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Growing a Local Business

Growing a Business
Starting Local, Being Local and Remaining Local

By Jon Friedman

When Shani and I began this business, over 25 years ago, we envisioned a small “mom and pop” retail start-up that could be successful in providing products and services to a growing and enthusiastic birding audience. After all, Tucson and this entire southeastern corner of the state were already well-known as a destination point for birders from throughout the continent. And, as in our case, we were aware that many local birders who enjoyed attracting and feeding birds in their backyards had great difficulty finding the types of products and foods that we needed to more fully satisfy and enjoy our interests in bird life. Very little was locally available outside the pet market, and those products were generally not useful for wild birds. Even in the pre-internet years, mail order catalogs were not common nor did they offer the extensive variety of products that are easily available today.

My personal interest in wild birds can be traced back to some of my earliest memories (see my autobiographical article, Becoming a Birder, in the birding articles archive on our website). As a child I began making bird houses and feeders from waxed milk cartons, using branches for perches. As the years rolled by, I became more adept at making creative designs for bird feeders and houses. I had requests from others who also wanted to use my creations in their backyards and did make models for others who admired what I had created and were pleasantly surprised to discover their popularity with the birds, too.

So by the time Shani and I opened our first very small retail store, we knew which types of products would be popular with the general birding audience. I also knew that having locally-made products would prove to be more cost-effective, enable us to oversee higher quality control standards, save on shipping costs, and insure our utmost satisfaction in the products we offered to the public. From the outset, and for the short time before I set up my own wood shop, I contracted with local woodworkers and cabinet-makers to bring my designs into physical being. But, being a hands-on person and a creative type, I discovered that I actually enjoyed taking these products from the idea stage to the retail shelf. And, in those earlier years, I was able to run a part-time, one-man shop and keep our little store stocked. After about a year or so, it became apparent that more man hours and extra help would be necessary, as demand was outpacing my ability to produce. I was always thinking about new design ideas to add to the list of signature items already established in our line of inventory. Today, Justin and Matt stay busy several days of the week creating products in our on-site woodshop. We also feature some of the creative woodworking of Demitri Arquette and Karen Terranova. (I have transitioned to semi-retired status so I don’t work in the woodshop much anymore, only have limited hours on Saturdays and every other Sunday in the retail store, but I still write the monthly newsletter.)

During the store’s first 18 months or so, Shani continued her nursing career, believing we would have to help subsidize our fledgling business. I was working the store full time, essentially by myself. There weren’t enough hours in the day or days of the week to allow me the time to run the retail business and create products in the woodshop. I fully understood what others had told me – that when you work for yourself, you work harder than you ever had before. I realized I needed some help. Justin began his working with the store during his school years when on weekends and after school he helped out in the wood shop. Fortunately, the store was able to pay its own way quite quickly and that enabled us to hire part-time help. We realized that hiring people with a good command of the local birds limited our choices. Inherent knowledge of our Sonoran desert birds proved essential in providing our customers with optimum results, and being able to answer any and all questions about our backyard birds was essential to developing a loyal and dedicated base of customers. We began publishing our first newsletters to provide on a regular basis, a stream of helpful information to allow our customers interest in birding to grow. For many years we published in print form and used the United States Postal Service to deliver them directly to our customers’ homes and businesses. By 2004, we were confident that the overwhelming majority of our customers had the ability to receive our newsletters in an email format and we began publishing in email format from that time.

Our first employees were a birding couple, Laurie and Steve, who moved here from Kansas in order to be able to watch birds year around. They initially came into the store as customers and after a few store visits, and having the opportunity to get to know them better, it was agreed that they could operate as a husband/wife team and began working on a part time basis. We were thrilled to have such knowledgeable birders assist our retail efforts and allowing me a slightly more relaxed schedule. Now I was only working an average of 55 hours in a five day workweek.

Another husband/wife team replaced the first couple who had an opportunity to move to Hawaii. And, again, it was a good fit. Kris and Rob also moved here as they were avid birders from the Pacific Northwest who had birded this region on several other earlier birding trips. After deciding to live here permanently, we met them as customers first.  After repeated visits to the store they inquired about working part-time. Again, we were happy to find local birders to work with. That association lasted 12+ years.

Many of our long time customers remember when we hired Tad, another knowledgeable local birder. He too initially became familiar with the store as a customer. Our association with Tad lasted several years, until he was offered another job that he couldn’t refuse. Some of you may remember Vivian. We met her as a customer in the store. She, along with Tad, were well-known birders in the community and both had ties to the local Audubon Society and particular local birding events, such as leading bird walks, annual counts and contests. We always wish our employees the best if and when they move on and we still get inquiries about how Tad  and Vivian are doing. Tad is managing Sarnoff Art Supplies and maintains one of Tucson finest backyard bird sanctuaries. Vivian still occasionally leads birds tours, sometimes in association with the Audubon Society or with Pima Country locations such as Agua Caliente Park. She, too, maintains a bird feeding station at her mid-town home.

Matt has worked for us since he was in high school. Beginning with after-school and weekend hours, he quickly demonstrated to us that this is the perfect job for him. He was, without a doubt, the most knowledgeable birder to work with us. His ornithological skills are deeply ingrained in him; from the time he was a young boy, he already taught himself more than I had done for myself over the course of many years. Matt has learned to do anything, short of accounting, that the store requires. In addition to the myriad of retail chores and responsibilities, he has learned and honed his woodworking skills in our wood shop. He leads monthly bird walks and does private birding trips to all the region’s hotspots. In short, he has been an important part of our local birding community for the entire 15+ years he has been associated with The Wild Bird Store.

It always made sense to us to hire local birders who wanted to work in a bird store. We can, and did, teach employees what they needed to know about the products, customer service and operating a retail business, but having years of good birding experience is a particular benefit that each brought to the job and enabled them to be successful in our business.

Shani and I were always interested in creating a business that truly lived up to the “mom and pop” sensibility and reality. We always hoped that it could the type of business that would involve our entire family. We loved the idea that a small, locally-owned and operated family business could thrive in Tucson. Unfortunately, most of the long-time independent and family-run businesses that helped build Tucson’s economy in the post-war years have gone out of business – unable to compete with the national franchise, big box and chain stores that dominate our retail landscape today. (I especially miss Bob’s Bargain Barn and Goodman’s Bakery - two local mom and pop stores that I frequented and favored.)

Clarisa and Justin (my daughter-in-law and son) worked with us at different periods over the past twenty years or so. Clarisa had prior retail experience and quickly learned our business. She does our bookkeeping and other administrative chores in addition to assisting customers with products, information, and sales. She’s sensitive to the needs of the business, is quick to provide a problem-solving answer to a pressing question, and keeps everyone happy with her infectious smile and positive attitude. Justin came back into the business full-time after Shani’s death – ready to take the mantle and lead the store into continued growth in the coming years. I can’t help but think of Clarisa and Justin, a working-together husband and wife team, as the natural continuation of the Shani and Jon era. Justin has mastered his woodshop skills and customer-friendly service.

We have rejected the major franchises that have offered us deals to join “their family” of franchises. We will remain true to our original vision of being a fiercely independent, locally owned and operated mom and pop retail store. We take pride in the high-quality goods we provide, the original designs we create in our wood shop, the superior service we offer, the advice and information we offer based on our experience, the monthly newsletter, and the free flow of positive energy that flows into and from the store. So, in all these instances, the store has remained true to its aim and we expect to continue in that vein for many years to come.

Occasionally, we get inquiries from our customers about potential part-time jobs. Knowing the birds of our area is essential to the job as the rest can be learned. If you think you may be interested in working with us in the future, just let us know. We’ll always prefer hiring someone local!

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