Her Kind of Town
The United Center is the storied home of the Chicago Bulls. It's where Michael Jordan led his team to six NBA championships. Near the main entrance there's a statue of Michael flying in a midair dunk. Few fans notice little else, but abutting the lot there are islands and medians, and four acres of trees and lawn. That's where Christy Webber first put her own indelible stamp on Chicago.
She cut the grass.
This was 1998 and Webber was just getting a small landscaping business off the ground. Mostly she maintained backyard shrubs and trees for the residents of upscale suburbs, but she was mulling grander plans. Her epiphany had come two years earlier, during the 1996 Democratic Convention when Mayor Richard M. Daley, the city's great green crusader, festooned the town with trees and flowers. Webber, a lifelong Democrat, was there when the Clinton motorcade rolled past on Ogden Avenue. "I still remember Clinton was reading a book," she says. "But it wasn't the convention. It was the city painting the fences, planting those trees! Seeing all that work going on and not doing it made me crazy."
Webber had a client, Kerry Fix, whose dad, Bill, happened to own the United Center. When the arena's $25,000 landscaping job came up, she called Fix, pitched her services, and got the gig. "She's got this get-go attitude," says Karen Sutherland, the arena's operations chief, "and I liked the fact her business was small."
Christy Webber & Co. is anything but small these days. It has 20 dump trucks and 100 workers. Signs with Webber's name are posted on half the highways leading into the city. Her business revenue shot up from $2 million in 1998 to $6.8 million last year, landing the business with a growth rate of 378% at No. 54 on this year's Inner City 100.
What's remarkable is that a modest landscaper has become a brand in this cosmopolitan city and a chum of its movers and shakers. Equally striking is that she made a name for herself with very little capital or money for advertising. All she really needed was charisma, a little luck, and a Ransomes professional mower.
Webber's headquarters are on the west side, a no man's land that burned during the riots that followed Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. It's still a dicey neighborhood, plagued by gangs and pocked with decrepit housing, but it suits Webber just fine. When a tree falls onto a sidewalk she can be there in 15 minutes, unlike most of her rivals, who are based in the suburbs.
Chicago turns out to be a great city for a landscaper. Its parks comprise 7,400 acres. The largest, among them Grant Park, were part of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan for Chicago, considered the nation's first example of a comprehensive planning document. Yet as it happens, Webber runs her business in Green Town--a district that appeared nowhere on Burnham's blueprint. Mayor Daley renamed the area, a broad corridor of crumbled buildings and vacant lots, just last year. His hope is to create a cluster of businesses that will include garden centers, greenhouses, and landscapers.
The initiative is vintage Daley. Since taking office in 1989, he has embarked on a huge beautification effort, planting some 500,000 trees--so many that, Webber says, "we can't even find trees because he's planted so many of them! I'm not kidding."
Webber has advised Daley on the Green Town proposal. They met in 1998 at a party at a Ukrainian church. Most everyone was too scared to approach the mayor. Not Webber. She told him that she admired his work, and gave him a card. Today, they are allies on many projects and, in fact, Daley encouraged Webber to apply for the Inner City 100. "She is exemplary of the kind of citizenry that makes Chicago the great city it is," the mayor says.
Green Town is as much Webber's dream as the mayor's. To tour the area, we climb into her Audi Quattro. She lights up a Marlboro and we head west under the el tracks, past dozens of new housing developments, then turn onto seedier side streets. A man watches suspiciously from a rotted porch. A police car drives by and slows; the cop seems to recognize Webber and waves. She waves back.
"It's really rough around here, but look at that pretty house," says Webber. "See, it's not all bad."
She drives to the Garfield Park Conservatory, which is a client. For years, only brave souls trickled out to tour this sprawling glass confection in the middle of a blasted neighborhood. Then the artist Dale Chihuly, whose work can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Bellagio in Las Vegas, installed dozens of fantastic sculptures amid the towering tropical plants and trees. Suddenly, Garfield Park was mobbed.
The main building now sparkles and the old horse barns have been turned into a market. "In the warm weather there are vegetable dealers," says Webber, "and arts and crafts stores. Over there will be housing for horticultural interns. Isn't that cool?"
Her own piece of the action is half a mile away at the other end of Green Town: a brand-new L-shaped building in the middle of an immense open tract that, until recently, was spoiled by 30-foot mounds of dumped concrete. In a pending deal with the city, Webber could lease two acres of land here. She wants to call it Rancho Verde. Her proposed facility will come with solar panels and cisterns and special pavement that absorbs rain. It also boasts a spectacular view of the skyline. There's even talk of a railroad spur so that Webber won't need as many gas-guzzling trucks. "Talk about a green idea!" she exclaims.
Clearly, Webber is an enthusiast. Everywhere we drive, something catches her fancy. She loves the mosaics that artists did on the pillars of the el columns. She's thrilled to be helping rehab an abandoned factory into artists' workspace. Back at the lakefront, she's even pleased with the new Soldier Field, scorned by many Chicagoans as an ashtray or flying saucer. "Some people hate it," she admits. "But I like it. It's goofy, weird, and different."
Soldier Field happens to be another client. Peter L. Schaudt, the stadium's landscape architect, remembers one planning meeting during which Webber, who hadn't won the contract at that point, managed to dominate the conversation. "What I like about Christy is her passion," says Schaudt, which is unusual for "an industry that's very insular and works in a cover-your-ass kind of mode."
"We are very proud to have Christy Webber as part of our landscape team," adds Barry Burton, whose title is assistant to the mayor on landscaping. He notes that it's nice to see a woman-owned business thrive, and Webber has certainly benefited from the minority contractor designation. But her ability to keep costs down seems to be at least as important to her success. Webber's company is smack in the middle of the Inner City 100 in terms of profitability, yet it appears she prices her services very competitively. Indeed, her first proposal on a municipal contract was priced 25% less than the next lowest bidder, prompting the purchasing guy at City Hall to call her and ask, "Christy, you sure you want to do this?"
She did, and she says that good prices have helped her land new business. But even so, Webber pays employees pretty well. Landscapers earn $8 to $10 an hour; union workers, in the construction arm of her business, get close to $30 an hour.
When a Tribune reporter called to confirm what the governor said about Webber, "I just about had a heart attack," she recalls.
Her work force, like most other landscapers, is mostly Hispanic, but she also employs a fair number of African Americans, which is unusual in the field. Sometimes there is friction between the groups. "It's hard, really hard, to get them to mix," she says. "Having a good party helps. You have a few cocktails, drink some tequila, and everyone gets along. We had one party at a pool hall. Usually the Mexican guys think they're better pool players, but the African Americans kicked their ass! Now we bowl."
Webber seems blessed with people skills. She is equally comfortable dealing with blue-collar workers and elite patrons. On several occasions she's traveled to Mexico and stayed with the families of her employees, in modest homes. At the same time, she's at ease hobnobbing with a powerful mayor.
Of all the big shots she's come into contact with, perhaps her good nature was tested the most by her pal Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. They met several years back, when the then-congressman was mounting his bid for governor.
"I was just cutting his grass" at his house, Webber says.
Blagojevich raised a lot of money from unions that year, so when the press found out he'd employed nonunion help to fix up his home, it became a minor flap. "Rod was really upset," remembers Webber, "and he told these reporters, 'Listen, we made some mistakes. We didn't hire union. But the landscaper is a lesbian."
Sure enough, a Chicago Tribune reporter called Webber to confirm. "I've never been ashamed or anything. But I just about had a heart attack before the story came out. Of course, nobody cared. Then I ran into Rod at a fundraiser and he asked if I had my union card, which I did then, and I said, 'Excuse me, let me introduce myself, I'm Christy the lesbian landscaper,' and he laughed his head off."
While being outed by the governor is something Webber can handle with style and grace, managing a business that is growing fast is much more difficult. "Collections has been a really tough one," she admits. "Not so much from the city--more from general contractors who take so long to pay. This past year was tough on cash; it was scary." It didn't help that her biggest project in 2003 was Millennium Park, the $450 million arts and culture extravaganza in Grant Park that will feature a band shell by Frank Gehry. Webber did all the trees and shrubs for the 24.5-acre site. As private donors kicked in more money, every aspect of the blueprint kept changing. "It was way more work than I anticipated," says Webber. "They still owe me money, but what are you going to do?"
Millennium Park is guaranteed to further raise Webber's profile, though her name's already well known in Chicago--and not just because it's plastered on trucks that service the city's parks and landmarks. She serves on boards, campaigns for politicians, works the fundraisers, and is president of the council that serves as a liaison between the city and manufacturers.
Recently, Webber was invited to a meeting, co-sponsored by the city and University of Chicago, whose purpose was to chart the city's cultural future. In this august gathering, she was the only one in the room who'd worked her way up, literally, from the ground. "I was just a gardener," she told the assembled culture mavens. "But instead of just taking horticultural classes, I learned how to run a business." Then she invited them to move organizations into Green Town. "It's a terrific opportunity. There's less crime and less drug activity. We'd love to have you out there!"
Of course, if Green Town becomes a magnet for landscapers, Webber's competing primacy in the market could be threatened. But for now, such challenges seem awfully abstract. Webber's facility is bursting to capacity. She parks trucks on the sidewalk because there's no room in the lot. Exercise equipment is stowed in the garage because the office gym has been converted into the war room for Millennium Park. Every cubicle is occupied, by designers, supervisors, and accountants. This year, for the first time, Webber hired a general manager.
"I love my employees and they love me," says Webber. "They actually think they're working with a great company and they know I'm a good leader. But I'm not a good manager. I'm very bullheaded, I get too fired-up about stuff, and it was apparent I needed to step away from that role." She pauses and, for a moment, looks almost wistful. "I guess it's something I've learned," she concludes. "You can't steer the boat and row at the same time."