Cover Story


by Mary Tutwiler

Lafayette's premier gardener, Marshall Mugnier, transplants his nursery after 52 years of business in Lafayette.

Marshall Mugnier is hard to miss. At more than 6 feet tall and wearing a daffodil-colored shirt, even in the midst of his nursery, he stands out like a blooming flower. Out the back door of Marshall's Home and Garden Showplace on Ambassador Caffery Parkway, he takes stock of the part of his business he likes the best ' selling plants of every variety. Hundreds of flats of familiar bedding plants in dizzying colors beckon ' impatiens, begonias, petunias, salvia, marigolds, zinnias, verbenia, cosmos and lantana. Deeper into the sunshine of the nursery, more exotic species tempt gardeners ' sweet broom and rock lily in shades of gold and yellow, purple pincushion flowers and paprika-colored yarrow. Sprinklers ratchet in circles keeping everything alive. The quiet is only broken by bird song, an extraordinary contrast to the hubbub of Lafayette's shopping nexus out front.

There's only one problem in this vibrant Eden ' there's not one customer here.

After 52 years of ever-expanding growth on the Lafayette horticulture scene, Mugnier is closing his flagship business and downsizing to a small boutique nursery. "We've been hammered with competition from the big box stores," says the 75-year-old. "We're not going to compete with Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's. They can have the bread and butter."

Actually, they already do. Stores like Home Depot sell flats of seedlings for 30 percent less than Marshall's can afford. At big box stores, shovels, fertilizer and yard accessories contracted though large manufacturers not only are priced significantly cheaper than locally owned stores, but their return policies are designed to crush competition. Any item can be returned without question, and customers have a one-year warranty for live plants. The national garden centers' new "pay by scan" technology means that growers do not get paid until an item is actually scanned and sold to a customer. And if plants die under the care of the chain store or are replaced for a customer, growers don't get paid.

It is a practice that Mugnier says could ultimately put growers out of business. "Everything is changing," says Mugnier. "It's time for me to move on to something I'm comfortable in. The world is not going to do it my way anymore."

Mugnier has signed an agreement to lease two acres of land near the Olive Garden restaurant on Johnston Street from Mark Hampton. He bought the small building on the property ' which means he will be downsizing from 24,000-square-feet under roof at the current nursery to a tight 600. Liquidation sales begin May 2 until he sells all his stock. While the move is planned for July, the transplanted Marshall's won't be ready for a grand opening until mid-September. Long-time employees Madge Mclane, Abdul Abedi, and Eric Trahan will make the move with him. L.C. Cambre, who has worked for Mugnier for 45 years, plans to retire.

Mike Richard, Mugnier's friend and colleague who owns Live Oak Gardens Ltd. at Jefferson Island, will lend a hand in construction of the new nursery. "I've known Marshall for 40 years," Richard says. "When I started my wholesale business in 1973, he was my first customer." Richard specializes in field and container grown plants that are adapted to south Louisiana's climate. He and Mugnier constantly exchange ideas about what's new in the field. "Of all my customers, he's the one who travels the most, visiting suppliers, so he can make personal selections. He's always had a good handle on what's happening in the business, locally and nationally. If anybody's going to know what the next trend is, it's Marshall."

The admiration is mutual. "Mike is my guru," says Mugnier.

Marshall's Nursery is comprised of what Mugnier refers to as seven "profit centers." The new Marshall's will feature the two areas he wants to concentrate on, his garden accessory shop that sells fountains, statuary, garden furniture, imported pottery and wind chimes, and the high-end plant business ' tropicals, large and unusual specimens, water gardens and "designer gardens" ready-made in containers.

The florist shop is in the process of being sold, "which is in actuality a customer list and phone number. Ninety percent of the florist business comes in over the phone," Mugnier says. Hard goods ' mulches, tools, fertilizers, insecticides ' he's conceding to the big box competition. His landscaping and irrigation businesses are run from a different location, Rue de Belier in Scott, and will continue as they are now. The Christmas Shop, totaling 20 percent of Marshall's gross volume, has been sold to a friend, Keith Guidry of the family-run Percy Guidry Hearth and Patio on Johnston. The most valuable asset of all, nearly 4 acres in the heart of Lafayette's commercial shopping district, is under contract to brothers Grady, David and Matthew Abraham and their partner, Lafayette jeweler Gabriel Shaik (see sidebar p. 17).

The closing of Marshall's, like other landmark businesses Heymann's and Abdalla's, is indicative of more than just the rise of the giant discount store. Mugnier sees it as a societal change. "Customers were very loyal in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. You bought your clothes or drugs at the same store whenever you shopped. There is no such thing today. We still have the remnants of that type of customer, people in their late 60s or 70s, but they're not gardening anymore. They're dying."

Mugnier is a second generation nursery man. His father, Emile Alfonse Mugnier, had a wholesale nursery in Folsom. Mugnier grew up working in his dad's St. Tammany Parish business before majoring in horticulture at Southwestern Louisiana Institute, now UL, in 1950. He interrupted his studies ' "more partying than studying," he says ' for a four-year stint in the armed services during the Korean conflict. When he came back to finish up at UL, he planned to move to Houston and go into the plant business. Dr. James Foret, head of the horticulture department, convinced Mugnier that the place to be was on Lafayette's south side, where developers Dwight Andrus and D.S. "Shine" Young were building post-war subdivisions as fast as they could buy land.

In 1955, Maurice Heymann was beginning to build the Oil Center on land that was previously a big nursery filled with camellias and sasanquas. Mugnier rented a piece of land from Pete Judice, just across Johnston Street from the Judice Inn. "Back then, it was well out of the city limits. The property was next to the entrance to the Twin Drive-Inn movie," Mugnier remembers. "I paid $75 a month in rent, plus $5 for water from the well. My office consisted of an 8-foot-by-12-foot shipping crate I bought off the docks in New Orleans. I knocked in a door and some windows and set it up on concrete blocks."

Mugnier remembers finishing up school on the GI bill in the morning and running his business in the afternoon, which was supplying landscaping to Andrus and Young. "Everything was financed by the VA [Veterans Administration] or FHA [Federal Housing Administration]," Mugnier says. Part of the requirement of the government loans was "eight shrubs and a tree," Mugnier recalls with a laugh. "They were building houses left and right, and I was doing five or six houses, $50 a house, about $300 a week."

"Shine Young took a liking to me," Mugnier continues. "He came to me and told me I should buy some property, 150 feet of frontage down Johnston Street right by Doucet Hardware. This was 1960; I was 25 years old. I didn't have any money. So Shine introduced me to Robie Castille at Guaranty Bank.

"I told Robbie I wanted to borrow $25,000 to build the garden center. Robbie said, 'What do you have for collateral?' I replied, 'What's collateral?'"

Castille, a shrewd judge of character, gave Mugnier an unsecured loan. In order to keep the bank examiners off their backs, Castille set up a system to renew the loan every six months. The plan was to pay off the loan, but Marshall's kept growing and the loan spiraled to $750,000.

Eight years later, Young came to Mugnier with another land deal. He and Andrus owned property on both sides of what Mugnier characterized as "the road to nowhere," New Flanders Road. The two lane country road intersected Johnston and came to a dead end at the Vermilion River. It would later be renamed Ambassador Caffery Parkway. They persuaded Mugnier to buy six acres at $10,000 an acre. "When it hit the legal news people said I was crazy," Mugnier says. "They said customers wouldn't drive all the way out there. Johnston was a two-lane blacktop. Three years later, I built the garden center for $350,000. We added the florist shop and the Christmas shop. That was in 1972. Business more than doubled the first year. Those were the go-go days in Lafayette."

Marshall's became the premier garden shop in Lafayette, growing with the oil boom that flooded the community with cash. The nursery was known for unusual specimen trees and exotic plants Mugnier personally selected in Florida and California. Mugnier began an 11-year courtship of another Lafayette icon, Sandy Austin, who dazzled the nouveau riche fashionistas with her designer shop, Sandy Austin Ltd., located in the newly constructed Acadiana Mall adjacent his nursery. They were part of the social set, members of the oil-infused City Club and instrumental in launching the Episcopal School of Acadiana.

On Nov. 6, 1982, following Marshall's annual Christmas tree display, the couple stood in the middle of Ambassador Caffery and watched as the nursery burned to the ground. A disgruntled employee set fire to the building, destroying $350,000 in inventory and a half-million dollar structure. Although he entertained offers of up to $3 million to buy the property, Mugnier decided to continue doing what was in his blood. He borrowed more than $1 million to rebuild. "We really went for broke," he says. "We hired a high-powered landscape architect and designed a palace of a garden center. What I didn't know at the time was that Taj Mahal garden centers had peaked. Things started to go back to steel buildings."

Marshall's reopened in 1983, and Sandy moved her dress shop into the new garden center. By 1986, Mugnier's grandiose vision turned into a crisis. "First of all, the city decided to five-lane Ambassador, which virtually put me out of business for a year. While we were doing no business in this magnificent new building, I was not aware that the oil industry was tanking. I was buying inventory like crazy. It put me into very difficult times. I've never really recovered from that."

The 1990s was a lean time for Lafayette. Austin's dress shop closed, and she turned her attention to the Christmas shop. When Mugnier's longtime gift shop managers left in 2003, Austin took over that department as well. "Sandy went from buying $2,000 frocks to purchasing 600,000 Christmas tree ornaments at $1.13 each," Mugnier says. "She made the gift shop profitable for the first time in 10 years." Austin says the transition was easy. "In 25 years of being married to Marshall, I've been to market with him frequently. He decides what he wants to do; then I choose each item. We each have our roles; we don't overlap. So we never argue."

Last fall, the couple was at a birthday party in Houston for Mugnier's daughter Nicole. Nicole Brunson is godmother to close friends Keith and Jennifer Guidry's children. When Keith Guidry joined Mugnier for a cigar on the porch, a deal was hatched. "I asked Keith if he was interested in the Christmas business. He said he had thought about it," Mugnier says. October, November, December are dead months in the patio furniture business but high season for Christmas trees and decorations, so the two product lines were a perfect fit for Percy Guidry's.

Far from bemoaning the demise of his empire, Mugnier seems delighted with the prospect of change. "We're going to be a little niche nursery. People are less interested in doing the work themselves. People are more interested in 'do it for me.' We've seen gardening decline dramatically.

"Gardening used to be one of the No. 1 hobbies," Mugnier continues. "Now people with kids are running them to soccer, t-ball, or working out at Red's. There is an affluence I haven't seen in Lafayette since the early 1980s. People then were truly nouveau riche; they threw money at everything. These days, people have more education, more refinement, better taste. Look at River Ranch. Houses are getting larger, lots getting smaller. I'm shocked at what people are buying ' the high end merchandise is moving well. And that sets up Marshall's specialty garden center. "

Marshall Mugnier's most valuable asset, nearly four acres in the heart of Lafayette's commercial shopping district, is being bought May 28 by a consortium of local businessmen led by attorney Grady Abraham. Abraham has had his eye on Marshall's Nursery for quite some time. The acres of greenhouses and nursery stock are an anomaly in a sea of concrete, he says, a remnant of Lafayette's past rather than her future. "We're going to clean the property up, put something very unique and good for the community. Marshall has a following; wherever the nursery goes, his customers will go." Abraham, along with his brothers ' David, also an attorney, and Matthew, director of sleep studies at Lourdes ' and partner Gabriel Shiek of Gabriel's Fine Jewelry, asked real estate broker/developer Cecil Trahan to approach Mugnier two years ago. Mugnier initially turned them down, but in October of last year, they reached an agreement. Trahan commissioned a preliminary drawing for the site, which includes a mixture of retail and office buildings.

The investors offered $2.3 million for the property that Mugnier paid $40,000 for in 1968. While that is above appraised value, Grady Abraham says the investment will pay off over time. "We're not planning to flip it. We're there to stay." Tentative designs for the development include an office for the Abraham law firm and potential space for a bank and retail, including a restaurant. Abraham says he is talking to a national company and if that deal pans out, it will dictate design. "I'd like a Mediterranean feel that flows," Abraham says. "I'm Lebanese. I like the look."