Wedding planner Neillie Butler can turn a corner at The Country Club of Birmingham and know Carole Sullivan has been there—right down to the satin ribbon tying together each floral arrangement. And she’s far from the only one who can do so either. “She knew the right way to do (florals), and she did it every time,” Neillie says.
For wedding after wedding after holiday after ball for the past 26 years, Carole would drive her white van up to venues with her “flower posse” of assistants early in the morning. She was right in the middle of the arrangement process, running 90 miles an hour and pulling what she needed out of her fanny pack.
The end was result was always classic and stunning in every way. Although she often worked in the same venues, each time she’d weave her magic and come up with something uniquely spectacular. “If I have a bride who wants to be timeless and traditional, Carole was 100 percent who I hired,” Neillie says. “She is a legendary Mountain Brook florist. There was no uncertainty.” And brides knew it too.
This year, after 26 years in the floral business as Lagniappe Designs, Carole is retiring—or at least significantly downshifting her work load. On the day we met up with her for an interview for this article, she had just had lunch with two of her brothers, was preparing window decorations for her daughter-in-law’s Antiques at the Gardens display, and was getting ready to help with a wedding that weekend for her longtime employee Mary Donald who is starting her own wedding floral business. Unlike the past season that booked her with events every Saturday, though, she’d been to a football game at Notre Dame where he grandchild is in school—and she’s was also planning to make it to the Naval Academy and the University of Alabama for games, where she has one grandchild each.
It’s fitting that as much as Carole is passionate about florals that family would be her top priority upon her “retirement.” Her mother had grown roses and always liked to have flowers in the house, so flowers were what Carole knew growing up—well, flowers and boys. She had seven younger brothers and one younger sister, which was good preparation for the five sons she would raise. “I just wanted a girl but it just didn’t work out,” Carole says. “We had a basketball team. If we kept that up, we would have had a football team.”
She’s quick to tell you her siblings call her “the sergeant.” “In all facets, Carole is the boss—of all of her brothers and sisters and all of our family,” her daughter-in-law Jodi Sullivan says. “There’s such respect for her role.” Today that carries down to her 10 grandchildren, from age 2 to a recent college graduate, who she’s always found a way to spend time with even with her busy career.
Jodi now sees Carole as a mentor in running a business too since she opened Beaute Therapie in Mountain Brook Village, looking up to how her mother-in-law put 110 percent into everything. As long as she’s been married to Carole’s youngest son, Brian, she’s also seen Carole resonate with all that is fine. “She has impeccable taste with everything she does,” Jodi says. “I can always ask advice on anything because I know her taste is above and beyond. I see it in her home and furnishings and how she sets her table. Even though I am 45, I say I want to have taste like her when I grow up.”
While her sons were growing up, Carole had taken English style flower arrangements lessons for a short time and later worked for Dorothy McDaniel. But she never thought she’d get into the floral business. First came a basket decorating business with friend when her sons were in college, and then she offered to do flowers for her coworker’s wedding at Vestavia Country Club. She vowed to never do a wedding again, and then the country club asked her to do their foyer flowers. From there someone asked her to do a wedding ceremony that turned into a ceremony and reception. Word of mouth took off, she blinked, and she’d designed florals for 26 years, at full force no less.
Each week Carole would create a new arrangement for the bar at Hot and Hot Fish Club and for the foyers of Birmingham Country Club and Vestavia Country Club. Come Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas or Mother’s Day, she’d be up at 7 a.m. decorating both of those clubs plus Mountain Brook Club. “And hopefully we’d be through in time to go home and cook our own holiday dinner,” she recalls.
Not Without Influence
When she started her wedding planning business Mariée Ami at age 26, one of Neillie’s goals was to work with Carole. “She did the most beautiful weddings in Mountain Brook,” Neillie says. “That was my stamp of approval.” Nearly a decade later, they have worked on countless weddings together—giving Neillie not just an intimate view of Carole’s floral talents but also bonds as a friend, mentor and “the most loyal human on the planet.” “She told me I was going to be great,” Neillie recalls of her early days in wedding planning. “She welcomed me with open arms from that day forward.”
Along with her friendship came humility too. “I quickly realized that she brings years of knowledge and creativity to the table in such a humble manner,” Neillie says. “You would never know her talents because, unlike so many other artists and designers, she’s just there to do a good job and be nice and make her clients happy. She always puts the clients’ interest first and is never trying to impress anyone except the client.”
To George Jones, Carole is a “tastemaker for the city of Birmingham” who exemplified the good taste of Southern Living’s home town. And he’d know, he’s worked with her on events for close to 15 years. ”She thought large and big and could handle any event that came her way,” he says. “She could take words from a bride and turn it into something beautiful—subtle, contemporary or over the top.”
Over the years he and the rest of the “flower posse”—two of which have been with her since the start—worked with flowers she brought in locally or from Atlanta or New York, wherever she needed to order from to get the most fresh quality. Carole had all the steps of an event day down to a science, from labelling buckets of flowers to scheduling out what was happening before and after lunch. And no matter what unexpected twist got thrown her way, “she always handled different scenarios with grace,” George emphasizes.
Mountain Brook Chamber of Commerce Director Suzan Doidge, who sees Carole as a local Martha Stewart, recalls ladies who work for Carole telling her that Carole’s energy level combined with her calm nature was nothing new: “She’s always been this way and will be this way ‘til the day she dies,” they told her years ago.
Carole is quick to pass credit to the people who worked for her, and it was important for her to give them a holiday party each year as well as a farewell thank you party this fall. “We have a good reputation in town because of them,” Carole says. “I can come up with the ideas but they implement them. They are great friends, and I hope we all stay good friends.” She also is quick to mention Jennifer Slaughter, whose nonprofit Perenity would often takes her flowers after an event and repurpose them for hospice patients.
Of all Carole did in the floral world, perhaps most planning of all went into the Ball of Roses—and this year’s chair has convinced her to do it one more year. Last year she and her team created 80 bouquets of roses for presentees along with boutonnieres for dads and Men’s Committee and decorating East Room and other parts of The Country Club of Birmingham—all according to a color theme that each year’s chairman dreams up, from whites and greens to corals and pinks.
“She is so intimate with the East Room space and the Terrace Lounge where we do the event,” says Carlton Fountain, 2017-18 president of the Ballet Guild of Birmingham, which puts on the ball as a fundraiser for the Alabama Ballet. “That it takes a lot of the work out of planning because she knows it like the back of her hand… There’s always a buzz about what it will be like that year and what she will create.”
After 2019, though, Carole will retire from that role as well. She wants to travel with her husband, Dave, and to be more active in garden clubs in Redmont and English Village, as well as church activities at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, where her son Bob is a priest. But really this season has only begun. “I honestly don’t know what I am going to do,” she tells us. “It’s only been a month.”
This summer Carole sold many of her floral wares at the Crestline Tent Sale outside the storefront she’s had for Lagniappe Designs for the past 16 years, before moving on to emptying her five warehouse spaces. At the sale, many women came up and told her that she had done the flowers at their wedding and that their kids are getting married soon. Which reminds Carole of what she loved most about the work—interacting with so many people and seeing families change and grow up. “I am going to miss it, I know I am,” she says.