There are two kinds of crazy in this life. The wear-foil-on-your-head-alien-radio-wave-conspiracy sort or the Fred-Smith-crazy-like-a-fox kind. Fred Smith, while attending Yale, submitted a business plan for what would eventually become Federal Express. His professor gave the project a C-, along with the admonition that it would "never work." Jim Carpenter, BA'75, founder of Wild Birds Unlimited, is the latter sort of crazy. Early on, lots of people told him franchising bird seed was crazy. It wasn't just friends or acquaintances, but experts as well. Eventually, he stopped asking marketing people altogether.
Jim had seen himself as a doctor since third grade, so following high school he enrolled at IU Bloomington in biology on the pre-med track. The official response to his application to medical school was that he "seek another profession." The rejection hurt, but his mother, who was a nurse, had him visit several surgeons. The visits were illuminating. He realized that his attachment to medicine was based on unrealistic preconceptions. Jim wasn't one to sulk. He moved on.
His career goal changed to becoming a professor. Graduate school meant leaving Bloomington for Lafayette, specifically Purdue's horticulture department. Carpenter reflects, "IU taught me a way of thinking, problem solving, exploring new concepts, how the different pieces of a puzzle go together. It set the foundation for me as a business person." In regard to "that other school," he says, "I liked that the horticulture department was combining science and business."
As Jim earned his master's degree in ecological plant physiology, reality again came knocking. "1980 was a bleak time," he says. "There were no jobs for professors, no jobs available for my degree that I would have liked, and I didn't want to go back to school. I felt like giving up." Rather than surrender, he decided to go into business. He managed a lawn and garden center for a year and a half, but the hours were long and the pay was less than stellar. Yet one aspect of the job he did really enjoy was selling birdseed.
Jim started his first store in Indianapolis in 1981. Characteristically, he downplays that first big step. "It's not like I gambled the farm. I took a one-year lease at $400 a month in Broad Ripple. I figured it wasn't a terrible risk. If worse came to worse, I'd close up shop after the year and go back to working for someone else. Meanwhile, I would have had fun spending time talking about birds."
Imagine a store, albeit a tiny one, specializing in bird-feeding products, run by someone who was excited about doing it. In that, you have the basis for Wild Birds Unlimited's success. As soon as Jim opened the doors, he noticed a couple of things. The people who weren't particularly interested moved on, unimpressed. Yet for people who showed interest, reactions tended to be ecstatic. It's a point of pride when Jim says, "We never had a zero-sale day." He also put his horticultural training to use by selling bushes that birds use for feeding and habitat.
During the second year, Jim and one of his suppliers in Michigan began talking about the franchise concept. Neither of them knew anything about the process, but they had people who were interested in running stores of their own. Jim quickly found out that going through standard channels for establishing a franchise system was expensive. He says, "I went to a franchise licensing company that wanted $100,000 to package all the documentation. I didn't have that kind of money, so I found a couple of young guys like myself who were franchisees. I explained my situation and asked if I could copy their franchise agreement. They said, 'Sure.' After making some alterations applicable to my business, I then took the paperwork to a lawyer so he could check it."
The future started taking shape. Business was good, and, in 1983, Jim married Nancy Rousch, BA'79, another biology major. He laughs when he remembers that the company's 1984 operating manual was only 20 pages long. Now it's nine or 10 volumes. By 1986, Wild Birds Unlimited had grown to eight stores and began offering mail order service. It was then that Nancy came on board full time. When Jim bought out his partner in 1989, he found that he and Nancy couldn't do it alone anymore so they began hiring staff. 1992 was the watershed year, with 50 new stores opening. The first person Jim and Nancy hired full time held a degree in biology because, as Jim says, "We thought a liberal arts and science degree would make for a good business mind. He is still with us after 12 years."
Jim is quick to point out that he's gotten a lot of help over the years with no one more important in that equation than Nancy. He says, "The hardest part of it all was growing the business. I have a board of advisors that gives me great counsel and lets me know when I'm doing something foolish, but Nancy has always been both a sounding board and a reality check. None of this would have happened without her."
Nancy wore many hats. She created all the artwork the company used for its first 10 years. She was also the training manager as well as art director. In those early years, Jim and Nancy did everything together, from creating brochures to inspecting potential franchise sites. Things changed again in 1989 with the arrival of their first child. Jim stopped traveling and hired more staff. Nancy worked full time until 1993 when she concentrated her energies on family life and philanthropic efforts.
Philanthropy has always been part of Wild Birds Unlimited's philosophy. Says Jim, "From day one we thought our stores should be a community resource. We have always taught our store owners that nature education provides its own rewards. It's very satisfying, it adds so much to customers' lives, and it comes back to you in your business."
As the number of WBU franchises grew, so did the company's strategic goals for nature-related causes. All efforts were locally based until 1997 when the company developed a national advertising budget. One area that received immediate attention was supporting environmental groups. Supporting larger projects provided both WBU and the project organizations with needed exposure, as well as helped the wildlife. The first big step in that direction was in partnering with Cornell University and its Feeder Watch Program, which developed nationwide bird counts. Still, Jim wanted to do more.
Most recently, Wild Birds Unlimited has formed a strategic alliance with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The Pathways to Nature Conservation Fund provides money to a wide variety of wildlife refuges across the country. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation manages the funds that are allocated from each WBU outlet and helps in the selection process. Typical projects include the creation and maintenance of trails, the construction of observation platforms, and nature center exhibits.
Jim says he's fortunate to be able to follow two simple motivations: to continue perfecting a hobby store for the consumer and to be the best franchise operator in the country. "Everything funnels into those two directions. Wild Birds Unlimited is about long-term relationships." From the roughly 100 applications WBU receives each year, between 15 and 18 are chosen. The company could grow a lot faster, but that would not suit Jim. "The franchise fee isn't really about money, it's about finding a good match." People are happy with the way Jim runs the organization. Wild Birds Unlimited was voted first place in franchisee satisfaction through a survey in Success magazine (and that's 280 store owners). The National Wildlife Federation bestowed a National Conservation Achievement Award on WBU for the company's efforts in promoting backyard wildlife conservation. Even Jim's staff got into the act. In honor of the company's 20th anniversary, they secretly nominated him as a Sagamore of the Wabash. Gov. Frank O'Bannon agreed. What are his plans for the future? Jim wants Wild Birds Unlimited to become even more of a local resource and more of a nature center resource. Nancy continues her efforts on the local level as founder and president of the Zionsville Greenspace Foundation, an organization that seeks to preserve open space, parkland, and natural areas from suburban encroachment. The company also underwrites research in new areas, such as exploring how golf courses can turn their areas of woods and rough into certified wildlife habitat.
In the end, being "crazy" and getting rejected can be good things. Jim Carpenter made a choice and took a stab at something he enjoyed. In an era of multinational corporations and mega-mergers, what does one do with a biology degree? If you're Jim Carpenter, you feed the birds.