On a typical weekday afternoon, acclaimed garden designer Jon Carloftis guides his pickup into his driveway, swings open the door and two plump yellow labs joyfully leap out. Carloftis follows, carrying a box of plants protectively into the refurbished 167-year-old home he shares with business and life partner, Dale Fisher.
Entering the kitchen, which also doubles as his office, he piles a few more logs on a smoldering, cozy fire.
“The most luxurious thing is to have a fireplace in your kitchen,” Carloftis said. “My grandmother had one. I leave it burning all the time … even on cool days during the summer.”
The life Carloftis and Fisher lead feels laid back and relaxed. They do their paperwork from home, and sometimes finish each other’s sentences. But they have two distinct personalities, and the balance seems to be one of the keys to their success.
“We both love design, and we play off each other’s strengths,” Fisher said. “I like to call it the ‘melding of the minds.’ ”
With a nationally renowned landscape and garden-design business now spanning 30 years, Carloftis and Fisher have no doubt cultivated some of the secrets to longevity as entrepreneurs. One of their best pieces of advice for aspiring business owners: Give people a reason to talk about you.
Over time, the reputation of their company, Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens, has spread far and wide. While it may be considered boutique in size, with just five employees, the notoriety of its clients and the publicity their work has received speaks volumes.
Carloftis has worked for such A-list celebrities as Jerry and Linda Bruckheimer, Julianne Moore and Edward Norton. Carloftis’ designs have also been featured in national magazines, including Country Gardens, Country Home, Garden Design, Martha Stewart Living and Metropolitan Home. Uber-trendy Garden and Gun named the yard of their home its Favorite Southern Outdoor Space. Carloftis has written three garden-themed books and his work has been highlighted on HGTV and the Style Channel.
In recent years, since moving from New York back to their native Kentucky, Carloftis and Fisher have focused on local projects, including renovations at Maker’s Mark and Castle & Key distilleries; gardens at Eastern Kentucky University, the University of the Cumberlands and the Governor’s Mansion; and several large horse farms and roof gardens in Louisville and Lexington.
Client focus is path to success
At the heart of it all, Carloftis and Fisher are just Kentucky boys, longing to stay close to home and do what they love best: design. While many successful business-minded people are perpetually focused on building outward as a way to earn more, these Kentucky-born designers focus instead on the quality of their work.
“I learned a big lesson early on that if you are in the high-end, luxury business, you have to be on top of every bit of it, and you have to (physically) be there,” Carloftis said. “I don’t want my company to get really big, because I don’t want to deal with a lot of people. I’d rather have luxury and less, and enjoy what I do. It’s not the typical business model.”
Carloftis, a 10th-generation Kentuckian, attributes their success to really listening to what customers want. He notes that while many famous designers insist on giving everything their ‘look,’ his goal is not to have his own stamp on a project, but rather it become a reflection of his clients’ individual style.
“It’s interesting to meet people and have no predisposition,” Carloftis said. “I really get into it and learn what they want. Sometimes they don’t know what they want, but there’s a way to pull it out of them. Also, when we present issues with a project to a client, we offer multiple solutions and let the client be involved. That way they feel like they’re a part of the process.”
It’s not uncommon for Carloftis to visit a client’s property and meet with them a dozen times before creating a blueprint for a project. Another requirement is to have a genuine affinity for the people and companies he works for.
“We have to like the person (client), because business needs to be enjoyable,” Carloftis said. “But I believe our success comes down to being honest and listening to them.”
They currently are working about 15 projects, mostly corporate but a few residential.
Carloftis grew in New York
Carloftis has carried this philosophy with him from the beginning, when he launched his career as one of America’s pioneers in rooftop gardening.
A University of Kentucky graduate, Carloftis entered the “real” world without knowing exactly what his life calling would be. He had earned a degree in communications and studied horticulture. He loved both plants and design, but wasn’t yet sure how the two fit together.
“(While at UK), I joined an agricultural fraternity,” Carloftis said. “I worked on a farm one summer for extra money and fell in love with it, but never thought anything would actually come from it. I knew I wanted to be in agriculture, but also something that had to do with design.”
Following college in 1988, he went to New York with intentions of only staying one summer. But the connections he made there blossomed into a 25-year career of designing and installing rooftop gardens for well-known clients all over Manhattan. His name spread like wildfire – much as it does today – simply by word of mouth and the sheer quality of his work.
“When I started the business, it was just me,” Carloftis said. “I passed out business cards and served as the designer, contractor and bookkeeper. I was a one-man band.”
Fisher, a native of Louisville, entered the business in 2012 and things have never been the same – in a good way. While he does relish the design aspect, his forte is on the finance side of things, ensuring the business is run like a well-oiled machine and turns a healthy profit.
“Working for insurance companies in the past, I was always in charge of where we were financially,” said Fisher, who has a degree in finance and most recently served as chief financial advisor for Humana in Louisville. “If you’re a business owner, you need to ensure you’re making money. There’s a great saying, ‘No margin, no mission.’ That means you’ve got to make money to keep doing all the wonderful things you do. So I watch out for those things and try to safeguard us (financially) in order for us to do well.”
Kentucky roots stay strong
While Carloftis and Fisher could have easily made a life for themselves in New York, they felt their Kentucky roots calling them home around five years ago.
“We love Lexington,” said Carloftis, whose family lives 50 miles away on the Rockcastle River. “(Growing up) we bought groceries, went to the bank and did almost everything here, so Lexington has always felt like it was my home, especially after attending college here for four years. When I moved to New York, Lexington never left my memory or heart.”
Upon their return to Kentucky, Carloftis and Fisher lived on Chenault Road in Lexington’s Chevy Chase area and had a home in Bucks County, Pa., outside New York City. But that changed when the house of their dreams went up for sale.
“Dale wasn’t sold on it because it was in disrepair and scary, but I knew as soon as we walked through the gate it was going to be mine some way, somehow,” said Carloftis of the 1851 historic home called Botherum in downtown Lexington.
Within a year of purchasing it, Carloftis and Fisher had brought Botherum back to life, and for their efforts they received the highest honor in the state for their historic restoration of the home and garden.
Botherum is a beautiful reflection of Carloftis and Fisher’s own style, from the eclectic array of bird’s nests on a table in their dining room, to the beams of reclaimed wood and vibrant taxidermy rooster in their kitchen. They also love to entertain, throwing large soirees on various occasions to celebrate with family and friends.
“What I love about Jon Carloftis is that he wants every garden to be absolutely amazing, and he’ll do anything to make it happen,” Fisher said about his partner. “And he also wants everyone to feel happy and entertained at our house.”
For Carloftis and Fisher, their business also functions as a hobby. When they travel, they prefer driving instead of flying because it allows them to meander off the beaten path to scour antique stores for miscellaneous treasures for their home.
Old distilleries are new palate
One of Carloftis and Fisher’s biggest ongoing garden projects is at Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Ky.
“Maker’s Mark has been nothing but a pleasure,” Carloftis said. “Since Rob Samuels took over (in 2011 as chief operating officer), he’s really been working on making the whole distillery into a great experience.”
Carloftis and his team have worked on updating, further beautifying and accentuating the Victorian style started by Samuels’ grandparents in the 1950s.
“It was my grandmother who originally had the vision of making the distillery a place where people would want to come and experience something special,” Samuels said. “We want it to be the warmest and most inviting home place of any brand, and Jon is helping us get there.”
Carloftis and Fisher also recently applied their skills to the grounds of Castle & Key Distillery in Woodford County, land originally acquired in 1887 by legendary distiller Col. Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. but abandoned since 1972. During its heyday, in addition to fine bourbon, Old Taylor Distillery was known for its European gardens and one-of-a-kind springhouse overlooking Glenns Creek and the wooded hillside that feeds it.
Carloftis was tasked with helping restore the property to the unique bourbon tourist destination it once was.
“My partner Wes Murry and I knew that it would take someone special to carry out our vision of the landscape design for this site and that this would be a very important component of the renovation project,” said Castle & Key co-founder Will Arvin. “Jon and Dale came for a tour of the property and were immediately inspired by the place; they instantly saw the vision of what the site could become. With the shared passion and the vision Jon and Dale brought to our project, the decision to work with them was easy.”
Carloftis and Fisher revived the property’s long-neglected English sunken garden, installed a botanical trail with native Kentucky plants, and helped create a cocktail garden around Castle & Key’s spring house. They assisted Master Distiller Marianne Barnes in creating a botanical garden that will supply plants for its gin production.
“Jon and Dale treat this project with care and passion, just like it was their own,” Arvin said. “They always go over and above the call of duty to make sure that everything is just right.
“They have incorporated into their designs and ideas a deep respect for the history of the distillery and at the same time have infused the landscaping with many new, refreshing and creative twists.”
“Castle & Key is one of the most pleasurable projects I’ve ever done,” Carloftis said. “It was like the Hardy Boys (mystery book series). You’re discovering all kinds of things and spaces when you’re ripping out all the debris. We didn’t follow any photographs; we just did what we felt was the right thing. I think E.H. Taylor would be very happy if he saw it today.”
Plants + math = Amazing
Carloftis and Fisher are also proud of the recent work they completed at Eastern Kentucky University. Where several dilapidated tennis courts used to sit, they created an inviting garden, complete with fountains, walking paths, benches, and places for students, staff, faculty and guests to enjoy.
“Photos of the Carloftis Garden are featured on many EKU publications and it’s very gratifying to see how Jon and Dale have helped, literally, to take a piece of property and convert it into a space that all can now enjoy,” said EKU President Michael Benson.
“I first heard Jon speak on campus back in 2014 and heard about his career path, his love for Kentucky and the native plants and flowers here, and especially for this part of the commonwealth. His family home (near Berea) is just down the road,” Benson said.
While Fisher admits he has a very mathematical mind, he still loves the design aspect of their business the most.
“It’s fun creating a space for people,” he said. “I’m very good dimensionally and spatially. When looking at a garden, I know how it should work proportionally. Jon is a great ‘plants man,’ so he fills in the gaps. It’s a great combination in so many different ways. Once you install it and step back and see a beautiful garden, it’s amazing.
“I did finance for 25 years, but never did I feel good at the end of the year. I was worn out … because I didn’t leave anything behind,” Fisher continued. “But now we leave behind beautiful gardens. And they only get prettier over time.”
Esther Zunker is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]