What Sealed the Demise of Waterloo Gardens?

“It was a family-run business, but there was no time for family.”



Nature once filled Susan LeBoutillier’s days. Every spring and summer, she could walk into any number of greenhouses and revel in the beauty, bundling it into bouquets at will. “I like dirt, flowers, the smells,” says LeBoutillier. “It brings me right back.”

It was an idyllic childhood not unlike that of her eventual sister-in-law, Lucy LeBoutillier, who worked summers at a Connecticut flower farm. Her family decorated nine Christmas trees at home. “It’s a bug in you,” says Lucy. “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 recent deflowering. Its last location in Exton closed last summer, and the much-loved  Devon store was shuttered in July 2012. Financial problems had begun to mount five years earlier, when an upstart Warminster branch became a fast-and-furious $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. The Warminster store closed in 2008. Wilmington followed in 2011. Zelinda (Linda)  LeBoutillier died that same 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 its last.

Waterloo quickly went to pot—and not the clay variety his sister, Susan, spins as a release once a week at the Wayne Art Center. One of those therapeutic pots now holds M&M’s. It sits on a long farm table upstairs at LeBeau Gardens in Downingtown. Now 54, Susan 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. Since Waterloo withered, her salvos are her new ventures. 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 a farmhouse in Exton, and they need jobs. “There was a vacuum hooked up to the safe that went to the bank,” says Bobby. 

Somehow, he escaped a $15.8 million hole. “We left with nothing, but we didn’t leave with debt.”

Waterloo Gardens’ sad saga has left beds of resentment, but also hope for a resurrection—or at least a restoration of a family that was gradually ripped apart. Now, the first spring without Waterloo is upon us, and a family that seemingly had it all is left rebuilding lives and reestablishing its roots. But quality perennials do bloom again.

“The business robbed them of every-thing,” concludes Lucy, a mediator of sorts, though she spent 36 years at Waterloo. “It was a family-run business, but there was no time for family.”
 

From Left to Right: Bobby and Lucy LeBoutillier at home in Exton; Susan LeBoutillier in her Downingtown shop

 

 

Shrubbery, pottery, statuary … Remnants of Waterloo Gardens are everywhere. Some customers had chauffeurs, and you could never judge buying power by one’s dress.

Waterloo’s purpose was to attract families. On Black Friday, the lights on the shrubs and trees in the Devon and Exton locations flickered on, and the holidays began. Bobby LeBoutillier was Santa at times. “There were so many traditions. In 10 years, probably no one will remember them,” laments his sister, Susan. “But, right now, I’ve heard of people going through Waterloo withdraw.”

The LeBoutilliers had their own Christmas traditions. Susan remembers the family in the growing fields, choosing and cutting a tree, then bringing it to the house. Her parents built the home on the 50-acre Exton property after they acquired it in 1959. “Every year, we had a theme,” Susan recalls. “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.”

Of all the LeBoutillier children, only Bobby and Susan stayed with Waterloo during its final years. Rene left Waterloo 20 years ago and now resides in Missouri. Elise, the youngest, lives in Collegeville. She departed after Bo died, and now runs Freeland Market in the Pottstown Farmers Market. Firstborn Linda Anne lives in Downingtown and is writing a book about the history of Waterloo.

Before Bo died, Bobby and Susan were named presidents of their respective divisions—he the garden centers, and she the landscape company. Two years before her death, however, their mother began shifting more authority to Bobby, who was told to oversee 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.”

After Linda died late in 2011, her will made Bobby the general partner, giving him majority control (though only outside executors and the bank ever played that role). Financially, each daughter was given a different percentage of the estate—less for Linda Anne and Elise, who’d already taken company buyouts.

Susan finished out the holiday season in 2011. Then, in January, Bobby ordered a seasonal layoff. 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 admits. “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 ran 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 get the company. “He rubbed that in the girls’ faces,” remembers Bobby. “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.”

When Susan started LeBeau, she took Waterloo clients with her. 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. In that arrangement, Bobby would acquire the retail stores and the properties. 

But it was never in writing, and by then, the bank “ruled,” Bobby says. 

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 made machines for specific jobs. He met Lucy at 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. 

Then again, the LeBoutilliers weren’t really getting along, either. Every member of the family moved to the beat of a different drummer. Away from Waterloo, the family seemed viable. Linda even took them all to Italy after Bo died.

Growing up, Bobby says, his parents would never acknowledge any problems, figuring it would make them disappear. Of course, that only made things worse.

From Left to Right: Waterloo Gardens in 1952; the Exton property

 

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 collected the money and made sure the right customers received the right plants.

While Paolini started the company in Devon and later opened the Exton location, Linda and Bo grew it, purchasing it from her parents in 1972. Linda was an only child, so there was no question about who would control Waterloo then.

Bo was partial to his daughters. Bobby was largely a worker bee. Linda balanced the scales, elevating her son. “It was easy to love Mom,” says Bobby.

Bobby contends his mother felt that her daughters were trying to control her. Susan believes it may have been the other way around. At 50, she completed her executive MBA in 2009 at Temple University, figuring it would help—maybe even save—Waterloo. But she disobeyed her mother to do it. “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 would work for Dad again.”

Working for Bobby, however, was different. They had conflicting ideas about how to best run Waterloo Gardens. Bobby claims that Susan wouldn’t extend Waterloo’s 1 percent preferred retail customer’s discount to landscaping clients; he argued for consistency. Susan says the 1 percent is merely a sales incentive that leads to data the landscaping side already had. Bobby is convinced it would have helped with client retention.

Regardless, Waterloo Gardens grew into a $34 million-a-year company that employed 400. At one point, it was doing $6 million in patio furniture alone. Eventually, though, it became a struggle not to live in the past. Eight landscaping crews shrunk to three. In the end, there were just 70 employees. “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 recounts. 

As the economy constricted, jewelry and linen sales increased, while landscaping decreased. “That was a radical change,” says Lucy. 

Longtime customers were coming in, buying a gift-shop card, and that was it. “We never thought the Main Line would stop buying,” Lucy admits. “These were people who at one time didn’t even look at price tags.”

In the end, Waterloo would have 75-percent-off sales, and buyers would still want a better price. “It became a question of what to sell and who to be,” says Lucy.

Meanwhile, there was a shift in the do-it-yourself landscaping ideology to a more contractor-driven industry. “Now, it’s do-it-for-me,” says Bobby.

No doubt, the Warminster expansion was ill timed. Purchased on Aug. 1, 2007, as a shell of a former Pathmark, Waterloo renovated and opened Nov. 1, 2007. It was closed by Dec. 31, 2008. 

“We were already having trouble in Devon and Exton, so we were banking on new clientele,” Bobby says of a move that was supposed to fix everything. “Once September 2008 hit, Warminster began drying up, and Devon was suffering even more. We were already bleeding from a thousand wounds.”

To cut costs, Bobby shifted into high gear. He struggled to sell the Warminster location, a 56,000-square-foot monster on a nine-acre site that drastically decreased in value. The land sat vacant for two years, before the LeBoutilliers converted it into 263 Marketplace, a flea market and food-vendor destination. But the bank wasn’t satisfied, forcing its closure so the property could be sold.

Debt mounted. Waterloo began losing vendors and couldn’t get product. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July 2012. Linda’s death only fueled the bank’s impatience. She had guaranteed the Warminster loan. When she was gone, and the Warminster site was only attracting $3 million offers, something had to give.

Waterloo never even built greenhouses in Warminster, and then it closed Devon to help stock the Exton location. “We were always way overstocked—but that’s how we grew up,” says 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—“Mama Linda” to many—didn’t live to see the bankruptcy. Battling cancer was enough. “We knew why God took Linda,” Lucy says. “She could never have witnessed it. Thank you, God, and that’s what the whole (Waterloo) team said.”

The site in Exton sold for $4.6 million to BET Investments, a Horsham commercial real estate company owned by Bruce Toll. BET has said it wants to develop the property with a mix of uses, but 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 LeBoutillier 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.”

The location of her new business along Route 113 is prime. Three miles from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, LeBeau could become 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.”

When Susan left Waterloo in 2012, she took out a home equity line of credit, then later learned of a vacant site and entered into a lease literally as Waterloo Gardens began liquidating. 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. Her entire staff once worked at Waterloo. “I really like Susan,” says Lucy. “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,” says Bobby. “It took days to even get an answer, then the number went dead.”

Bobby asked Stuart if he thought Susan had a job for him. It was a joke, of course. Bobby’s sense of humor is one of his best traits, says Lucy—and it may have saved him. “I’ve offered olive branches,” says Bobby. “We were once friends at work, and we could certainly go back to that when Susan wants to bury the hatchet.”

After his dad died, Bobby often visited St. Agnes Cemetery in West Chester to water the flowers at his burial plot. It wasn’t too long before he found himself watering needy flowers at other gravesites. He’d spend three hours exhausting himself, then came an epiphany: “I couldn’t save them all,” says Bobby.

Subconsciously and slowly, he began to let go of his past. 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 says.

“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. But they do share a sense of renewal. In the last days, a rainbow appeared over the Waterloo Gardens sign in Exton. Lucy took a picture of it. “It lead me to believe there would be a future for everyone here,” she says. “Waterloo is in us all.”

Edit ModuleShow Tags