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"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."