At age 25, Wild Birds exceeds 300 stores in 43 states, Canada

July 24, 2006

At first glance, Wild Birds Unlimited might look like a quaint "mom-and-pop" store--if a well-polished one. Employees treat customers like lifelong friends, greeting them by name and asking about their children.

It also could pass for a nature-lover's utopia, as shoppers browse to the sounds of water trickling through a fountain, wind chimes tinkling and a hummingbird's song piped through the store sound system.

That's the idea.

When Jim Carpenter opened the first Wild Birds Unlimited in Indianapolis 25 years ago, his goal was to bring people and nature together--a combination that has brought him "unimaginable" success.

Now, the Carmel-based firm has 315 franchises in 43 states and four Canadian provinces. Together, sales total $100 million a year, Carpenter said. That translates to $5.1 million in royalties and other revenue for the parent company.

Birding is a cash cow, to be sure.

American bird enthusiasts spent $32 billion to feed and watch wildlife in 2001, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

And Wild Birds Unlimited is in a position to capture a fair share of that--its stores sell everything from birdseed to bird feeders to birdhouses, in addition to items for gardening and landscaping.

Carpenter, now 53, went out on a limb in 1981 when he opened the original store in Broad Ripple, one of the first in the country to specialize in backyard bird feeding. But he didn't have lofty ambitions then.

"There was no such thing as a serious bird-feeding store, so I was very driven to open one," he said. "I was just trying to pay the rent."

He started thinking about franchising when customers said "it looked like fun" and asked about opening their own stores. The first franchise opened in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1983. By 1995, there were 200 shops in Carpenter's flock.

Hatching a plan

With a master's degree in ecological plant physiology from Purdue University, Carpenter had the nature side of things covered, but he lacked business training. Seminars and conferences filled in the gaps.

He also learned plenty on the job as Wild Birds Unlimited experienced seemingly unlimited growth in its first decade-plus.

But store openings slowed by 1996, when "many of the designated territories had already been marketed," explained Paul Pickett, director of franchise development. Even so, Wild Birds doesn't target any particular area for stores, he said, preferring to let franchisees choose locations.

All but two of the storeowners sought out Wild Birds Unlimited, Carpenter said. The others made initial contact through a franchising consultant the company has engaged.

"Because it's a very particular kind of buyer, I can't find owners for my franchisees--they have to find me," Carpenter said. "I want the current franchise owners to meet their goals and that naturally drives the growth of the franchise system."

From the beginning, Carpenter's strategy has been to make sure each store has the tools it needs to succeed--providing training to store managers, offering advice on product selections, and making sure everyone is committed to providing quality customer service.

For him, it's about more than dollars and cents.

"I've always had to filter and decide what's best for my business," Carpenter said. "It's really important to take care of the individual stores. The growth of the system depends on it."

The company also engages its customers, sending monthly fliers and newsletters as well as occasional e-mail updates.

As specialty stores like Wild Birds Unlimited grow, successful owners must stay true to their mission, said Jim Petersen, a franchise attorney at Indianapolis law firm Ice Miller. They can't dilute the product by growing too fast or opening stores in bad locations.

"A lot of franchises lose their identity," Petersen said. "They are competing with the Wal-Marts of the world, so they have to become unique in service and product."

Carpenter wanted to stay true to the family-oriented environment, but as stores popped up around the country, he discovered he needed help.

After meeting Will Haeberle, a professor at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, he formed a "strategic advisory group" in 1995. Advisers include Haeberle and central Indiana businessmen Frank Walker of Indianapolis-based Walker Information and Rick Bomberger of Zionsville-based R.B. Apparel.

"I started seeking advice from experienced businesspeople too late and should have asked for advice many years sooner," Carpenter admitted. "But I didn't know the questions to ask and didn't know what to do."

The group helped Carpenter develop ways to provide consistent customer service, organize the staff, create a budget, and outline plans for the future.

Bomberger said entrepreneurs often want their own way, so he reminded Carpenter to stay open to changes and keep listening to franchisees' concerns.

"Jim is a great listener and reacts with a solid business strategy," Bomberger said. "He's very open to change and willing to listen because he wants each business franchise to be successful."

Carpenter and his franchisees were very knowledgeable about birds and nature, Bomberger said, but they lacked business and retail training. With the help of the advisers--and experience--the stores have improved.

Birds of a feather

As his company grew, Carpenter wanted to make sure the stores had a consistent look and feel. His wife, Nancy, launched the franchisee-training program in the 1980s; now a staff of 30 helps new storeowners get acclimated.

Carpenter said having like-minded owners helped Wild Birds Unlimited establish its credibility, but maintaining the long-distance relationships has been one of the most challenging parts of operating a large franchise.

To make sure everyone is on the same page, business consultants check on the stores weekly and 38 employees at the company's "franchise support center" are available during normal business hours to answer their questions. Owners also can access a company intranet for more information.

Wild Bird also holds a company-wide conference and regional meetings annually.

"It's really important that people both love what they do and want to be successful," Carpenter said. "Our store is more teaching than selling."

At the annual conference, participants spend three days learning the latest sales techniques. Franchisees also perform skits and engage in interactive workshops.

"We provide something that is so unique," Pickett said. "It's not just a product shop, but an information shop, too."

Kathy Williams grew up shopping at the original Wild Birds Unlimited in Broad Ripple and remembers "it was quite a sight" to see dozens of birds swarming in the grass in front of the 800-square-foot store.

Now, she and her husband own two stores in Indianapolis where birds flock.

Williams, who has a degree in merchandising and marketing, said with so much electronic information available, customers expect more out of stores than good service. There's nothing wrong with doing the job with a smile--or the family pet.

Her fluffy, white poodle runs up to customers as they enter their Carmel store.

Frequent shoppers know they can go to Wild Birds Unlimited to find products and make a friend. Eighty percent of Williams' revenue comes from 20 percent of her customers.

"We are the kingpins--the trendsetters," she said.

Leader of the flock

It's quite a trend.

More than 46 million Americans ages 16 or older participate in birding, according to the 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey, including one-third of Indiana's population.

And they pour money into their hobby as frequently as they dump birdseed into their backyard feeders, including $471 million on binoculars and scopes, $2.2 billion on bird food, and $7.4 billion on wildlife-watching trips.

That's a huge amount of money considering how many small businesses are involved, said Susan Hays, executive director of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry, a 154-member trade organization.

Birding is a "cottage industry," where entrepreneurs sell products out of their homes and garages, she said. That makes it impossible to keep an accurate count of businesses.

Wild Birds Unlimited isn't the only franchise, but it is among the largest. Its biggest competitor, Wild Bird Centers of America, has fewer than 100 stores.

Carpenter isn't content to merely rule the roost, though. While he wants to continue to open new stores--20 are on the drawing board for 2006--he also plans to spend more time in the 82nd Street outlet he and his wife still own.

Staying connected to customers is key to the chain's continued success, he said.

"The hobby has always been there and it's huge, and we'll continue to take care of folks like we always have," Carpenter said. "We bring people and nature together and that's what it's all about."

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