Wild Birds Unlimited’s Paul Pickett on How Development Feeds Operations
Wild Birds Unlimited’s Paul Pickett on How Development Feeds Operations

The longtime franchise CDO says strong operations starts with savvy development.

For bird hobbyists, Wild Birds Unlimited is a household name. More than just retail stores, each Wild Birds Unlimited location has become a sort of community hub for local bird enthusiasts in its market. The franchise has cemented its authority among hobbyists by equipping each of its stores and store owners with market-specific knowledge and inventory and encouraging in-store events and education.

In the nearly four decades since the first Wild Birds Unlimited store opened in Indianapolis, the brand has expanded consistently, establishing more than 300 locations in markets across North America.

The franchise’s success can largely be attributed to a rock-solid operations system that assures a consistency of service between stores even as services, products and events vary by market.

But even the strongest operations models need the right people to execute them. That’s why Wild Birds Unlimited’s chief development officer, Paul Pickett, says effective operations begins in development.

1851 talked to Pickett to learn about how Wild Birds Unlimited’s development strategy has fueled its operations model.

1851: What do you think are the key operational concerns for any franchise brand?

Pickett: You need to have the right people operating the stores — people that believe in your brand’s mission and values and people who are eager to execute on the brand’s promise. You need people who engage with and embrace the brand’s culture.

That’s why it’s so important to have members of the operations team involved in the development process. Operations needs to make sure that Development is asking the right questions and providing the right expectations to make sure they are finding the right matches.

We keep our operations team involved in every step of the process. You don’t want to hire people that the operations team won’t be able to support.

1851: What are some operational concerns that are unique to Wild Birds Unlimited?

Pickett: One of the things that we have to remain focused on is making sure that every market is well positioned demographically, not just in terms of humans but also birds. For Development, if we are looking at a market that doesn’t have enough backyard birds, we’re not going to build a store there.

Operationally, we also need to make sure that we are partnering with owners who have the grit to handle the grind — I hate that word, but it’s true — of brick-and-mortar retail work. We need people who are willing to unload the truck and work on weekends every now and then.

And of course, we are looking for people who can follow a process to a T. We have a rigorous validation process. That’s useful for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that it shows us how well the candidate is able to follow a process.

1851: What does Wild Birds Unlimited’s operations team look like?

Pickett: There are a number of departments within the operations team. Each has a staff that reports to a director, who reports to the COO. Departments include marketing support, purchasing support, retail operations, hobby and nature education, and information systems among others.

1851: Are you focused more on individual store operations or the operations of the system at large? Is there a difference?

Pickett: Yeah, there is a difference. We have departments in our support center that are focused exclusively on system-wide operations — marketing plans and things like that. Then we also have business coaches who work directly with franchise store owners to make sure those system-wide operations are being implemented effectively in their market.

The marketing department may come up with a campaign about the spring nesting season beginning in March. That may apply to 85 percent of our stores, but then 15 percent of our stores are in markets where the nesting season starts later, so the coaches will help those owners make sense of the campaign in their market.

1851: What do you think more development teams need to understand about franchise operations?

Pickett: I’m always shocked when I talk to franchise professionals in any department who don’t spend a lot of time with their franchisees. Not just new franchisees, and not just the most successful ones, you need to see for yourself how all of them are running their stores. You need to know why some stores are doing better than others and try to put your finger on what the differences are. For Development, you need to know which characteristics and skill sets and personalities are proving effective.