Sometimes it takes a five-month road trip to figure out what’s next. For Tom and Donna Sheley, that adventure included visiting 32 Wild Birds Unlimited franchisees in 10 states. And for their son, Chris, who has recently taken over the Columbus, Ohio Wild Birds Unlimited store they inquired about from a campground payphone in 1993, his journey is just beginning.
Both Columbus natives, Tom and Donna met in an aquarium shop Tom managed after graduating from The Ohio State University. In 1980, the couple moved to Houston, Texas upon Donna transferring her position at a medical supply company and Tom getting hired to help build and maintain Kipp Aquarium at the Houston Zoo.
The couple eventually started their own aquarium installation and maintenance business, but for whatever reason, Houston never quite felt like home, so the Sheleys packed up again. “Five years after our son, Chris, was born, we decided to take another chance and move on to look for our next life adventure,” said Tom. “We sold almost everything we had to raise a stake and set off in a pickup truck pulling a Coleman tent camper that was to be our home until we found our next stop in life.”
The camping lifestyle suited the outdoorsy couple. Growing up, Tom’s mother put him in charge of filling the bird feeders and identifying the types of feathered friends that visited their yard. “Since my childhood, I have always spent as much time as possible in the woods, camping, fishing and watching wildlife, and birds were a big part of my interest,” said Tom. “Donna comes from a similar background, and we spent much of our free time together enjoying outdoor pursuits.”
While the Sheleys were on their “open-ended sabbatical,” Tom’s mother suggested they check out her favorite “cute little nature shop” in Columbus, Wild Birds Unlimited. “She thought our love of birds and nature, retail experience and entrepreneurial spirit would fit right in with the Wild Birds Unlimited concept,” said Tom. “She was right, of course.”
After visiting the store and learning more about franchise opportunities, the Sheley’s headed to Indianapolis to meet with the Wild Birds Unlimited development team, including founder Jim Carpenter, vice president Nancy Carpenter and chief development officer Paul Pickett. From that successful and intriguing meeting, the Sheleys resumed their epic road trip with a new mission: to meet as many Wild Birds Unlimited franchisees as possible and decide if the business was the next great adventure they’d been searching for.
In August 1993, after visiting 32 franchisees across 10 states, Tom and Donna picked up a payphone in Bryce Canyon National Park and called the owner of the Columbus Wild Birds Unlimited store they had visited five months prior. And on November 1, they officially became the new owners of that store and one in nearby Westerville. The Sheleys later opened a third store, eventually selling it along with the Westerville location so they could focus on the original “cute little nature shop” in Northwest Columbus.
“It did not take long, or many store visits, to solidify our belief that we could make a living and enjoy being Wild Birds Unlimited franchisees,” said Tom. “We had looked at other franchises, including another major wild bird franchise, but Wild Birds Unlimited had some valued tangibles such as franchisee training and ongoing support, superior proprietary products and solid vendor supply pipelines. We also believed in the people and mission behind Wild Birds Unlimited, both franchisor and the network of franchisees, all of whom walked the walk and made us feel like we would be joining a business family and looking out for one another.”
The Sheleys made their Wild Birds Unlimited franchise a family business right from the beginning. Chris started hanging out at the store after school and on the weekends at a young age. “He was really good at talking to the customers and seemed to enjoy helping out,” said Tom. “We never wanted to pressure Chris or force him to work and possibly make him hate retail or our business, so we had other family members to help out and make sure he had balance in his life and was able to participate in sports if he wanted, take a trip to the zoo or [go on] camping trips.”
When Chris graduated high school, Tom and Donna encouraged him to pursue his own path, even if that led him away from their family business. He decided to continue working at the store part-time while studying engineering nearby at The Ohio State University. Two years into his program, Chris approached his parents with the intent of changing his major to better align him with going into the family business. In 2011, he joined the Sheley Wild Birds Unlimited team as a manager. And today, Chris is in the process of gaining full ownership of the store.
Chris has been actively involved in every aspect of the business for several years for a strategic, steady transition of ownership. “Donna and I are obsessive planners, and once we knew Chris’ desire to succeed us and saw what he was capable of and what a good manager he had become, our thoughts naturally involved Chris in our exit strategy,” said Tom. “We have met with our lawyers and accountants, implemented a strategy involving our stock transfer to Chris and set a tentative date for the final transition of the business. The franchisor has been helpful to make sure we understand and adhere to the process of a store transfer from their perspective, and we keep them updated and in the loop as things move forward.”
In 2017, Chris was officially handed full management responsibilities, with Tom and Donna working part-time in the store, holding regular meetings to discuss ideas, problem-solve and ensure the family is all on the same page.
“Giving Chris the latitude to embrace the business was the right strategy for us, and we feel very good about the future of our franchise,” said Tom. “We, as parents, always hope Chris is happy and successful at whatever he does in life. We have worked together as a family to get this business operating at a high level, and have lived and learned through the good and tough times together. We feel this has given Chris the experience and knowledge to draw upon and have continued success.”
The Sheley family’s 26 years with Wild Birds Unlimited have been full of great memories and successes. “Two [memories] that stand out are the moment all three of us stood on a stage at the Wild Birds Unlimited convention facing our peers to receive the Franchisee Honor Award in 1999,” Tom and Donna said. “The other is any time we watch our son fulfilling our mission of bringing people and nature together, and doing it with excellence!”
Of course, handing over their Wild Birds Unlimited store is only the most recent of Tom and Donna Sheley’s adventures together. According to the couple, “Our immediate plans are to retire to our small farm south of Columbus, tend to our garden and get back on the road with our camper to continue the journey we started in 1993.”