Unlimited potential Featured

6:26am EDT February 25, 2005
Jim Carpenter, president and CEO of Wild Birds Unlimited, doesn't believe in corporate-owned stores. That includes his own store which, along with more than 300 others, is considered a franchise.

Carpenter's philosophy stems from his attitude that if you own your own store, you take more pride in ownership, have more fun doing something that you love and that you are passionate about, and, therefore, work harder, to ensure its success.

"I started selling franchises 20 years ago when people came to me saying, 'It looks like you're having fun, how I can I do what you're doing?'" Carpenter says.

The first Wild Birds Unlimited store opened in 1981, and no one was more surprised by its success than Carpenter.

"I was voted the least likely business owner in my class," he says. "I had no previous experience."

He also had very little confidence that his specialty retail store -- born from his passion for and interest in birds -- would prove even the least bit profitable.

"Everyone thought I was nuts," he says. "I had no research to back me up."

What Carpenter did have was a master's degree in horticulture from Purdue University and a notion that he could take the scientific principles he learned in school and apply them as business tools.

"I brought the scientific method into running a business," he says. "And I've since found that it is similar to some business models. I asked questions, developed theories, tested them and got my answers pretty quickly. It's a system that actually works well in retail."

His system for running a retail store, combined with his passion, knowledge and products offerings -- such as bird feed custom prepared, with no fillers, to meet the nutritional needs of the birds of each region -- led to his inaugural store's success.

By 1987, when Carpenter made the decision to offer franchises, he had convinced his wife, Nancy, to stop teaching school and start working with him.

"I hired a lawyer to create the franchise documents and I wrote a 30-page operations manual," he says.

Next, he trademarked his store name and its logo, and his wife began developing franchise support operations, such as marketing. Carpenter also formed a partnership with a bird-feeding product distributor, which he subsequently acquired in 1989. And he remained convinced that franchising was the right --and only -- strategy that would lead to Wild Birds Unlimited's growth.

"It's a better product for the customers for the stores to have local ownership," he says. "Our franchisees have relationships with people in the community. They know the community, and they know the birds in the community. They know how many hummingbird feeders to order, and in what month.

"They are the local experts. That's why franchises are the best way to grow the company, and why we've stuck with it."

Building a better birdfeeder

Wild Birds Unlimited boasts a network of 315 stores in 46 states and Canadian provinces. And Carpenter, despite running his own franchise, is primarily focused on providing his franchisees with the support they need to be successful.

"We grew slowly, opening five franchises in the first year," Carpenter says. "But by 1989, we began growing very rapidly, opening 20 to 30 stores a year."

It was then that Carpenter realized it was time to hire a true franchising expert. He chose Paul Pickett, who today serves as director of franchise development.

"Paul was our first full-time employee," he says.

Wild Birds Unlimited runs a lean operation, employing just 38 people at its headquarters, the bulk of whom are dedicated to the franchise support center.

"We are developing services that we can offer the stores," Carpenter says. "Retail is complicated. As a business owner, you do 50 individual jobs. If we can do 30 of those, the owner can do the rest."

Some of the services Carpenter's support center offers are branding, marketing and training employees on the accounting and point of sale systems.

That's not to say the company dictates to its franchisees how they should run their businesses -- the training is just designed to ensure consistency across the franchise chain.

"We are like consultants," Carpenter says. "But it is still up to the store owner to implement the plans and make them match the local market."

Carpenter says the support center's role is first and foremost to help the store owner drive customers through the front door. After that, it's up to the owner to take care of them and keep them coming back. That's why Carpenter's No. 1 requirement for prospective franchisees is a love of birds.

And not surprisingly, Wild Birds Unlimited's customers are the top source of franchisees.

"The franchisee should have a big interest in bird feeding and a desire to share that hobby with customers," Carpenter says. "They don't have to be experts on birds or bird watching, just have that passion for the hobby and sharing it with customers."

For most franchises, consistency among the stores is a key element of success. But according to Pickett, the director of franchise development, that wasn't the critical component that Carpenter believed was necessary to ensure the success of his franchisees.

"We have written standard operating procedures that our franchise system follows," Pickett says. "We have field consultants that visit our stores on an annual basis to both assist them with the growth and development of their businesses and to ensure that they are following our operating procedures. That being said, in some areas of operations, we encourage the stores not to be consistent, because each store should be the local expert in the hobby of backyard feeding.

"They do need to customize portions of their merchandise to focus on their local birds and bird feeding activity."

Growth factors

Despite his success, Carpenter says his own education continues.

"It's been difficult for me since I didn't get an education in business or running a business," he says. "A lot of people are good at selling product, but few have the innate talent to grow a company."

And, because growth is Carpenter's goal, four years ago he looked outside the company and formed a board of advisers to help him shape its future.

"The board has really made a big difference for me," he says.

Over the years, and with the help of Pickett, Carpenter and his team have developed a successful franchising program that is poised for growth.

"We do have a resource available for just about everything," he says. "Franchisees can call and ask for help, and we have a person talented in that area giving advice."

Carpenter has built his dream team of experts over the years, believing that additional staff members were needed to field questions as the number of stores increased and the product offerings and sizes of the stores continued to evolve.

"The stores are now bigger and have bigger staffs," he says. "There is more complexity in running them."

One thing he doesn't use staff for is recruiting franchisees. Word-of-mouth about franchising opportunities has prospects approaching him, not the other way around, and he has not had to commit a large percentage of his corporate resources to recruitment.

"Only two of our employees are involved in recruiting," he says. "The rest of the employees are devoted to support."

This is critical because with a solid foundation -- and a burgeoning franchise network -- in place, Carpenter has set his sights on even greater growth. He's convinced he's only tapped a minute percentage of an estimated $4.6 billion market.

"Right now, I would estimate we have about 1 or 2 percent of the market," he says. "It seems we can grow healthily, while not taking anything away from other vendors. There's lots of growth potential."

Carpenter's biggest challenge will be to develop the right marketing message to make Wild Birds Unlimited stand out from its competitors.

"There is a lot of competition for every dollar," he says. "Making our voice heard over all the retail marketing is difficult to d o. We have to find the best message and affordable ways to get that message out there."

And Carpenter is convinced that once people visit the store, they'll find it different from the big box retailers and become regular customers.

"People need to understand why it's better to buy feed at our store than the grocery store," he says. "Finding the right message is a challenge. We are continually testing and working on that."

How to reach: Wild Birds Unlimited, (317) 517-7100 or www.wbu.com