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Winging it Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

When Jim Carpenter first told people that he wanted to sell bird seed for a living, he heard quite a bit of laughter. It was 1981 and Carpenter had just opened his first small bird-feeding hobby store in Indianapolis. “Very quickly, I found that the few people who came in really liked having a hobby store for bird feeding,” Carpenter says. “I was the first business they had ever been into that respected the hobby and knew anything about it. That gave me a lot of encouragement that I was doing something right.”

As more people began to frequent his store, Carpenter began to wonder if there might be a bigger opportunity than just running a single store in Indianapolis.

His only problem was he was a bird lover, not a business tycoon. Turning Wild Birds Unlimited Inc. into the company that now spans more than 300 franchise locations across North America was not going to be easy.

“I had no business background, so I was making it up as I went along,” says Carpenter, the company’s founder, president and CEO. “I had some advice here and there from a few people, and I went to a few seminars, but for the most part, I didn’t have a serious relationship with anybody who could really give me good advice.”

What he did have was an idea. He also had a sense of what he would need to take his business to the next level. And whether you’re fulfilling a lifelong dream of being an entrepreneur or coming at it from a different place, you need others to make it happen.

“I’ve never met anyone who innately knew how to grow a company,” Carpenter says. “There is a time at which you have to go from being the technician of your product, maybe you’re good at writing software or making pizzas or selling bird seed, to a different skill. Growing a company is a different skill. You have to go back to school. Not to college, but you have to go to seminars. You need to ask people for advice. You need to become a student of growing a company.”

Wild Birds Unlimited has grown and took in $120 million in 2007 and has about 1,000 employees. That growth has been possible, Carpenter says, because of his willingness to accept the things he didn’t know and fill in the gaps in his own leadership abilities.

“You cannot just keep winging it,” Carpenter says. “There are too many things to learn and too many people are depending on you to do it right. You have to take the responsibility upon yourself to become a better-educated leader.”

Here’s how Carpenter tapped into the expertise of those around him and slowly applied that knowledge to his own management style to help Wild Birds take flight.

Check your ego

As a person lacking formal business training, Carpenter had to reach outside his circle to gain the skills he needed to run his company.

“It’s really hard to only have people inside your organization talk about all your strategies,” Carpenter says.

“That’s a good place to start, but you really do need some people who are not your employees. Employees are obviously excellent and part of the whole process, but they sometimes do have a hard time saying exactly what they think.”

Over time, as you and your employees get to know each other, it becomes easier to have open and honest conversations.

“But it’s still good to get an outsider’s view because then they are filtering it through their experience with the dozens or hundreds of companies they have been involved with,” Carpenter says.

He uses a group called The Alliance, which is affiliated with Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. It brings together leaders of midsized companies to talk about the different skills needed to grow and manage a business.

“About every three years, you kind of go through the same topics, which is pretty good because you forget about them,” Carpenter says. “That’s been valuable, and there are business owners in that group who have been peers and people I talk to.”

That step of reaching out to others and admitting that you can’t do it all on your own is a difficult one to take for many CEOs.

“You have to get over the ego part of thinking that you should be able to figure this out,” Carpenter says. “That’s the in-the-head thing: ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ That’s really big for most people. You are really good at your product. But you have to recognize, ‘I’m not good at this, and I can’t just innately wing this.’”

It also helps to have a confidant that isn’t afraid to tell you when he or she thinks you are making a mistake.

Carpenter’s wife, Nancy, filled that role for him in the early years.

“We were able to talk about the company and make plans,” Carpenter says. “I would get a little wild and crazy with my ideas, and she would be a great person to bring me back down to earth. It can be very lonely trying to start and grow a company if you don’t have somebody close to, to talk about it.”

Set clear standards

One of the most challenging aspects of taking a business from one level to the next is being able to cut loose those who don’t fit in anymore.

“It’s hard often to be the leader you need to be,” Carpenter says. “You have to set expectations for the people in your

organization. You have to make sure that everybody is meeting those. That can be hard for people to go from a small group where you’re all friends.”

You need to be clear about your vision for the company and what your strategy is to fulfill that vision in order to give employees the best chance to succeed and thrive in your organization.

“Figure out, ‘What do I need and does my current organization match those skill sets?’” Carpenter says. “Everybody that matches those, if you have to let anybody go, that’s part of it. If you have to hire some people, that’s part of it. You create a culture of high performance where everybody understands what everybody else’s job is so things don’t get lost in the cracks.”

The idea is that you’re running a business and things need to get done. By laying out the strategy for how you want things done, you give your people every opportunity to be a valuable employee.

“There’s really clear communication of who does what when and who has the responsibility to get the job done and who has the responsibility to approve the final project and veto it,” Carpenter says. “There is clarity of expectation and clarity of process. To achieve that, you need to figure out if you are the person to oversee that kind of communication.”

About three years ago, Carpenter realized he was not the person to make those decisions.

“I did have a person on staff who was capable of doing that,” Carpenter says. “I eventually promoted her to be a vice president, and she is in charge of doing that.”

While Carpenter focuses on positioning the company in the marketplace and interacting with customers, he does recognize the importance of giving employees a clear idea of where they stand in his company.

“You have to get to a point where an annual review is open on all accounts, good jobs and bad jobs,” Carpenter says. “It shouldn’t just be an annual review. It should be at least two or three times a year in between the big annual review so people have regular feedback on how they are doing according to expectations.”

Find your role

As Carpenter gathered more leadership skills and weeded out the people who couldn’t grow with his business, he began to see his own role in the company more clearly.

“Being a store owner/operator, I’m actually a franchisee of my own company,” Carpenter says. “One of my main jobs is positioning our organization to enhance our retail customers’ lives. That way, it all flows from our ultimate customer, our retail customer.”

Carpenter believes there are two types of businesses. A mission-driven organization and one that is driven more by economics.

“It doesn’t mean in a mission-driven organization, you’re not thinking about the bottom line,” Carpenter says. “In our mind, that is the way to the bottom line. ... You have to figure out what kind of organization you are.

“There may be businesses where it’s not a hobby or not as much fun. But I think you can have passion for working in a high-performance organization. I think most people really want to work and most people in an organization are very motivated to do a good job. It could be selling anything or providing any kind of service. Maybe it’s not their hobby. But they can take pride in the way they do their business, the way they treat each other and in the satisfaction of their customers. That can happen in any business.”

Carpenter decided his role would be to communicate his passion for his hobby to his employees and to the customers in order to engage them in it for the betterment of his business.

“Be positive about your own abilities and the ability of your people to pull it off,” Carpenter says. “From giving them loose leashes to do their work and enjoy their successes and experience a few failures. They need to be able to experience both. Both are recognized and used for lessons for further growth. They need to believe in your strategic direction. They should have a way to give input to a strategic direction. Once you have picked what way you’re going, they have to buy in to it.”

Loyalty to your leadership and your strategic direction for the company also relies on your ability to be consistent and focused in your decision-making.

“I used to be what some would call a zig-zag manager,” Carpenter says. “I would change the plan way too often based on new information. That would undermine people’s confidence in what you’re doing. They would spend a month working on something and then you would change directions and that all became wasted.”

If you’re consistent with your message and you show that you really believe in your plan and will stick with it, your people will be willing to invest themselves in it and work to make it happen.

“You’ve got to be able to set the foundation of the organization, the mission, vision and values,” Carpenter says. “You need to then be able to communicate your strategies and then the expectations to all the participants.”

By maintaining open lines of communication, welcoming input and using others to fill in his own gaps, Carpenter has been able to share his hobby with the masses through his stores.

“I just created a company and tried to work with people in the way that I would want to work in a company,” Carpenter says. “That means I would have a chance for having my input and that I would feel that it was valued, even if it wasn’t used. ... Everybody is expected to tell their true thoughts about things and that helps us all improve our organization.”

HOW TO REACH: Wild Birds Unlimited Inc., (317) 571-7100 or www.wbu.com