People pleasers

People pleasers

Features - 2010 Breakthrough

Top-notch employees boost Chalet's three divisions: landscaping, garden center and nursery.

July 12, 2010
Julie Collins

Retail is one thing that sets Chalet apart from other landscape companies. “We have this wealth of knowledge and wealth of opportunity to get our landscape clients involved,” says landscape division manager Kevin Marko. Photos: Chalet The customer comes first. It’s a simple enough maxim and one that the employees of Chalet – a family-owned garden center, landscaping company and grower in the North Chicago area – have abided by for more than 90 years.

Company founder Lawrence J. Thalmann learned the value of listening to customers all too well in the 1940s, when his company – then called L.J. Thalmann’s Architectural Landscaping – moved into a new building. The Swiss Chalet-style structure, formerly a restaurant, was so distinctive that customers began writing their checks to “Chalet.” So Thalmann took a cue from the people who kept his business going and renamed the company Chalet – a moniker it holds to this day.

The third-generation, $24 million business has come a long way since it was founded in 1914. Chalet now operates from three locations: a retail garden center in Wilmette, Ill., a residential landscape division located in North Chicago and a 183-acre nursery in Salem, Wis. Although it has grown considerably, the company still prides itself on offering excellent service to its customers.

“We’re in an affluent area of Chicago and customers have very high expectations when it comes to customer service,” says Chalet landscape division manager Kevin Marko. “They’re willing to pay for the service, but their expectations are that you will do anything and everything to make it right for them.”

That’s exactly what Chalet strives to do, by building relationships with clients and offering them top-notch service. “We don’t look at customers as a one-time selling opportunity,” Marko explains. “We’re looking to gain their trust and build up the relationship so they will shop with us for any need as long as they’re in the area.”

A Team Approach
Chalet’s landscape division offers design, construction and installation; perennial garden maintenance; tree care; turf and soil management; and weekly maintenance. All landscapes are custom-designed by a staff of 16 designers and architects who work with clients to create a landscape that fits their interests, the site and the architectural style of their homes. “We pride ourselves on not having a manufactured look,” Marko says.

All facets of each landscaping project are handled by a team, typically composed of salespeople, designers, project managers and the individuals in the field who implement the designs. Each member of the team is aware of and held accountable for the entire project, which cuts down on the confusion some companies experience when different people work independently on different parts of a landscaping job. “Customers see someone from the team on the job site every single day through project implementation,” Marko says. “We find it to be a very customer-friendly way of doing landscaping.”

Chalet says it employs more Illinois Certified Nursery professionals than any other company in the state – 25 at last count. These pros regularly share their knowledge with customers through free educational programs. The workshops are held in the retail store throughout the year to offer instruction on a variety of topics ranging from growing roses to using organic fertilizer. “One thing that makes us unique is that most of our landscape competitors don’t have retail,” Marko says. “We have this wealth of knowledge and wealth of opportunity to get our landscape clients involved.”

Chalet grows its three divisions by focusing on its employees, and promoting their experience to customers. Employees are the Brand
Integrating the retail and landscape sides of the company hasn’t always been easy. Retail customers value Chalet precisely because it offers personalized service from a small, family-owned business. But that image got lost when it came to marketing the landscape division, which the company wanted to portray as being capable and well-equipped.

That’s why Chalet brought trained communications and HR directors on board a couple of years ago to launch a new brand – focused on the quality of employees Chalet hires and the knowledge they offer customers. “We put all our resources into our employees. That is why our brand is all about them,” Marko explains. “You won’t see an ad from Chalet that just shows a job or a home. It will always have something to do with our employees.”

That’s why the rebranding process began with employee focus groups. The goal? To address employee concerns and ideas to enhance the already impressive experience of Chalet’s employees – and build a company culture to keep them around. This involved creating a new employee training program called Chalet College. All employees are required to attend the college, which provides in-house training and a review of company best practices, for five weeks in the off-season.

In addition, seasonal employees undergo a comprehensive spring training program. More training throughout the year deals specifically with topics such as staff development, leadership and management, stress management and more.

Annual all-staff field trips enrich employee understanding of the company – and, of course, offer bonding time.
Currently, Chalet employs approximately 300 to 350 employees seasonally and about 100 full-time all year. Generous benefits keep quality employees around. This includes options for customized health insurance plans; life insurance fully paid by the company; a 401(k) plan with company match; paid time off for illnesses, vacations and holidays; and tuition reimbursement.

Beyond training, employees share decision-making power by serving on committees that address everything from recruiting to internal communications. One such committee – called the Green Team – is charged with providing suggestions for how Chalet can become more environmentally friendly. With their assistance, Chalet became an Illinois Green Fleet company by converting 57 diesel trucks to bio-diesel and 45 gasoline vehicles to E85 fuel. Plus, the company recycles approximately 78 tons of cardboard, 1,500 gallons of oil and 600 tires each year – and virtually all of its landscape yard and plant material waste is composted for reuse. Chalet also offers an organic fertilizer program.

“Our employees are our greatest asset,” Marko explains. “Most of our high-end competition has just as good of plants and materials, but we put all our resources into our employees. What really stands out is our commitment to customer service.” 

Chalet is also committed to educating future landscaping industry leaders. The company sponsors three horticulture and landscape architecture scholarships at the University of Illinois and one at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and is a major donor to the University of Illinois horticulture department. The company also offers a comprehensive, hands-on intern program in which two college students per year are awarded a three-month-long paid internship at Chalet.

“It’s our responsibility to help better the industry. We don’t bring on the interns with the intentions of hiring them; we bring them on with the intentions of teaching them so they can make our industry better in the future,” Marko says. “It’s a testament to the clients being dedicated to what we do. It’s the fruits of our hard work to build an image and build relationships,” Marko says. “Our goal is to give the best quality service possible.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Ill.