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FranDev Players: Paul Pickett, CDO of Wild Birds Unlimited

1851 asked Pickett about his 32 years turning Wild Birds Unlimited into a national franchise and a household name. Also, he told us his favorite birds.

Paul Pickett has a masters degree in ornithology, the study of birds, but when it came time to work in a lab, he hated it. A stroke of luck had him meet Jim and Nancy Carpenter, the founding family of Wild Birds Unlimited*, the 300-plus-unit backyard bird-feeding franchise, at a party. 

Nearly 32 years later, Pickett still works closely with the Carpenters and his chosen field of study: birds.

As the chief development officer of Wild Birds Unlimited, Pickett knows what to look for in a potential franchisee. Under his watch, birds of a feather have flocked together as the franchise continues to grow.

1851 caught up with Pickett to talk franchise development best practices and who’s hoo in the bird world. 

1851 Franchise: Tell us about Wild Birds Unlimited.

Paul Pickett: We’re the original and largest retail franchise offering bird feeding products and education on how to best enjoy and engage with nature in your backyard. We have just shy of 350 stores across the U.S. and Canada.

1851: How did you get into franchising?

Pickett: My very first experience with franchises was in junior high school. I worked for a Mr. Steak franchise but I don't even know if it’s still around. In April it’ll be 32 years working at Wild Birds Unlimited. I had a masters in ornithology, and I moved to Indianapolis to work at a lab job that I hated. Then I ran into Jim and Nancy Carpenter, Jim is our founder and CEO. I ran into him at a patio show, and a couple of months later I started working as the first full time employee at the franchise support center. 

1851: Are there any keys to consistent franchise growth?

Pickett: This probably seems trite, but having that solid, undying devotion to the brand and the brand’s promise, mission, vision and values goes a long way. Obsessing over how your franchisees hit their KPIs, making sure you’re doing everything in your power to help your franchisees grow and make money, which then feeds the franchise development growth.

Making good decisions about who you invite to grow your brand is very important. Selling for the sake of selling won't work. Make sure you’re thoughtfully awarding franchises to individuals or groups who are also going to focus on the mission and values and deliver your brand message. 

Look for people who are going to engage with the system and follow the system. They will succeed and be satisfied, and that will inspire others to join the brand.

We’re never going to get the award for selling the most franchises, but I can’t do that now. I don’t have enough room to grow that much. We’ve always grown smart and been really thoughtful. 

1851: What are the biggest hurdles to successful franchise growth right now?

Pickett: In general, fear is the biggest obstacle. Understanding what those pain points are going to be with candidates and being transparent and addressing them up front makes a difference. It doesn’t matter if there’s COVID or not, a good development team understands where the pain points are and what you need to do as a brand to alleviate those. If it’s the amount of time it’s going to take for a franchisee to get started and become profitable, then you need to focus on everything that can be done to shorten that time period and put that into your Item 19 and make sure you explain that. 

If it’s fear of the unknown, that’s kind of hard to conquer. But to understand where the pain points lie and to honestly share the path to success will help

The other thing is, the best way to grow is to have really happy franchisees. We use Franchise Business Review to do our annual franchisee satisfaction survey and we use that data to understand where we can improve and where we have great results we can promote. 

1851: How did the COVID crisis affect franchise growth opportunities?

Pickett: We have been very fortunate. We were deemed essential and our customers wanted more and more of our product. Our existing franchisees are crushing it now. Same store sales have seen double-digit increases. We are poised to not only manage through a horrible situation, but to thrive.

Part of that is because we responded very quickly. We helped franchisees to migrate to online. We set up curbside pickup very quickly in March. We changed our marketing message to really talk about the bright light during these dark days. That’s what people wanted and they really responded well to that messaging. We were making sure the supply chain was in order — all the stuff you do as a responsible franchisor. 

But that turns into more and more people saying, “this is a great business that I want to investigate to own myself.” I think the biggest challenge is going to be access to capital. The SBA is overwhelmed right now with managing through PPP loan forgiveness and management.

That’s what I’m seeing as the biggest challenge.

We have some wonderful new people buying an existing unit in our system, but the SBA keeps getting delayed. They made the choice to use a local bank instead of our partners, so I have limited options to help them. Any franchisor that doesn’t have a relationship with one or more funding partners should make that happen now. 

1851: Are there any common mistakes you see franchisors making when trying to grow?

Pickett: A common mistake would be to not have good unit-level economics or happy franchisees. Poor validation will crush any deal. You can spend millions on marketing, but you need to have validation to make it work.

If you don’t, you might want to stop franchising and fix your operations. I think over saturation in some markets can be very detrimental to helping franchisees meet their fiscal goals. 

Another problem is not knowing what is the profile of a great franchisee and spending your time and energy blanket marketing to everyone. You need to know who you’re looking for and what qualities and culture you’re looking for. 

1851: What are your biggest goals and plans for 2021?

Pickett: We’ll increase the number of new store openings. We’ve got a really good pipeline right now. We also aim to increase the number of our existing franchisees who are opening multiple units. That’s been a very productive focus for us in the past. We want to build on our already strong momentum. We’re migrating our franchise development CRM and updating our website and really trying to hone our marketing messages more effectively in our target markets. That’s from a franchise development standpoint. From an operations standpoint, it’s just continuing on the incredible growth trajectory we’re on.

We’ve been very fortunate to have great new customer acquisition numbers. They’re through the roof. We’re focused on helping franchisees turn the new customers into long term loyal customers by giving them the tools to help them solidify that relationship. 

1851: Finally, and most importantly, what’s your favorite bird?

Pickett: Spotted Sandpiper, the bird I did my master’s research on. Very close number-two would be the Raven. They’re so smart. 

As for backyard birds, the Tufted Titmouse, they’re just so sweet.

*This brand is a paid partner of 1851 Franchise. For more information on paid partnerships please click here.