For the last 26 years, Wild Birds Unlimited has honored franchisees who best demonstrate the ability to bring people and nature together with the “Friends of the Environment” Award. This year was no different, as a new recipient was awarded this prestigious honor at the brand’s Enterprise Leadership Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
From playing in the creek behind her house as a child in Cincinnati, to obtaining a degree in Wildlife Biology and Management from Michigan State University, Wild Birds Unlimited franchisee Laura Fleming has always been interested in nature. She has committed her life to supporting environmental conservation and creating healthy habitats for birds and other wildlife.
Going beyond just her passion for wildlife and nature, Fleming also had a long career in retail prior to purchasing her WBU franchise location in Medford, Oregon.
“Before landing in the role I have today, I was in retail for about 20 to 25 years,” said Fleming. “I had actually worked for the original owners of the Medford store that I now operate for about three years. When the original owners were in the process of selling I got a job with another company in the same industry as a buyer. They had about seven stores at the time and I worked to develop their wild birds and supply section for roughly 15 years.”
Later, when Fleming found out that the Wild Birds Unlimited - Medford location was available for a transfer of ownership, Fleming said, “I jumped at the opportunity to take over the shop and have a business of my own.”
Fleming’s Wild Birds Unlimited store has provided her the opportunity to teach her customers and her community how to develop, conserve and enjoy their own backyard birding and wildlife habitats.
“Fleming has played a true leadership role in supporting a wide variety of her community’s nature education activities and conservation organizations,” said Paul Pickett, Chief Development Officer for Wild Birds Unlimited. “She has done so by providing financial support, giving countless hours of volunteer time, promoting and supporting their events and programs and by serving as an officer or board member for many of these organizations.”
When Fleming first took over the Medford store, she needed to put in a lot of time and energy to rejuvenate the overall business within the community.
“When I took over the store, it had several growth opportunities I could identify,” said Fleming. “By creating engaging programs for both kids and adults, playing an active role in my community and employing an incredible team, we had about 15% growth just about every year for the last four years and I don’t see any reason why that won’t continue in the near future.”
Being recognized as a Friend of the Environment recipient is something that Fleming has been working toward since she first signed on with the brand.
“I feel very honored to have received this award, as both myself and my team have worked very hard to connect our community with nature,” said Fleming. “When I first started working at WBU I remember hearing from people who had won the award and all the activities they got involved with and knew that’s what I needed to do, so I began going down that path.”
Some of the organizations that Fleming has been heavily involved with include the Klamath Bird Observatory and the Rogue Valley Audubon Society. As a board member with KBO, she led their board through a transition to keep focus on community building and fundraising while also helping them to develop their “Conservation Birding” message— a message that is now central to all of KBO’s community education programs.
“When Laura took over her WBU location she helped to create a very unique partnership between her store and our organization which has helped us diversify our community engagement and grow support for KBO,” said Dr. John Alexander, Executive Director of the Klamath Bird Observatory. “Through her direct contributions, Laura and her store are high-level sponsors of the Klamath Bird Observatory and our Community Education Program.”
Fleming is currently on the Board of Directors for the Rogue Valley Audubon Society
And supports the organization in several ways as well. She is able to do this by volunteering her time, making product contributions for special events and promoting the Society’s programs to her customers. She has even established a special marketing campaign to encourage Audubon members to shop at her store by offering to donate to the Society 5% of all member’s non-bird food purchases and 50 cents for every bag of seed bought by its members.
“Laura had a clear vision when she bought her Wild Birds Unlimited location,” said Carol Mockridge, President of the Rogue Valley Audubon Society. “Her store and her excellent staff have become a hub for people interested in learning more about birds. We often trade program resources and her outreach to the community is outstanding. She does more than she has to and she is selfless. I think WBU was very smart to give her a franchise.”
As a way to give even more opportunities for members of her community to learn about their local birds and wildlife habitats, Fleming empowered one of her sales associates, Erin Linton, to create an educational program which Linton named “Chickadee Chats.”
“Twice a month I lead a discussion group on what is happening in the avian world and focus in on one group of birds to study,” said Linton. “With a good, hot cup of bird-friendly coffee in hand, it is a great opportunity for our customers to ask questions about the bird’s behaviors and the seasonal changes they are seeing in their own backyards. We have delved into such subjects as Herons, Mason Bees and pollinators; how to use eBird; owls and nesting; Winter Sparrows and many others. These casual and cozy talks build a great sense of community.”
Fleming also attends bird festivals and sells product as a vendor, delivers presentations and also has booths at various other events in the community such as local Earth Day festivities and other community service and environment awareness initiatives. Fleming walks the walk as someone who works each day to connect people with nature. Even with all she’s accomplished, she is only just scratching the surface of what she plans to continue building on each year.