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Jim Ullrich opened his Wild Birds Unlimited store on a beautiful piece of waterfront property in Gig Harbor, Wash., in 1993. After more than 10 years at the location, he had to move eight blocks away on the same street to a historic downtown location when the city decided it wanted to purchase the original property.
This year, he’s celebrating his 20th year in business, but he admits the move clipped his wings for a time. Despite his best efforts to keep customers informed about the move, Ullrich said it took about two years to recapture most of the customers he lost transferring to a new location.
His is a cautionary tale for any franchisee. He said that, while it is impossible to predict such influences on a business, a franchisee should try to consider all scenarios when choosing a location for their operation.
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The move turned into a cloud with a silver lining, however. While Ullrich’s new location is just 600 square feet, with an additional covered deck, it also has a large yard that allows him to display merchandise such as bird baths, outdoor furniture, and gardening items outdoors. Plus, the building next door has a series of small holes in the wall that faces Ullrich’s store and in the spring birds come to nest there, providing plenty of species for his customers to watch. It has even attracted media attention, affording him free publicity. In a way, he’s created his own backyard wildlife sanctuary.
Happy as When He First Started
Ullrich, 70, is a Vietnam veteran who spent much of his career in the Navy as a supply officer. After retiring from the military in 1986, he spent several years working as a manager of a nonprofit organization in Seattle servicing the health industry. When he and his wife went on a business trip to Surrey, British Columbia, they walked into a Wild Birds Unlimited store, purchased some items, and got into a conversation with the owner. Ullrich was immediately intrigued by the franchise idea.
“That was kind of my new moment in life at age 50,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to quit my job in Seattle.'”
He began the franchise process in 1992, opened his store January 1993, and today he says he enjoys it as much as he did when he first started. If all Wild Birds Unlimited franchisees are like Ullrich, it’s no surprise that the company ranked No. 1 in the specialty retail category when Franchise Business Review announced the recipients of its 2012 Franchisee Satisfaction Awards last year.
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“That kind of speaks to the franchise as well when you look across the broad spectrum of our group and the number of franchisees who have owned their franchise for more than 20 years,” he said. “The franchise is behind you. It’s just kind of like that wonderful support group of a college teacher or family that’s always willing to step in and lend a hand.”