14 | Birding Business APRIL 2013 www.birdingbusiness.comI N D E P E N D E N T R E TA I L I N GAccording TO a recentAudubon study, 50 million Americanscall themselves “birders” (I do).Birding is the fastest grow-ing hobby, the second mostpopular hobby, and its rec-reation participants almostexceed those of huntingand fishing, combined.Soon, birding could bumpbaseball as the officialnational pastime (wishfulthinking?).By definition, a hobby is“something that one likes todo in one’s spare time”. So withspare time at a premium today,where do birding hobbyists find fuelto ignite, maintain, and accelerate theirhobby?Paving the WayInitially the birding hobby was frag-mented and undeveloped. Garden centers,hardware stores, and mass merchandisersdabbled in meager “wild bird” depart-ments in hopes of snagging some sales.These stores, often lacking the neces-sary education and product knowledgeto engage the untapped birder market,became mired in the rudimentary levels ofthe hobby. Some astute industry pioneerssensed the hobby’s potential and broughtbirding to a new level.Specialty retailers emerged across theU.S. and Canada serving customers whowatched and fed backyard birds. Withclever names like “Feathered Friends”,“The Bird House”, and “For the Birds”these stores often began as an outreach toother birding enthusiasts with the ownerssimply sharing their passion for the hobby.Today, hundreds of excellent indepen-dently-owned wild bird stores faithfullyprovide birders with remarkable productselections and advice. These independentsstrive to serve their communities as the“go-to store” for birding needs and ques-tions.A Vision Takes FlightJim Carpenter knew little about businessin the late 70’s. Fresh out of Purdue with aMasters Degree in horticulture, Jim ran asmall garden center and produce stand fortwo years.“I taught plants and birds just as I hadtaught undergrads about horticulture, andformed the hobby-selling style that way,”recalls Carpenter. “I gathered customeraddresses from day one and started thepractice of customer newsletters.”In 1981, Carpenter launched a start-upshop in Indianapolis with a name that saysit all, “Wild Birds Unlimited”. This firstWBU backyard nature shop was birthedout of Jim’s love of birding.The next year, he customized his firstblend of bird seed.A vision was forming. If Jimcould enjoy operating a retailstore, sharing his love ofbirding with others (andearn a living doing it),then surely there wereother birding enthusiastswho might enjoy own-ing their own store aswell. Carpenter envi-sioned a group of shopsall around the countryoffering product and adviceto fellow birders, but the vi-sion needed help.Within two years Jim partneredwith Dick Schinkel, a Michigan natural-ist who operated Ol’ Sam Peabody, awholesale bird feeding products supplier.Together they co-founded Wild BirdsUnlimited, Inc., a franchise company.“I was so inexperienced in franchisingin 1983,” recalls Carpenter. “I made upmy own model and drafted a franchiseagreement that I would sign myself as afranchisee. I always believed in offering asmuch service as we could to our franchi-sees instead of delivering only what wasdictated in the Franchise Agreement.“About 20 years ago, we named ourheadquarters the Franchise Support Cen-ter and that name guides us every day. Ihave always believed that we should havea small Franchise Development teamand a large Franchise Support team. Ourstaff’s performance at the FSC is judgedby how well our stores do, not on howwell the Franchisor does.”Those Early DaysThe entrepreneur spirit was alive andwell in the Carpenter home and familyBirds of a FeatherB Y M I K E A N D E R S O N | Contributing EditorStores Flock Together UnderTheir WBU Brand
www.birdingbusiness.com APRIL 2013 Birding Business | 15MUSIC OF THESPHERESsupport helped make the vision a reality.“My wife, Nancy, helped me growthe company for about 15 years,” saysCarpenter. “Then, she stepped back toraise our 2 daughters. Nancy helped inall phases of growing the company as shewas, at different times, our chief trainer,oversaw the business consultants, andorganized our annual and regional meet-ings. We used Nancy’s artwork for ouradvertising for those 15 years as well, asshe is an excellent artist. Our daughtersRebecca and Casey have both worked atthe Franchise Support Center throughthe years, but now Casey is working part-time in the marketing department whileshe goes to school.”Ask any specialty retailer about theirexperiences when adding a second orthird store and they will likely bring upissues like the increases in day-to-daycomplexity, and the feelings of inadequa-cy in operating multiple outlets. Imagine,then, operating a growing franchise ofmany stores, and you’ll understand theneed Jim Carpenter felt for improvinghis business skills after he bought outSchinkel’s interest in 1989.“I don’t believe anyone innately knowshow to grow a company,” says Carpenter.“Starting a business is easy compared togrowing it. So after about 10 years ofgrowing this company and experiencingthe pain of the unknown, I decided it wastime I went to back to school.“I started attending many businessgrowth conferences and joined a localgroup that teaches leadership skills andgrowth tactics for business owners. I alsohired a Strategic Advisory Board thathas a combined 130 years experiencein business ownership and consultingor teaching entrepreneurship, customerservice and retail leadership. We havemet quarterly since 1995, and they areinvaluable in mentoring me to be a betterleader. Lesson: No matter how long youhave owned your business, an outsidementor is essential to helping you growyour skills as a business leader.”The model WBU store was perfectedand more independently-owned outletswere added over the years. Today theWild Birds Unlimited brand signage isproudly displayed at more than 270 loca-tions in the U.S. and Canada.additional backyard nature items?We have always considered ourselvesa Nature Shop through our merchandiseand our advice. However, by using ‘NatureShop’ in our marketing we are distinguish-ing ourselves from the pet trade in cagedbirds.B.B. What type of training andcertification does WBU offer theirstore owners and staff?Honing the HobbyI recently caught up with Jim Carpen-ter, the President and CEO of Wild BirdsUnlimited, Inc. and he shared with mehow the stores are doing today along witha few insights into their future:B.B. Some store marketingrefers to “Wild Birds Unlimited Na-ture Shop”. Do you see the storesexpanding the birding hobby into
16 | Birding Business APRIL 2013 www.birdingbusiness.comWe have a program that helps our salesassociates quickly become an informed‘Certified Backyard Birdfeeding Special-ist.’ Several books and videos must bestudied, and a test must be passed inorder to earn the Certification. We alsohave a Chief Naturalist and a Managerof Hobby and Nature Education on staffthat creates educational programs for ourowners to train their staff and to sharewith their customers in their local com-munity.Navigating EconomicThicketsB.B. What initiatives does WBUtake to withstand recessionarydisturbance?Our Franchise Support staff providesstore owners with materials that help keepthe hobby and its joys in the forefront.We have techniques that we teach toensure a very high standard of customerexperience to every person that walksin the store. We also focus on bringingfresh new products to our customers.In 2009, we reorganized our staff anddesignated one individual solely devotedto new product development. Over thepast 4 years we have brought over 80 newproducts to the market and our top linesales have grown every year during therecession.B.B. Do economic uncertaintiescause member stores to becomecomplacent?“Complacency sometimes is a resultof finding a comfort zone in how thingswork and days and hours worked. Also,the comfort zone results when the com-plexities of retail management have beenreduced to ‘current practices’ instead of‘best practices’. We always try to encour-age business growth by discussing witheach owner what sales goal is possiblein their market and by sharing the bestpractices in leadership and operations thatcan help them achieve those goals.Motivating MembersB.B. Are there programs WBUuses to encourage and engagestore owners with the franchise?Our 1-to-1 Business Consultants builda Consultation Plan with each engagedowner that creates a simple roadmapto the goals of the owner. This plan ischecked and assessed every month. In2009, we began testing another meth-odology, using peer (owner-to-owner)consulting with facilitation provided byFSC staff. This is designed to enhance thevalue of the businesses involved throughintense financial analysis, accountabilityto the group, and the knowledge gainedfrom fellow owners. Our initial resultshave been very positive and we continueto look for ways to expand this program.I also write an annual Strategic WhitePaper. I spend many months studyingour data and the world at large, receiv-ing guidance from the Franchise SupportCenter staff and store owners, and writedown exactly the direction of our retailstores, and services from the franchisor.With this White Paper, our store ownershave a part in setting the future direc-tion and areinformed ofthe decisions Ihave made asto where we aregoing. Valu-able as well, isknowing thathundreds ofother ideas wereconsidered, butdid not makethe final cut.This Paperhelps keep ourstore ownersengaged in thebusiness ofbeing a retailer and the part they play inthe overall Wild Birds Unlimited concept.Group SupportB.B. What type of meetings orconferences might be availablefor a franchisee to attend?We have a very intensely useful annualmeeting of stores that we now call ourEnterprise Leadership Conference. Atthis meeting, our goal is to help our storeowners advance their skills in operatingan enterprise that runs as simply as pos-sible, by having systems that are simple tolearn and delegate. We also teach how tothink strategically regarding products andadvertising, and how to use the tools andrelationships offered by the franchisorto run an enterprise instead of a mom-and-pop business. In addition to ourFranchise Support Center staff, we bringin industry experts and use our franchisestore owners who have achieved success inspecific aspects of their business to teachsessions during the conference.We also conduct about two dozen Re-gional Meetings per year, so that we canspend a day or more with folks in theirown region. Our own private VendorMart is held annually and brings the bestof current and new vendors to our stores.Community ImpactB.B. How does WBU help theirstores impact and serve theircommunities?We create a monthly marketing cam-paign designed to offer tested compellingreasons for retail customers to visit our
www.birdingbusiness.com APRIL 2013 Birding Business | 17stores, and support this whenever possiblewith exclusive product deals from ourvendors. The campaign is available onlinefor owners to tailor the message to birdactivity in their local market.B.B. How do you see the WBUstores impacting their communi-ties five years from now?I see Wild Birds Unlimited being a ma-jor force in ‘Bringing People and NatureTogether’, which is our mission. Withall things digital becoming such a majorpart of everyone’s lives, I believe watch-ing birds in your own back yard is thebest way for many millions of people tomaintain a genuine connection with thereal world of nature. I specifically hopewe help engage a new generation of kidsand their parents in the hobby of feedingbirds. I hope our impact will be that wehelp people create a sustaining relation-ship with birds and nature that will notbe forgotten as we keep developing ourland and our personal spaces.Satisfied StoresB.B. Congratulations! I under-stand WBU is ranked #10 in thelarge most-popular franchisecategory for 2012, according toFranchise Business Review, andranked # 17 in franchisee satisfac-tion in all retail franchises of anysize. What makes the WBU fran-chise so appealing?These rankings are based entirely onfranchisee satisfaction. Generally, it isconsidered fantastic to be in the Top 50,so we are near the front of the pack! Wealways hope to improve our performanceand so far we have been pleased to see ourfranchisees give us good enough marks tomove us to a higher rank each year.In general, we survey our franchisestore owners when we are considering amajor new initiative to get their inputand we use our Franchise Advisory Coun-cil as a sounding board when we meettwice each year.Finally, at the Franchise SupportCenter, we hold ourselves to the samestandards we expect of our stores by con-tinuing to find new and innovative waysto support our franchise owners’ efforts tokeep our retail customers engaged in thehobby.B.B. Moving forward, do you seeprospective “conversion franchis-es” as a viable alternative to yourtraditional franchise model?Yes, we do see conversion franchising asa viable option for both us and indepen-dent store owners. There is a point inevery business owner’s career when thetasks of ‘doing it all’ can become a burdenand a hindrance to growth. We providebest practices and tools in all areas ofretail operations and marketing based onthe results of hundreds of stores. The bestresults come when all efforts by the ownerand staff are targeted towards implement-ing best practices instead of trying tofigure out what they should be.Help for Gray HairB.B. When it comes time for aWBU store owner to think aboutretiring, does your office offer anyprograms to assist in making aseamless transition/sale to a newowner?I have always considered that a suc-cessful franchise ownership experiencealso includes eventually selling your storefor the best value. So we provide aid to afranchisee that wants to sell their store.We give guidance on everything fromvaluing their business to finding buyers toall the hundreds of details involved in thetransaction.Meritorious CommendationIn summary, and referencing the entireWild Birds Unlimited organization,Carpenter adds, “We actually live ourmission, vision, and values.”Brand names are all around us; how-ever the recognized pioneers behind thebrand are relatively few. The VolkswagenBeetle had its Ferdinand Porsche. Applehad its Steve Jobs. Chick Fil-A has itsTruett Cathy, and so on. It is a shorter listin our birding business industry. How-ever, when it comes to a recognized andrespected brand and the pioneer behindit, Wild Birds Unlimited and Jim Carpen-ter would have to be credited for servingour industry well and for advancing thebirding hobby. His contributions havebenefitted us all.Wild BirdsUnlimited®Timeline1981: Carpenter opens the firstWild Birds Unlimited shop.1983: With a partner, Carpenterfounds Wild Birds Unlimited, Inc.,the parent company for selling WildBirds Unlimited franchises. The firstfranchise store opens.1987: Nancy Carpenter, Jim’s wife,joins the company full-time andeventually oversees training, retailstore services and creative design.1989: First Canadian Wild BirdsUnlimited franchise opens.1992: The 100th Wild Birds Unlim-ited franchise opens. Carpenterdesigns the WBU Classic hopperbird feeder which was awardedtrademark status for the WBU logo.1995: www.wbu.com launches1996: The 200th WBU franchiseopens.1997: Wild Birds Unlimited opensits first Internet store.1999: Pathways To Nature®Conservation Fund launches as apartnership between Wild BirdsUnlimited and the National Fish andWildlife Foundation.2004: WBU flagship store in India-napolis relocates, updates visualmerchandising brand standardsand starts the first test of a newloyalty program, The Daily SavingsClub, which morphed into the WBUloyalty program.2006: WBU celebrates its 25th An-niversary.2008: WBU introduces a new birdfood created by Jim Carpenter,Jim’s Birdacious® Bark Butter®.2009: Automatic polling andbenchmarking of store POS datainitiated.2010: EcoClean line of birdfeed-ers introduced. WBU launches itsFacebook page.2011: Wild Birds Unlimitedcelebrates its 30th Anniversary.