Just as he begins his interview with Franchise Chatter, Jim Carpenter stops to admire a Cooper’s hawk that has flown by his window in snowy Indiana and he pauses to comment on the bird’s hunt for food. The momentary diversion would be expected from the CEO of Wild Birds Unlimited who founded the company more than 30 years ago, growing it into a franchise system with 280 outlets in the United States and Canada.
Carpenter, 60, is one of those people who has been fortunate enough to turn his lifelong passion into a profit-making venture, sharing his love for bird feeding and bird watching with others.
“We bring people and nature together, and we do it with excellence,” he says, reciting his company’s mission.
Wild Birds Unlimited’s success has put it among Entrepreneur magazine’s Franchise 500, an annual listing of the country’s top franchises. It ranks No. 125 for 2013 and has consistently ranked No. 1 in its category of specialty retail stores. The company was also ranked No. 1 recently by Franchise Business Review for franchisee satisfaction for specialty retail in 2012. The franchise also ranked No. 10 in large class franchise systems (systems with 200 or more franchisees) and No. 17 in best of the best (all franchises, regardless of size).
The company has come a long way since Carpenter opened his first shop in a 700-square-foot space in Indiana in 1981. By then, he had pursued a biology degree in Indiana State University’s pre-med program and went on to get a master’s degree in horticulture from Purdue. He had also considered being a college professor, but instead got a job running a gardening center and also sold crops he had grown himself at a produce stand.
By then his love for birds, which became a hobby when he joined the student Audubon Society at Indiana State, had become more than just a trivial pursuit. To illustrate the strength of its hold on him, Carpenter can remember a blizzard in Indiana in 1978; when he could make it to the store to stock up on supplies, he only bought milk, bread, and a 20-pound bag of birdseed.
Excellence Differentiates Brand
At 28, he opened the first Wild Birds Unlimited and says he differentiated his business in the market by offering the best bird feeders, the best birdseed, and his own advice and expertise as a bird enthusiast to his customers, a formula that the company passes on to its franchisees today.
Carpenter says he also drew attention to his business by giving lectures to every community group imaginable: Kiwanis, Rotary, gardening clubs, schools…any organization that would have him.
“I gave a lot of talks,” he said. “I did that for years and that was really what built up my business. It’s still one of our No. 1 recommendations (to franchise partners): to get out in the community.”
In fact, when new franchisees come to Wild Birds Unlimited’s Franchise Support Center in Carmel, Ind., for five days of training, one of the things they are taught is to overcome their fear of public speaking by talking in front of a group about their favorite bird.
Interest in Birding is Key
An interest in the avian world is essential for Wild Birds Unlimited’s franchisees, Carpenter said. If they have that, he and his 40-member staff can teach them the business skills they will need to run a successful store, including displaying and selling merchandise, marketing and public relations, creating financial reports, hiring and training employees, strategies on pricing inventory, and studying the local competition.
They also receive marketing plans for a year and learn to navigate the company’s intranet, where they can find resources for creating localized advertising pieces, templates for emails and postcards, and even sources for printing.
Carpenter’s first franchisee was the relative of an employee who envied the lifestyle the CEO had created by combining his hobby with business. Carpenter borrowed franchise documents from a nearby furniture business to draw up his own agreement and incorporated the franchise in June 1983 — the same month he married his wife Nancy, who would also play a significant role in growing the company.
“We were all kind of growing up together in the business,” he says of his wife and early franchisees. “I was looking for peers as well. There weren’t any peers in having a bird feeding store.”
Carpenter also had a partner who sold bird feeders in Michigan. By the time he bought the partner out in 1989, he had 30 franchisees signed with the company.
Today, Wild Birds Unlimited’s main competitors are big box stores like Lowes or Home Depot as well as independent bird feeding specialty stores around the country. There is only one other company that franchises, Wild Bird Centers, which has about 40 stores. Carpenter’s company differentiates itself from the competition the same way it has since he started: by selling excellent merchandise and birdseed and by owners/operators sharing their birding knowledge with customers.
“We feel that we are able to be the experts in the hobby, and our franchise owners are able to be the experts in the hobby,” he said. “We work every day on having a very incredible customer experience.”