Wild Birds Unlimited
“We Bring People and Nature Together”
Business View Magazine interviews Paul Pickett, Chief Development Officer at Wild Birds Unlimited, for our focus on the U.S. Franchise Sector
Both beginner birders and seasoned veterans know that birds are some of the best ambassadors from the natural world: we can see so many intricate connections within nature just by paying attention to the birds. According to a recent survey by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, one third of the U.S. population aged 16 and up enjoys wildlife watching – from observing, to feeding, to photographing – making it one of the fastest growing hobbies in the country. It’s estimated that upwards of 45 million Americans birdwatch, whether in their own backyard or on birding-specific trips. They represent a growing multi-billion eco-tourism industry that’s part-recreational, part-practical global conservation effort to help both birds and humans thrive.
Enter Wild Birds Unlimited (WBU), the original backyard bird feeding and nature appreciation store, and now North America’s largest, with 350 locations across the U.S. and Canada. They’ve dedicated themselves to meeting that growing consumer wildlife hobbyist demand for the last 40 years, while doing it in a way that supports bird- and other wildlife-oriented organizations through community outreach, conservation education, and carefully curated product selections.
Jim Carpenter, President & CEO, opened the first WBU location back in 1981. A modest 700-square-foot retail shop situated on the north side of Indianapolis, it became the catalytic agent that crystallized that specialty retail experience into a self-conscious franchise system, one created around the wonderfully quirky, always enriching pastime of birding.
Dean and Tina Seifert purchased their Denver, Colorado WBU retail store in May 2020 from Scott Menough, retiring owner, who had run the business for 32 years. Coming in with prior experience – the couple ran a franchise jewelry store for three years back in Seattle, Washington and Dean spent six years at Amazon, learning retail from an e-commerce perspective – they say the transition to WBU was easy and “a good fit” for them, both personally and professionally.
Although retail experience isn’t mandated by WBU, it’s “absolutely so helpful,” according to Paul Pickett, Chief Development Officer. “Dean and Tina purchased a big volume store,” Pickett says. “They were stepping into big shoes. And they’ve done it with ease and grace, and just done an amazing job at growing it so well.”
As Tina remembers it, the WBU franchisee training program was “hands-on,” despite COVID-19’s barriers to accessing the franchisor’s full suite of training and support. “Luckily, Scott was a wealth of information, so we absorbed as much as we could from him,” she says. “Also, our employees have all been here three plus years and they’ve been great resources.”
Hobbies became something of a welcome respite from the pandemic, and many turned to birding out of opportunity and convenience during local lockdowns. “Business has been very strong over the course of the past year,” Dean confirms. “Obviously, with COVID, a lot more people shifted to spending time at home, in their home offices, and in their backyards.”
“The business model had to pivot very quickly to doing delivery and curbside pick-up, and to figuring all that out,” recalls Pickett. “Thank heavens the migration to e-commerce had already taken place.”
As everyone knows, the coronavirus had a disruptive effect on the global supply chain, and WBU was not immune. With so many people turning to birds for solace and diversion, suppliers of bird seed and feeders became backlogged, struggling to keep up with the demand. “There are parts of the country, like the Pacific Northwest, that are struggling with that right now,” Pickett says. “Staffing is an issue. Raw materials acquisition is an issue. But our client base has been kinder than most in the face of these challenges and our world-class Product Department is working closely with them to figure it out and ease the pain.”
The other piece of the supply chain equation is that the price of raw materials has shot up, and quite significantly in some cases. “You try to figure out how to absorb those price increases but, often times, there’s just no way to avoid them,” Dean shares. “The price of lumber is a perfect example. Cedar is used to build birdhouses. Realistically, a nesting box shouldn’t cost more today than it did yesterday. But if the supplier can’t get to the manufacturer, who can’t get to the lumber to make the product to where it becomes scarce, prices go up. And that all kind of trickles down to the customer, unfortunately.”
WBU has an extensive list of pre-qualified and approved suppliers, but Pickett states that franchisees are encouraged to source local, niche products to compliment popular items.
“Tina and Dean have amazing business acumen,” Pickett says. “They came to the table with a lot of experience and education. They know what parameters to analyse with and how to assess whether a product line will be a good match within our assortment. It’s silly, but bird bath heaters are part of our range of winter merchandise. Those won’t be in high demand down in Phoenix or Tucson where you just don’t get freezing temperatures. If you’re in Seattle, you’re not going to sell garden flags that have cardinals on them, because you don’t have any cardinals. So, you need to find great franchisees, like Tina and Dean, who can interpret brand consistency and provide more localisation to the brand’s identity. You need that sensible flexibility from market to market. It’s our job in franchise development to make sure that we recruit really, really smart people to represent our brand in every community.”
To help franchisees fund these ambitions, WBU has teamed up with Guidant Financial, a small-business financing firm out of Bellevue, Washington. “Our relationship with Guidant is very long and tenured – it’s been over a decade of us working together,” Pickett explains. “They’ve provided an incredible opportunity for us to be able to offer a resource and a strong strategic partner, one who we know is going to take care of our franchisees and guide them through that process of maneuvering through SBA loans.”
Coincidentally, the Seiferts are in the midst of opening two more locations in the Denver area. A lot of their time and energy has been devoted to running the existing store while ramping up to hire new staff, establish the leases, and build out the new sites. “It’s going to keep us busy for the next year, year and a half, for sure,” Dean says. “For me, it’s about setting clear dimensions and vectors to growing the brand and business and establishing WBU’s footprint here in Denver.”
He shares that both Tina and he are very active in community outreach initiatives, particularly to support wildlife conservation and environmental education programs. “We’ve always been on the lookout for organizations we can partner with, and ways that we can push the ball forward on things related to wildlife in general, but birds and waterfowl more specifically,” Dean explains. “We already do quite a bit of outreach, and work with a number of the rehabilitation centers around town. We plan on doing more of the same, but on a bigger scale as we grow to more locations.”
Recently, the Seiferts partnered with the Denver Audubon Society, raising $2,000 to help their research and conservation efforts. They’ve also hosted the Raptor Education Foundation, a wildlife sanctuary and educational organization, which brought a turkey vulture and several other amazing birds into their store. Dean notes, “The kids can come and actually see some of these birds, up close and personal. We find it’s a great opportunity to educate people. And that’s a big piece of representing a WBU store: there are elements of conservation, rehabilitation, and an understanding that you’re part of a broader community and you have this role to play.”
“Tina and Dean, they started with giving back,” says Pickett, warm-heartedly. “That’s the way to make big changes, to engage, and to bring your brand promise to more and more people.” As for the act of birding itself, Dean believes it’s a nice foray into the “wild” of wildlife science. “It’s a neat kind of hobby because you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy it,” he says. “There are multiple layers and levels of understanding to what’s going on in that little ecosystem you call your backyard.”
AT A GLANCE
Wild Birds Unlimited
What: A franchise retail chain providing bird and wildlife supplies
Where: Headquarters in Carmel, Indiana
Guidant Financial – www.guidantfinancial.com
Guidant Financial is honored to have helped over 100 Wild Birds Unlimited units access capital throughout the years of our partnership. As a financing supplier, Guidant works closely with small businesses and franchise brands like Wild Birds Unlimited to get funding quickly and easily through Rollovers for Business Start-ups (ROBS), SBA loans, unsecured loans, and more. ROBS lets owners leverage their retirement funds to start or buy a business without hefty tax penalties or debt.