An industrious young man named Lawrence J. Thalmann founded a landscape business on Chicago’s North Shore in 1917 with nothing more than a wheelbarrow, shovel and a dream. Through perspiration, inspiration, determination, and, later, help from his wife and growing family, the business grew into the thriving Chalet Landscape, Nursery and Garden Center, which celebrates its 100th Anniversary throughout 2017.
The business has now been lovingly run by three generations of Lawrence Thalmanns — grandfather, father, son. Since 1992, grandson Larry has been in charge as president. Fit, friendly, fervent and smart, he proudly recounts the family and business history, then delights in plans for the next century during an interview in his office. It’s on the northeast corner of Lake Avenue and Skokie Boulevard in Wilmette, in the back corner of the Swiss-style building from which the name Chalet was derived.
“My grandfather purchased this building in Glencoe and moved it over four miles to this location in 1942, planning to use it commercially for his growing business.” He continues, “But the Village government wouldn’t permit it for that use. So our family lived here instead.” He points and grins, “My bedroom was that room right across the hall. Customers started referring to the business as The Chalet Nursery and the name just stuck.”
Chalet is so much more now. It includes a picturesque 183-acre farm and wholesale nursery in Southern Wisconsin, where much of their landscaping stock is grown to the highest industry standards, a 16-acre, 28,000-square foot North Chicago facility primarily serving the landscaping division, a 4.8-acre retail garden and home decor complex near the Chalet “house,” a five story office complex north of that, comprehensive landscaping design and maintenance operations, pet supplies, online store and more.
One of Larry’s shrewd innovations was to harness the power of the many staff members who are University of Illinois alumni. In collaboration with the university, they created a scholarship program for students in the Landscape Architecture program. “We wanted to help prepare students for the real world, and sponsored two $500 scholarships as part of a class each semester. We used real world examples of the challenges we face — ‘this property sits on a ravine in Glencoe, there are drainage issues, the owners want an infinity pool’ — and asked them to come up with a solution,” Thalmann recalls, adding that the students were later brought to the actual job site to see how Chalet’s designers solved some of the challenges. “Ultimately, that raised the level of awareness of what the landscape design industry is today.”
Fostering talented, loyal employees, as well as the next generation of family, has always been a Thalmann priority. “There is a genuine sense of family here — where respect and responsibility sit at the table with laughter and joy. Holding it all together is passion — for our work, our customers and each other,” he declares. “My grandfather was so proud that the business endured the Great Depression, retaining 33 employees. To this day, full-time employees rarely leave our business. And our customers enjoy working with the same staff year in and year out.”
Service is a common theme, not only good service for customers, but also service to their broader community too. Thalmann and his wife, Amy, particularly enjoy donating their time as well as treasure to Rebuilding Together North Suburban Chapter and Misericordia. They are also longtime supporters and contributors to the Loyola Angel Scholarship Program, which assists young people in the Boys Hope Girls Hope organization, and Sister Paulanne’s needy family fund.
Events benefiting community nonprofits are the norm at Chalet, not just a rare occasion. People love their annual Howl-O-Ween Pet Parade, Ladies Night Out events and various holiday festivals too. Many events celebrating the 100th Anniversary this year are likely to include community nonprofits. Chalet regularly provides support for local schools, the Northfield Food Pantry and St. Jude Children’s Hospital, among others.
Activities planned for the Centennial celebration in 2017 include:
- Saturday, March 4: Birthday Party, including cake, canine treats and free consultations. A portion of the day’s sales will also be donated to Rebuilding Together.
- April: Month long “Cent’sational Spring Preview,” which will include promotions, discounts and how-to workshops, as well as Earth Day and Arbor Day celebrations.
- July: Ice Cream Social
- September: Bulb Festival
- November and December: Holiday Festivals
Most importantly, the entire company will close on Sept. 12 so that all 400-plus employees can relax and enjoy one big birthday party together. “We have never closed during prime gardening season. We never want to disappoint our customers,” Thalmann explains. “But also, we hope they will understand how important it is for the entire Chalet family to celebrate together and be honored for the work they do.”
Although Thalmann is proud to mark 100 years of his family’s successful business, he is even more excited about starting the next century of service.
“Last week, my son, Lawson, the oldest of our three children, left a big job in tech to come work for us full time as a business technology analyst while earning his MBA.” Thalmann’s eyes twinkle. “He is going to really innovate and grow Chalet in our next century. The timing of it is just fitting, that he joins the family business as we mark our centennial year.”
In an era where it is harder than ever to maintain and grow outstanding family owned businesses, starting the next century with an enthusiastic and well-trained member of the next generation is something to celebrate indeed.
Happy birthday, Chalet, and thanks for a job well done!