president of Waterloo’s landscaping division, before she struck out on her own in 2012. Her salvos are her new ventures, since Waterloo has withered. She unwinds with her potting and her putting—nine holes a week at Downingtown Country Club.
Bobby, 59, and his wife, Lucy, were still wrapping up Waterloo’s financial loose ends before the holidays. They have a mortgage on an Exton farmhouse and need to find work. “There was a vacuum hooked up to the safe that went to the bank,” Bobby agrees.
Waterloo’s purpose was to attract families. The lights flickered on at the Devon and Exton locations on Black Friday. And so began the holiday season. Bobby was Santa at times. “There were so many traditions. In 10 years, probably no one will remember them,” Susan, his sister, laments. “But, right now, I’ve heard of people going through Waterloo withdraw.”
The LeBoutilliers had their Christmas traditions. Susan recalls her family picking out and cutting a tree from the fields and then bringing it to their home. After purchasing the property in 1959, her parents built the house on the 50-acre Exton land. “Every year, we had a theme,” Susan recollects. “We’d all go into the store and pick ornaments, but we never took the price tags off. The day after Christmas, we’d take them back to the store. Dad loved Christmas.”
Susan often dreams about her father, who lost a battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2001. She wonders what he’d say now, though none of it would offer any consolation. “He’d still be proud, but also intensely disappointed that what he built is gone,” She says. “If there’s anything I could’ve done to change it—anything—I certainly would have. It still bothers me that maybe I could’ve done something. But I don’t know what that something could’ve been.”
Only Bobby and Susan, out of all the LeBoutillier kids, stayed with Waterloo in its final years. Rene, who moved to Missouri 20-years ago, left Waterloo. Elise, who is the youngest, resides in Collegeville. After Bo’s death, she moved to Freeland Market at the Pottstown Farmers Market. Linda Anne, a first-born, resides in Downingtown. She is currently working on a book about Waterloo’s past.
Before Bo died, Bobby and Susan were each named president of their respective division—he the garden centers, and she the landscape company. Their mother started to give more authority to Bobby just two years before she died. He was supposed to supervise Susan. “It was oversight she didn’t appreciate,” Bobby admits. “Previously, she was on her own. Dad paid little attention to [the landscaping division]. Mom didn’t pay attention to it.”
Bobby admitted that Linda’s will left Bobby as the general partner. He now has majority control, though only outside executors were allowed to act in this capacity. Financially, each daughter was given a different percentage of the estate—less for Linda Anne and Elise, who’d already taken company buyouts.
Susan completed the holiday season in 2011. Bobby ordered a seasonal layoff in January. Susan could’ve returned in March, when better weather brought business, but she ventured out on her own instead, refusing to play a victim’s role. “I was a thorn in his side,” She is open to admitting it. “I was difficult, but my life was turned upside down. I created a lot of profit for the company over the years.”
But the resentment was deeper. Susan’s grandfather, James Paolini, founded Waterloo Gardens with his wife, Anna, in 1942 on two acres in Devon. He always said Bobby would inherit the company. “He rubbed that in the girls’ faces,” Bobby is still with us. “They hated me for him saying that.”
Susan often tried to talk to her mother about the business, but Linda wouldn’t reciprocate. “I stopped trying,” She says. “It was always meant to be his. Sure, the economy went bad. But when it does, you have to be better and develop a strategy that works. Waterloo could’ve survived.”
Susan brought Waterloo clients to LeBeau when she founded it. An hour before Linda died, the estate lawyer made it clear—verbally, with Bobby present—that Linda wanted Susan to have that customer list, some vehicles and equipment, and any employees, so she could get started on her own. Bobby would purchase the retail stores and properties in that agreement. But it was never in writing, and the bank wasn’t giving anything away.
Bobby grew up in Waterloo’s fields, weeding and watering from the age of 6, learning how plants grow and how to keep operations safe and efficient. He built machines for specific jobs. He met Lucy in Waterloo. She’d interviewed with Linda out of college, after her family moved to a Berwyn farm. Lucy spent her time in the gift, flower and Christmas departments, and she didn’t initially get along with her future husband. “I was into the magic of it, not operations,” She says.
The LeBoutilliers weren’t really getting along, either. Each member of the family moved to a different beat. The family was able to survive even when they were away from Waterloo. Linda even took them all on a trip to Italy after Bo’s death. Bobby claims that his parents never acknowledged any problems growing up, thinking it would make them disappear. That only made things worse.
James Paolini’s first sign read, “Waterloo Gardens, Grower of Rare Plants.” He’d learned the industry in Italy, north of Rome, traveling by wagon with a blind man who sold nursery stock. He took the money and made sure that the right people received the right plants. Paolini opened the Exton location after establishing the company in Devon. Linda and Bo bought it from her parents in 1972.
Linda was an only child, so there was no question about who’d control Waterloo then. Bo was partial to his girls. Bobby was a worker bee. Linda balanced the checks, elevating her son. “It was easy to love Mom,” Bobby agrees.
Bobby believes his mother tried to control her daughters. Susan believes it could have been the reverse. At 50, she completed her executive MBA in 2009 at Temple University, figuring it would help—maybe even save—Waterloo. She did it despite being told by her mother not to. “She forbid me,” Susan recalls. “I guess it was just her position that women were not to be educated, that women weren’t to be important. My education was threatening to some, and I was left completely out of any decision making.”
There’s little doubt that Susan was closer to her father, a French-English Quaker from Wayne who was part of an entrepreneurial family that owned dry-goods businesses in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and New York. He was “one tough cookie,” she says. “But I’d work for Dad again.”
Bobby’s job was quite different. They had different ideas about how to run Waterloo Gardens. Bobby claims that Susan wouldn’t extend Waterloo’s 1 percent preferred retail customer discount to landscaping clients; he argued for consistency. Susan claims the 1 percent is a sales incentive to increase data that the landscaping side already has. Bobby is convinced it would’ve helped with client retention.
Waterloo Gardens was able to grow to a $34 million-per-year business that employed 400 people. It was producing patio furniture worth $6 million. It became difficult to forget the past. Eight landscaping crews dwindled to three. There were 70 workers at the end. “I got tired of making the speech,” Bobby admits.
A turning point came in September 2008, when the gift shop outsold the nursery. “All of a sudden, it wasn’t what we wanted but what the buyers wanted,” Lucy says.
As the economy became more difficult, jewelry and linen sales increased while landscaping declined. “That was a radical change,” Lucy.
Long-standing customers came in to buy a gift-shop voucher, and that was it. “We never thought the Main Line would stop buying,” Lucy says. “These were people who at one time didn’t even look at price tags.”
Waterloo would be able to sell 75 percent more, but buyers would still want a lower price. “It became a question of what to sell and who to be,” Lucy agrees.
There was also a shift in the landscaping industry from a DIY-oriented to a contractor-driven one. “Now, it’s do-it-for-me,” Bobby says.
It is clear that the Warminster expansion was not a good time. Waterloo purchased the building as a shell of an old Pathmark and renovated it to open its doors on Nov. 1. 2007. It was closed Dec. 31, 2008. “We were already having trouble in Devon and Exton, so we were banking on new clientele,” Bobby speaks of a move that was supposed fix everything. “Once September 2008 hit, Warminster began drying up, and Devon was suffering even more. We were already bleeding from a thousand wounds.”
Bobby switched to high gear in order to cut costs. The Warminster location, which was a giant at 56,000 square feet on a nine-acre property, was difficult to sell. It had a drastically decreased value. The land lay vacant for two more years before LeBoutilliers converted it to 263 Marketplace, a flea and food-vendor location. But the bank wasn’t satisfied, forcing its closure so the property could be sold.
The debt increased. Waterloo began losing vendors and couldn’t get product. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 2012. Linda’s death only fueled the bank’s impatience. She had guaranteed the Warminster Loan. The site was not attracting $3 million in offers when she left.
Waterloo didn’t even build greenhouses at Warminster. The company closed Devon to stock the Exton site. “We were always way overstocked—but that’s how we grew up,” Bobby. “We always just built more shelves. Then customers wondered why stuff wasn’t falling off the shelves anymore.”
By the end, Bobby says, Waterloo had turned the corner and become profitable again, but it couldn’t cover the debt or pacify the bank. Fortunately, Linda didn’t live to see the bankruptcy. It was enough to fight cancer. “We knew why God took Linda,” Lucy says. “She could never have witnessed it.”
Bruce Toll, a Horsham real estate company, bought the Exton site for $4.6million. BET Investments, a Horsham commercial real estate company owned by Bruce Toll, stated that it wants to develop the property for a variety of uses. However, nothing is finalized. In Devon, Urban Outfitters has leased 6.5 acres of the former Waterloo site from the property’s current owners, developer Eli Kahn and partner Wade McDevitt, president of the Devon Horse Show and CEO of a retail real estate company. If approved, Urban Outfitters’ $100-million Devon Yard complex will include a Terrain garden center, an Anthropologie, a boutique hotel and two restaurants, plus other shops and amenities—finally giving Devon what some see as a “downtown to call its own.”
These days, Susan is enjoying her freedom. It’s what drives her—that, and the responsibility she feels for restoring the family name. “I’m driven, like my father, to create something,” She says. “If I was younger, I’d start three garden centers.”
Her new business on Route 113 is ideally located. LeBeau, just three miles from the Pennsylvania Turnpike could be a destination. Loyal customers from Villanova, Devon and Wayne are driving a little further “because, yes, it’s mine,” she says. “I don’t feel too much pressure. I feel like it’s going to work.”
Susan left Waterloo, in 2012, and took out a credit card to help pay off her home equity. Later, she learned about a vacant property and signed a lease. It created an opportunity to purchase equipment that she couldn’t pass up. Five weeks later, she opened, just four miles south of Waterloo’s Exton location. All of her staff worked once at Waterloo. “I really like Susan,” Lucy agrees. “We want her to succeed. Maybe [we] could become a family again, now that we’re not in the same business.”
They only found out about LeBeau when its operations manager, Michael Stuart, was sent to buy fixtures and equipment during Waterloo’s bank-ordered liquidation. “We asked Susan if she wanted Waterloo’s phone number to ring to hers,” Bobby agrees. “It took days to even get an answer, then the number went dead.”
Bobby asked Stuart if Susan had a job. It was a joke, naturally. Bobby’s sense of humor is one of his best traits, says Lucy—and it may have saved him. “I’ve offered olive branches,” Bobby says it all. “We were once friends at work, and we could certainly go back to that when Susan wants to bury the hatchet.”
Bobby began visiting St. Agnes Cemetery, West Chester, to water the flowers in his father’s burial plot after his father died. It wasn’t too long before he found himself watering needy flowers at other grave sites. He’d spend three hours exhausting himself, then came an epiphany. “I couldn’t save them all,” Bobby agrees.
He began slowly to let go of his past, subconsciously. He and Lucy now ride motorcycles, and they’re promoting wellness supplements. “We want to continue to take care of people,” Bobby says.
And he’s appalled by the work of local contractors. “Proper landscaping increases a property’s value, but I can drive around for four hours and not find one properly designed and installed property—commercial or residential,” He said.
“It sounds like a great opportunity for Susan and you to build a relationship,” Lucy suggests. “Maybe it’s time to heal.”
Right now, the two don’t speak. They do share a sense for renewal. In the final days, a rainbow appeared above the Waterloo Gardens sign. Lucy took a photo of it. “It led me to believe there would be a future for everyone here,” She says. “Waterloo is in us all.”
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