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How the Schmauss Sisters Found a Shared Passion With Wild Birds Unlimited
How the Schmauss Sisters Found a Shared Passion With Wild Birds Unlimited

Franchisees Geni, Mary and Anne Schmauss and Dawn Graber have become figureheads of their New Mexico communities through their shared love of nature, expert birding knowledge and dedicated support of local businesses.

Every year, the Schmauss family would pack up the car and head to Minnesota or Canada for a week of fun and fishing. The three Schmauss girls—Geni, the oldest, followed by twins Mary and Anne—felt their everyday love of nature blossomed during these family trips.

“It was 1968, and I was nine years old,” recalled Mary. “I remember looking in our backyard and seeing a scarlet tanager. It was a gorgeous bird with a red body and black wings. I got my father’s attention, and we just stared at it in awe. I think that was the first the time I started paying attention to birds.”

It was this deep appreciation for feathered friends, combined with the entrepreneurial spirit of their father, who owned a car dealership, that eventually led all three sisters to franchise with Wild Birds Unlimited.

In 1991, Geni and her husband were living in northern Illinois, feeding birds as a backyard hobby and getting their birdseed from the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Madison, Wisconsin. One day, Geni, restless in her current job, was flipping through the magazine Bird Watcher’s Digest and came across an ad for Wild Birds Unlimited franchising opportunities. She hadn’t realized her store of choice was a career option. After meeting with the corporate team, she seized the opportunity.

Geni chose to open her franchise store in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She had lived in Tuscon, Arizona, years earlier, and loved the temperate climate of the Southwest. And strategically, there weren’t any other birding specialty stores around. She and her husband packed up, moved to Albuquerque and started a new life as franchisees.

Geni tapped her younger sister Mary for help with her budding bird business. Mary, making the easy decision to skip the next northern Illinois winter, moved to Albuquerque a month later. She got a part-time job at a bakery by day and helped Geni build store displays by night. As Mary’s skills grew, so did her responsibilities, and by the five-year mark, she was managing the store’s daily operations.

Meanwhile, Mary’s twin sister, Anne, was living in Minneapolis with her wife, Dawn Graber. Anne, always quite business-minded, was intrigued by what she heard from her entrepreneur sisters. “I hiked and liked the outdoors, but at the time I didn’t really think too much about birds,” said Anne. “But when Geni opened her store, Mary moved down there and they started finding a lot of success, I started to think Wild Birds Unlimited was a great opportunity.”

Anne and Dawn began exploring franchising with Wild Birds Unlimited themselves. Anne remembers sitting in their living room, working her way down a very long list of questions with Geni on the phone.

Her questions were answered. In 1994, Anne opened the doors to her St. Paul, Minnesota Wild Birds Unlimited store. And after three years, her wife, Dawn, officially came on board, too. “Dawn is the secret ingredient to our success,” said Anne. “She makes everything easier.”

When Anne and Dawn’s daughter, Mary, was around two years old, they decided to take some time off. After nine years of owning the store in St. Paul, they decided to sell and take a year to travel. “We lived in a part of Minneapolis that was right by the Mississippi River,” said Dawn. “Anne did a lot of walking with our daughter and our dogs along that river. It was a wonderful year off.”

But it wasn’t long before that entrepreneurial spirit once again tapped Anne on the shoulder. “I realized that I actually only needed a break. I missed the store,” admits Anne. “Our daughter was going to start school soon, so we decided it was a good time to move to be closer to my sisters.”

The couple had heard a member of the Wild Birds Unlimited family in Santa Fe was considering selling her store in the coming years. They called to inquire—after all, they had already perfected their recipe for success with the franchise. “Dawn and I told her we were thinking about moving to New Mexico, and she said that we would be her first call when she was ready to sell,” said Anne.

In the meantime, the couple made the move, working with Geni and Mary in their store and learning everything under the sun about the unique birds of the Southwest. By the time Anne and Dawn purchased the existing Santa Fe Wild Birds Unlimited store, their daughter Mary was in first grade and they were comfortably settled in Albuquerque.

Living just a mile apart has helped the three sisters start new projects together, too. For years, Anne felt there was a need for a month-by-month guidebook for backyard bird feeding, and she wanted to write it with Mary and Geni.

“It took us a few years to put together a proposal, but once Dawn and I moved down to New Mexico, we sent it off and got a book deal immediately,” said Anne. For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard was published 12 years ago and continues to sell well. Anne, now an avid bird enthusiast, celebrated the publishing of her second book, Birdhouses of the World, in 2014.

At the end of 2015, after 24 years as a Wild Birds Unlimited franchisee, Geni decided to retire and put her store on the market. She offered it to Mary first, of course. “She asked if I was interested, and I had no hesitation,” said Mary. “I helped her open that store and build a business that, 28 years later, I now own. Purchasing the store was an investment in my future, and it’s been an excellent one.”

The Schmauss sisters have become active point persons in their communities. Anne writes a monthly birding column for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, and with her twin’s encouragement, Mary began writing her own monthly column for the Albuquerque Journal, too. “I can be walking in a park, and someone will stop me and say, ‘Hey, are you that bird lady?’” said Mary. “We’ve cemented our relationship with the community.”

The Schmauss Wild Birds Unlimited stores contribute generously to local businesses and causes, donating bird seed to the National Wildlife Refuge, state parks, the Audubon Society and more. “I think the Schmauss sisters and I grew up in a family with a real sense of shopping local, meeting people, giving back, and that’s how you live your life,” said Dawn, who grew up in a small farming community in northwestern Ohio. “We’ve all carried that through our professional lives.”

“We have close connections with our community members,” said Anne. “We know we make a difference in the quality of their lives, and they improve our lives, too. We have a tight relationship with our customers, our staff and the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise family. It feels good in every way.

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