When Wild Birds Unlimited franchisee and birding enthusiast Barb Whipkey and her husband, Chip, first relocated to St. Mary’s County, Maryland in 2003, Whipkey was shocked that there was no place to buy quality birdseed. Whipkey first opened a pet-sitting business, which she ran for 11 years, followed by a home daycare “just long enough to get the grandbabies into school,” Whipkey said. Once she closed the doors to her daycare business, her entrepreneurial spirit did not subside and she wanted another business opportunity, but wasn’t sure where to look. That is, until one day, when she was on a drive to a local park to take pictures of the area’s birds.
“That’s when it hit me: We should open a birdseed store,” Whipkey said. She called Chip and he agreed that there was a need in their community for just such a business.
“The joke was, if we fail, it’s his fault because he said I should go for it,” Whipkey laughed.
It turned out, Whipkey’s husband wasn’t the only one she had to convince. Upon learning that Wild Birds Unlimited was the premier birding retail franchise, Whipkey reached out and connected with Chief Development Officer for WBU, Paul Pickett. Pickett was thrilled Whipkey wanted to join the system but initially felt that the smaller population density of St. Mary’s—a community with only about 105,000 residents, many of which live far apart from one another and from local retail spaces—wouldn’t add up to sufficient demand.
“I came back and showed him the other retail locations we support; in our community, it’s not unusual to drive 20 or 30 minutes to shop,” explained Whipkey.
Whipkey won out and Pickett could not be happier. In August 2015, Whipkey opened her first Wild Birds Unlimited location in Lexington Park in August 2015. The location was so successful that Whipkey had to expand into an adjacent storefront. Buoyed by her momentum and success with her first Wild Birds Unlimited store, she is now in the buildout process on her second WBU location in La Plata, another Southern Maryland town about 45 minutes away, with a targeted opening of early September.
“Paul [Pickett] and I would joke about it,” said Whipkey. “When I reached out to inquire about the possibility of me opening a second store, he said, ‘Well, are we sure there’s enough volume?’ Now it’s our joke.”
Pickett and Whipkey don’t only enjoy mutual jokes, however; they also enjoy mutual support.
“When I am wrong, I am wrong. Sometimes, the data does not show the whole story,” said Pickett. “Barb and Chip, and others, have proven that with passion, community involvement and a focus on their people and growth, Wild Birds Unlimited can be very successful in smaller communities. One of the best things about Barb and Chip is their never-ending focus on their people, the WBU brand and fulfilling our shared mission. We are humbled and honored to have them as part of our community.”
For her part, Whipkey is emphatic about Wild Birds Unlimited’s unwavering support, which extends from initial training to partnering with her for ongoing development.
“When I first joined Wild Birds Unlimited, I was blown away by the amount of support I received as a franchisee,” said Whipkey. “Really, though, I shouldn’t have been, because I researched the brand so thoroughly and knew that Wild Birds perfectly aligned with my beliefs. Both about products and birds, WBU has such a strong education background and takes care to offer that education to customers and franchisees alike. And any time I have a question, I can reach out and get an answer back immediately.”
Asked to name her favorite part of being a Wild Birds Unlimited franchisee, Whipkey said it’s all the ways being a WBU owner has allowed her to engage her community and find other nature lovers throughout St. Mary’s.
“Just last night, I received a picture from one customer with the text, ‘Can you tell me what this bird is?’ And then one from another customer after that: ‘I have a bluebird building a nest!’,” shared Whipkey. “That’s not uncommon at all. The relationship with the customer is ongoing, and I love that.”
Here, Whipkey paused and laughed.
“I don’t really take days off because I love what I do so much,” said Whipkey. “When I have a day off, I still like to find my way into the store.”
Asked what’s next for the multi-unit franchisee, Whipkey said that her next steps will be hiring an assistant manager for her second location in La Plata, followed by training for her new hire at Wild Birds Unlimited’s home office. Echoing her earlier endorsement of the education and relationship-building dimensions of WBU business ownership, Whipkey added that she’s particularly excited to spearhead educational programs for store visitors.
“We do two to four talks in the store a month educating visitors and I love that. It’s all about education,” Whipkey said. “Wild Birds Unlimited gave me the opportunity to combine my love of nature with my love of teaching and to bring that to my community. It’s a perfect fit.”
Wild Birds Unlimited is the original and largest franchise system of backyard bird feeding and nature specialty stores with more than 300 locations throughout the United States and Canada. The investment level to open a Wild Birds Unlimited location is $130,837 to $240,991. To learn about franchising opportunities with Wild Birds Unlimited, please visit www.wbufranchise.com.