1851 Franchise spoke with Wild Birds Unlimited’s President and CEO to learn more about his passion for bird feeding and helping franchisees succeed.
In order for a franchise brand to be successful, it needs to have the right leadership. A company’s culture and work ethic flows from the top down—both franchisees and employees take their cues from those above them. That’s why Franchise Business Review, a leading independent market research firm, sought out to name the Top Franchise Leaders for 2017.
To find the best of the best, Franchise Business Review analyzed 18 months’ worth of data from approximately 30,000 franchisees representing 334 brands regarding their brands’ leadership and culture. The market research firm also took data into consideration surrounding franchisees’ overall satisfaction with their brands and their likelihood to recommend them to other aspiring business owners.
One industry leader who received high marks from his brand’s franchisees is Jim Carpenter, the President and CEO behind Wild Birds Unlimited. 1851 Franchise caught up with Carpenter to learn more about the passion that he brings to the table every single day.
1851 Franchise: What do you think are the traits or skills you possess that make your franchisees believe you are a top leader?
Jim Carpenter, President and CEO of Wild Birds Unlimited: Great leaders practice what they preach. They have a written vision and values. They come from their hearts and souls, not just their heads. They lead by example and focus on honesty, transparency and the customer experience. I definitely live and breathe our values—our mission is to bring people and nature together. We do so with excellence—it’s two parts. First, it’s what we do. It’s giving to our customers on a retail level. The second part is that we challenge ourselves to do better every year. Those are the two things that drive me. Wild Birds Unlimited has a vision and values that serve as our foundation: respect and openness.
I also love the hobby—I’m the world’s biggest bird feeding geek. I wrote the book on it, so I’m not just a business person selling in this space. I’m a business person who’s selling in my favorite hobby space. I know as much about it as any other hobbyist, and I’m at the leading edge of that hobby. I innovate and think outside the box to see what the hobby can do.
Beyond that, I love retail and franchising. I like to see them come together as a whole organization in which we create business opportunities for franchisees to bring people and nature together. Our franchisees are able to make a living from that, and so are our employees. I really enjoy the entire picture of bringing our vendors and suppliers to the table as a team as well. And Wild Birds Unlimited has its own products and a label that we provide our customers. That all goes into the creative process of building our organization.
1851: What is your leadership approach?
Carpenter: It took me a while to get here. I’ve been in this business for 36 years now. It probably took me about 10-15 years to learn how to be a leader through my mentors. But in the last 20 years, I’ve found my groove. My style is to always think about the future while paying attention to what is happening now. My job is future-oriented—we need to think about who we need our target customer to be and how we will outcompete anyone else who wants to be in our same merchandise space. I have a whole team of people who then implement that plan with our franchise store owners to win in the marketplace.
Paul Pickett, our chief development officer, says that communication isn’t just talking—it’s listening. That’s why we’re encouraging our franchisees to share their thoughts and concerns. We truly listen to them and integrate it into our plans. Sometimes you just have to ask the question, “How did I do?” Part of our culture is asking those questions to our candidates and franchisees. We’re constantly looking for that feedback so that we can grow and improve with excellence, which is a part of our mission.
We also actually use Franchise Business Review as a measurement of how our team is doing. We make annual goals to increase specific areas in which we need to improve. We then figure out a way to get a better review next year. The goal I have is often to ask how I’m doing, from my performance in a meeting to my performance overall in my role.
1851: To other founders, CEO's or Presidents leading franchise brands into the future, what advice do you have to give?
Carpenter: The biggest piece of advice that I have for other leaders is to determine the culture you wish to have and make a plan to make that future happen. In our case, the No. 1 most important thing in our franchise system is how franchisees are doing. What are their sales and profitability? How about their lifestyle? Do they have the tools to make life easier, more efficient and profitable? What are the training tools we have for them to run an enterprise of max return for the least hours per week? That’s what has created a culture in my franchise support center and that culture is more important than how Wild Birds Unlimited Inc. is doing. Ultimately, growth and success depend on how franchisees are doing.
From there, our franchise development department is directed not just to meet a goal of new franchise agreements per year. We do have a goal for those, but they have to be people who will be a good match for our culture, and we have an established culture for the way we approach retail customers. We also want them to be successful. That’s why if the franchise development team has a potential franchisee that we don’t think will be successful, they certainly won’t make it through the process to get a franchise. It’s about potential—we don’t want our franchisees to fail, period. Nothing is worth getting a franchise fee just to have another agreement signed unless we feel they are a good match for our system and are capable of running a successful enterprise.
Another thing that we do is get retail operations involved. Our COO, Pat Perkinson, becomes very involved in the selection process alongside Paul. They have final authority on any candidate that’s going through the system. That means our retail operations team, who works closely with store owners every day, have a say and are able to add their perspective. Between that and Paul’s development expertise, we have a great team. There’s a great relationship between the two that creates a very positive franchise selection process.
1851: Who is the person in franchising who has most influenced or inspired you over the course of your career?
Carpenter: I have mentors for 25 years in the retail industry. I also have a strategic advisory group and my own personal advisory board. They have been very good for me—it’s great to have mentors in leadership and entrepreneurship who understand the details of being in retail and in a leadership position. One of my mentors is 95-years-old, and is one of the earliest entrepreneurial professors in the nation. Another one teaches at Indiana University in retail and grew their retail student number from 100 to 400 over the past eight years. The third mentor is a serial entrepreneur—he’s owned businesses from gas stations to limestone and popcorn. Those guys are great to have a conversation with. However, if I were to name someone who’s influenced by career who I’ve never met, it would be Richard Branson. He’s just a crazy entrepreneur who makes things happen. He is fearless, and sometimes you just have to remind yourself that you can have that Branson quality and drive to make it happen.
1851: What does your typical day look like?
Carpenter: I can pretty much choose what I want to do every day. I prefer to live in the future instead of the now—my team handles the “now” meetings. Instead, I have monthly meetings set up with my team, including my top two executives. So, every day I come in and check my email, work on my calendar and manage my travel to see what I’m going to do during store visits. I also spend a lot of time preparing an annual white paper. I start this process in the fall—I spend about six months thinking about what to communicate to the Wild Birds Unlimited system where we’re going and why we’re going there. A few months later, I’ll follow up with our annual convention, where I give a speech that illuminates what’s discussed in the white paper. Pat organizes that entire convention, and it really gets people’s heads wrapped around our future and where we’re going.
1851: Where do you see yourself in the future?
Carpenter: I’ll be an old man and 100-years-old still thinking about a new way to feed the birds, how to win in retail and how to support our franchisees who are growing their own businesses.