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SUCCESS Stories: Jim Carpenter

If you’re in the market for a finch sock or squirrel
baffle, you probably know about Jim Carpenter’s
work, even if you don’t know his name. He is the
man—and the vision—behind the nation’s largest
system of specialty bird feeding stores, Wild
Birds Unlimited.

With some 270 franchises across the United States and in
Canada, Carpenter started out with nothing more than a fascination
for nature and, later, a horticulture education, a little
retail experience, and a desire to continue applying each lesson
he learned along the way.

"It
was a whole lot better to sell a franchise than a bag of birdseed."

The Indiana native’s interest in nature started
with childhood visits to his grandparents’
country home. Grandma loved her backyard birds
and grandpa loved fishing. “You kind of ignore that
stuff during your high-school years. But it’s something
that’s inside of you,” he says.

The son of a doctor, Carpenter was pre-med at
Indiana University, until he was gently advised to
pursue other career options. Next, he embarked on a plan
to become a university professor, studying horticulture
at Purdue. Outings with the student
Audubon Society rekindled his passion.
“It was like a revelation: Oh my gosh,
this is what I like! I like the natural world;
nature is what turns me on,&#8221
; he recalls. “It
made me very happy not to make it into
med school.”

Looking back, Carpenter admits his
path to success did not follow the standard
mogul model. He wasn’t much of a risk-taker. He didn’t
have grandiose dreams of wealth and success. He wasn’t even
sure what he wanted to do. And he liked to feed the birds.

“I would have been the least likely business owner. I’m not
one of those guys who started making money in the sixth grade
mowing lawns,” he says.

“Fortunately, I was in the horticulture department, which is
science for business, in essence,” he says. “It’s like, ‘How do I
grow this better? How do I grow tomatoes and strawberries or
apples, and then how do I sell them?’ ”

After he got his master’s degree in 1979, Carpenter realized
professors’ positions were in short supply. So he dropped into
a modest Plan B: a job at a little garden center in Indianapolis,
where he learned the basics of retail, as well as how to grow
and pick 10 acres of corn and tomatoes. His
business education was kicking in, and he
was learning the basics of retail, including
the importance of a “differential advantage.”
“The one thing that we had that was better
than anyone else’s was our Silver Queen corn,
which was picked each morning every day. That
was our differential advantage. I didn’t quite figure
out that word until later on. It means you have one
distinct differential advantage over all the competition.
That’s really, minimally, what a business
needs to distinguish itself from
everybody else.”

In 1981, Carpenter opened his first
Wild Birds Unlimited store. “I found a
little place, about 700 square feet that
was $400 a month,” he says. “I did the
math and figured I had enough to pay a
year’s rent if nobody showed up.”

Things were slow at first, but Carpenter started speaking
to garden clubs and community groups, and the word spread.
“Up to that point, bird feeding was a second- or third-class
hobby,” he says. “Nobody had anything good on their shelves—
really bad feed, really poor quality. They could tell I was serious
about this.”

In 1983, Carpenter sold his first franchise. The same year,
he married wife Nancy and gained a business partner and
sounding board.

“It was a whole lot better to sell a franchise than a bag of birdseed,”
he says, but still, he proceeded slowly, selling about two franchises a
year for about six years. There was no hoopla, no rush, no swagger.
“I felt this opportunity—I couldn’t figure out any reason not to do
it. I thought I was capable of doing it, but it wasn’t like I had grand
visions of having 200-some franchises.”

No matter the scale, Carpenter did have a vision of what it would
take to be successful: knowledgeable, passionate franchisees. “Being
in the hobby business is different than other businesses,”
he says. “What makes it special is the owner-operator
and his staff have a passion for birds. If the owner
doesn’t understand backyard birds and
the passion, they really cannot lead that
store to its greatest success.”

Wild Birds Unlimited stores are now in 43 states and four
Canadian provinces. Geared toward the backyard hobbyist, they
boast sound, tested products—birdhouses, bird feeders, birdbaths
and more—as well as top-quality birdseed designed for regional
species.

Wild Birds Unlimited has won its share of business awards, and is
heavily involved in giving back through organizations like the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation,
the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society.

When he looks back at how they went from one franchise to a
nation of them, Carpenter likes to sum it up this way: “My story
is based on three different stupids,” he says. “The first stupid is I
was too stupid to know that I can’t make a living selling birdseed.
The second one is that I’m too stupid to know that I can’t start a
franchise company. Those are good stupids. The third stupid is the
one that can be fatal: that you think you are smart enough to grow
the company without an education. I don’t believe anyone innately
knows how to grow a company. Starting a company is easy compared
to growing it.”

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