RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We have this month introduced you to some folks from the small town of Flora, Illinois, who are struggling in the recession. One of them was truck driver Steve Walsh. He and his wife have cut back on visiting their grandkids because the money is just too tight. In the latest installment in our series American Moxie, NPR Senior Correspondent Ketzel Levine is back with Steve Walsh as he delivers his load of irrigation parts to the Chicago suburbs, where he'll connect us to some landscapers in that city.
KETZEL LEVINE: Hey, Steve.
Mr. STEVE WALSH (Truck Driver): Morning.
LEVINE: How was your trip?
Mr. WALSH: Long.
LEVINE: So much for small talk with a freight truck driver who's just pulled in from a tedious night on the road. When I last spoke with Steve Walsh the subject was money - how to manage with less. No big deal for a man whose glass - whose life is always half full. His truck's also loaded with possibility, if you're into irrigation parts and black PVC.
Mr. WALSH: Hi, I'm Steve.
Mr. TOM CANGIALOSI (Branch Manger, Kenny Outdoor Solutions): Steve, Tom, I'm going to need you to back up.
LEVINE: And PVC is just what the guy paying for this delivery needs. Tom Cangialosi is branch manager at Kenny Outdoor Solutions, just opened here in Chicago. Where the landscaping business, even before the days got short, has been slowing way down.
Mr. CANGIALOSI: This economy, the way things are right now, it's actually given us an opportunity, our customers, our clients have some time to sit down and talk to us. If things were busy and being new in town, they would give us the brush-off.
LEVINE: So, who's on your list to call today?
Mr. CANGIALOSI: A landscaper in Chicago, Christy Webber, most well-known project is Millennium Park.
LEVINE: A park that happens to feature the world's largest rooftop garden, which gives you some idea of Christy Webber's cache.
Unidentified Man: I have Raoul from IPSI.
Ms. CHRISTY WEBBER (President, Christy Webber Landscaping, Chicago): Mm hmm.
Unidentified Man: Might want to buy some pressure washers.
Ms. WEBBER: Oh, put him in my voice mail.
Unidentified Man: Absolutely.
Ms. WEBBER: Thank you.
LEVINE: OK, so it wasn't Raoul's day, but Tom Cangialosi did pitch his PVC. After two hours cooling his heels, he met with the charismatic company president.
Ms. WEBBER: Hi, Tom. Christy. Sorry I made you wait.
LEVINE: Along with the infant in her arms.
Ms. WEBBER: See, I wasn't kidding you when I said that more and more people are like reaching out, and then using each others names, and you know just to do something, because things have slowed down. We're blessed, I have to admit, we're blessed.
LEVINE: If so, it's because Christy Webber is the golden goose, at least that's what her partner calls her. She does have a knack for seeing opportunity before it dawns on everyone else. She's creative, mischievous, unafraid and unapologetic when perusing something she wants. A few months back in the midst of childbirth, Christy Webber was so hungry and so fed up with ice-chips she went on strike, demanding a Diet Coke and Peanut M&Ms. She got them.
Ms. JENNY RULE: Would you like a tune?
(Soundbite of recorder)
LEVINE: Her partner, Jennie Rule, kindly distracts 9-month-old son Oliver Rule Webber while I piece together Christy Webber's story.
Built to work, she likes to say, wide feet, wide hands, low to the ground. She was one among many gardeners when she started working on Chicago's moneyed North Shore, then found her niche in the broken heart of the inner city, where decades of neglect had taken its toll. She'd just set up shop in the unfashionable West Side of Chicago, when who should come along but a second mayor named Daley looking to paint the town green.
Ms. WEBBER: So that was the smartest thing I could ever have done, was just to say, you know, screw it, I'm not going to go to the fancy suburbs. I'm going to just stay here in Chicago.
LEVINE: Her timing was uncanny. She hitched her wagon to the mayor's momentum and in a few years, she had clients on waiting lists, not to mention an increasingly spoiled staff.
Ms. WEBBER: And so most of them that had been here for a while are just so used to, like, if they just called somebody back we got the business because no one called anybody back.
Ms. RULE: Like, I had a guy stop by...
Ms. WEBBER: Lets go outside, then I can smoke. Bye baby, bye baby.
(Soundbite of baby crying)
Ms. RULE: Nice meeting you.
LEVINE: She grabs her pack of American Spirits. Where do you want to sit?
Ms. WEBBER: Oh, lets sit over here.
LEVINE: And as we resettle, Christy Webber picks up her story a very few years back, with an economy that now feels like history, a boom time here on the third coast, and for so much American businesses.
Ms. WEBBER: I mean, it just kept growing by the millions. By the millions. I've gone from you know, $5.5 million to $18 million in five years!
LEVINE: Among Christy Webber Landscaping's dizzying holdings today: 110 trucks, 46 trailers, 26 Bobcats, 250 employees. Oh, and I still haven't told you about where we're sitting. In the courtyard of her eco-wonder of a complex, ranked among the greenest buildings in the world.
Ms. WEBBER: I needed two big pole barns, six double-wides and some land. You know, I mean that's all I really needed. But to get the land, I had to build the Taj Mahal. So I did.
LEVINE: Did she ever? Now she has to pay for it and make that payroll, whether by designing gardens, mowing grass, snow-blowing boulevards, selling Christmas trees and never saying no.
Ms. WEBBER: You know, our whole mantra was that we won't take on any jobs under $5,000, and we're going to have to come down a couple of notches. There's a lot of one, two, three kind of Chicagoans out there that want six bushes and some sod, and that's good because we need that work.
LEVINE: And the people in her orbit need that money, whether it's her charities, her staff, 9-month-old Oliver and, come to think of it, her banker, since I forgot to mention Christy Webber's just-renovated 4,500-square-foot Victorian brick home. Given an economy where even the most golden goose could end up cooked, what? She, worry?
Ms. WEBBER: Well, I hope I have enough going for me now that I wouldn't have to like sell my new house. This building and all that, we'll be fine even if we lost this. But I think the biggest thing that's taken me the longest at my age is to save and to really have a decent house for my family. A real house. I call it a big girl's house.
LEVINE: That you're afraid of losing?
Ms. WEBBER: Yeah.
LEVINE: Though she'd like to think at 47 that her days on the crew are over, Christy Webber will throw her 155 pound weight behind any needed job within reason.
Ms. WEBBER: There are times when I've taken some really stupid risks, on staff that screwed me, on jobs that have screwed me like Millennium Park, but I think the thing that doesn't scare me is I'm not afraid to start from scratch.
LEVINE: Tomorrow, the financial disaster that made Christy Webber. Lessons in Moxie from Millennium Park. Ketzel Levine. NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And from Millennium Park we'll head to a boxing gym to meet Harry Jenkins. He had a tough time finding work after 28 years in prison. Now he's one of those 250 people on Christy Webber's pay role. You can follow our stories of American Moxie at npr.org.
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