Jim Carpenter’s business is for the birds – literally. But Wild Birds Unlimited, the company that Carpenter started back in 1981, is also for people who want to connect with nature – most specifically, the over 50 million people in North America who feed birds and watch wildlife in their own backyards, and who spend almost seven billion dollars annually on bird seed, and other wildlife food and accoutrements.
Paul Pickett, Wild Birds Unlimited’s Vice President for Franchise Development, narrates the story of how one man’s passion for connecting with nature grew into the continent’s largest franchise system of backyard bird feeding and specialty stores:
“Our founder, CEO, and President, Jim Carpenter had a Masters degree in Plant Physiology,” Pickett begins. “He was not accepted into medical school; so instead, he got into the garden center industry and managed two garden centers. He found that his favorite part of the job was working with people and helping them find the right products to enjoy their backyard bird feeding hobby. After a couple of years, he had grown weary of the garden center industry and decided that it was time to do something else on his own.
“He had a small inheritance. He had investigated doing a mail order company that sold backyard bird feeding products and the plants that people could plant in their backyard to create a habitat that would attract birds. As he did his budget analysis, he realized he had the opportunity to do either a one-time, mail-order catalogue and mailing from a purchased list, or he had enough money to rent a space and start a retail store. Coming from a family background in retail, he said, ‘I’m going to go the retail route.’ So, he opened the very first Wild Birds Unlimited store in a very small space, in a cool, funky part of Indianapolis called Broad Ripple. And that’s where the story began.”
Pickett continues: “One of his first employees was a retired gentleman and that gentleman’s nephew came for a visit and started talking to Jim and said, ‘I hate what I’m doing. You always have a huge smile on your face and there’s a steady stream of customers. I want to do this too.’ And so Jim began to investigate franchising, and in 1983, once it became clear that there were other people who wanted to do this, and Jim knew that what he could provide was information, education, and a path for those people, he began franchising the Wild Birds Unlimited concept.
“Initially, he had a partner who was in the wholesale side of the bird feeding industry and they began, very slowly, franchising. Jim’s wife, Nancy, came into the business, full-time, a few years later, and in 1989, Jim and Nancy bought out the partner. At that point,” Pickett concludes, “I met Jim and Nancy, and was hired as the first, full-time staff member for the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise, and we started growing. They had grown to 29 stores between 1983 and 1989, and now we’re at 303, with ten more in process.”
Just as they did in the beginning, today, Pickett says that the vast majority of Wild Birds Unlimited franchisees in the U.S. and Canada come to the company because they’ve engaged with the brand in some way. “They’ve either been customers, or they have visited a cousin, a mother, or a nephew and that person has said, ‘Let me take you to my favorite store,’” he explains. “Typically, they are engaged in the hobby at some level. Most of them are passionate about it; some of them are more casual. But they like birds, they like nature, they love the hobby of bird feeding.”
However, out of the many potential franchisees that do seek to run a Wild Birds Unlimited store, according to Pickett, only about two percent are ultimately successful. “They are very, very strongly vetted,” he asserts. “We have a step-by-step process that includes a very intense validation. They must reach out and visit both personally and on the phone. We also require that they visit our most recent online franchisee satisfaction survey. We go through the franchise disclosure documents, ensuring that they get all of their questions asked and answered. They must present a business plan. We use a personality profiling too, to assist us as part of the process.” Candidates must also have a conversation with the company’s Chief Operating Officer, and/or the Director of Retail Operations prior to being invited to what Pickett calls ‘Join the Flock Day,’ where candidates are vetted further at the company’s headquarters in Carmel, Indiana.
“And we consider it very much a mutual approval process,” Pickett adds, “to make sure that they’ve got realistic expectations of the business; their obligation of what they need to do to be successful; and that they will implement the Wild Birds Unlimited best practices. And at the same time, of course, they’re vetting us to make sure that we are the right match for them. Both sides of the equation are very selective.”
But once becoming a Wild Birds Unlimited franchisee, there ensues a vast amount of support from above. “This company’s focus is on the individual franchisee,” Pickett avers. “We want to see our franchisees meeting their business goals, so we’re always focused on those individuals. The way you support somebody may change over time, and it’s incumbent on a franchisor to identify how that franchisee wants to be supported, and then give them the tools and motivation to help those individuals help their individual customers better enjoy the hobby of backyard bird feeding.”
Pickett says that in order to provide the best possible support and service to its franchisees, the company relies heavily on the annual Franchisee Satisfaction Survey provided by Franchise Business Review (FRB), a third-party resource. FBR surveys hundreds of franchise brands, using a series of in-depth questions, to compare satisfaction levels across all areas of operations. “We analyze that information and make strategic changes to the way we deliver our support services, based on those results,” Pickett says. For 11 years running, Wild Birds Unlimited has ranked in FBR’s Top 10 of all franchises, and, most recently, the company ranked No. 8 overall and No. 1 in the Retail category on FRB’s 2016 Franchisee Satisfaction Awards Top 200 Franchises list.
Maintaining the Wild Birds Unlimited brand is also an important part of the company’s ethos. Pickett reports that it works with vendors all across the U.S. and Canada to develop products to provide to its franchisees. “We are not in distribution; our franchisees work directly with the vendors,” he states. “But we work with the vendors to develop private-label, patented products that are only available in Wild Bird Unlimited stores. Our franchisees also order and sell products that are not private-label and have the ability to have a local supplier, as long as it meets our specifications. We have very specific expectations and we have an array of approved suppliers that is so comprehensive that it is very rare that a sale would come from a non-approved vendor. But we do allow it as long as it maintains the quality expectations and, of course, is appropriate for the brand.”
In the end, all of the customized products and individualized services provided by Wild Birds Unlimited to its franchisees are there so that they can best help their retail clients connect with the natural environments they inhabit – which may differ from customer to customer. “You can look at a five-block radius of one of our existing stores and you could have someone who is living in a townhouse with a very small backyard,” Picket explains. “Or, someone who has a typical suburban backyard that is out in a brand new subdivision may have a very different way of feeding and enjoying backyard birds than someone who lives two blocks away in a more established and treed environment. They may get different birds; they may have different opportunities or challenges with the hobby of bird feeding. So, we really focus in on that individualized and customized advice to help our retail customers – who are the lifeblood of our business – to enjoy the hobby.”
Wild Birds Unlimited. It’s still a business that’s for the birds. But it’s also for the many people who enjoy watching and feeding them.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Wild Birds Unlimited
WHAT: A retail chain stocking supplies for feeding and observing birds and wildlife
WHERE: : Headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana
Aspects, Inc. – Based in Rhode Island, Aspects, Inc. is a manufacturer of high-quality bird feeders that are as attractive as they are functional. The company’s products include hummingbird feeders, seed tubes, seed trays, domes, window feeders, and window thermometers. For over 35 years, Aspects has proudly manufactured all of its items in the United States and backed them with a Lifetime Guarantee. Aspects donates a portion of its sales to worthwhile non-profit organizations that are working hard to help birds and animals that share our world. – www.aspectsinc.com
Pacific Bird and Supply Co., Inc. – Pacific Bird and Supply produces high-quality, all natural products for the feeding of birds made from the healthiest, heartiest, farm-raised, pesticide-free worms and insects, premium seeds, dried fruits, and hearty nuts. The company’s minimally processed products contain no artificial preservatives or binders, so birds receive more vital nutrients and usable food materials. www.pacificbirdandsupplyco.com
QMT Windchimes – QMT Windchimes manufactures Corinthian Bells and other fine, hand-tuned wind chimes. Since 1980, QMT has been crafting its “Made in the USA” chimes with an emphasis on providing high-quality at a good value. Corinthian Bells is their best-selling contemporary chime, and their original Arias chimes continue to be a traditional favorite. – www.qmtwindchimes.com
Sun Coast Packaging – www.suncoastpkg.com