Mr. Canary owner sings the praises of big box opportunities

by The City Wire staff ( 22 views 

With a staff of one and her partners at Carey Services, Jan Mitchell Long is possibly the smallest supplier doing business with Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“You hear about mom and pop operations, well I am just mom, about as small as a company can get,” Long said recently during a visit to Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Mr. Canary, the golden finch bird feeder her dad Ray Mitchell invented back in the 1980s, has become a sustainable business model that provides roughly 100 jobs to adults living with disabilities in Marion, Ind., through the industrial production program at Carey Services. The feeder is made from recyclable plastic and comes filled with seed. 

Long is excited to hear she will have more work for the folks at Carey Services in 2013 as Mr. Canary bird feeders will be available in 2,706 Wal-Mart Stores in the U.S., news she recently received from her Wal-Mart buyer.

“It’s incredible, I have been doing business with Wal-Mart for 15 years and my store count went from 1,700 or so to start with, down to less than 500 just a year ago. But after I revamped my packaging and reduced my shelf space from 6 to 3.5 inches for the one product I sell to Wal-Mart, I was given this incredible opportunity with quadruple the number of stores,” Long said.

Long and her sister Chris Mitchell Mowery, who suffered polio as a child, grew up in Marion. The sisters followed similar career paths earning bachelor’s degrees in education and then pursued careers in social services.

“In 1995, my sister and I were both living in the same town for the first time in many years and we got to talking about dad’s Mr. Canary bird feeder and how we thought it would really sell if we worked at it,” Long said.

Ray Mitchell owned and ran a plastics business in Marion and made the bird feeder as leave-behind product sample for the plastic cylinders he was manufacturing.

In the late 1980s, Mitchell sold the business to retire and Mr. Canary went to a bird seed wholesaler who never expanded or did anything with the retail product.

Long said she and her sister approached the company about selling the bird feeder to big box stores in 1995, but the company owners were not interested as they too were divesting and retiring.

“They told us they would be happy to sell us the product back for the inventory costs they had at the time. But we only wanted to sell the product for a commission, because we knew nothing about making it,” Long said.

On a whim the sisters took a chance and called K-Mart which was only 5 hours from their hometown as asked to get a meeting with a buyer.

"Back then I just called the corporate office and got in," Long said. “I remember the buyer saying to me she had like 92 other bird seed companies to see afterward but she could spare a few minutes to hear our pitch. So we made the drive to Minneapolis, totally naive about the product and business we were pitching. We had one feeder and it was faulty, the perch that folds down was broken, and we didn’t even notice that until we showed her the feeder.”

Much to the sisters’ surprise K-Mart wanted the product on two conditions: It had to be on automatic replenishment and she had to have it year round.

“We had no idea what automatic replenishment entailed but we were thrilled to have a market for a product we did not own, or have the slightest idea how to make,” Long said.

The sisters purchased the rights and small inventory and then partnered with Carey Services to make and ship the product for them. They were familiar with Carey as they had previously worked in social services programs around the state.

“There is no way we could have gotten this company off the ground without outsourcing the manufacturing piece to Carey Services. They have been great and continue to make all of the product we sell — an estimated 500,000 bird feeders in 2013,” Long said.

Mark Draves, CEO of Carey Services, said the Mr. Canary product provides about 105 jobs annually to adults living with disabilities who are paid for their work.

Carey orders the plastic pieces, which are made in the U.S. and imports the bird seed and assembles the bird feeders in its Marion workshop and then ships to various retailers as requested.

Since 1995, Long has managed to get Mr. Canary in K-Mart, Wal-Mart, Kroger and several other regional retailers.

Long said Wal-Mart demands a lot from its suppliers but it has forced her to focus and be a better business owner, and for that she is grateful.

“I have found doing business with Wal-Mart is sometimes hard work, they want this report and that report, and for years I didn’t really know or appreciate why. But I have found that some of the nicest people in the world work in Bentonville, Arkansas,” Long said.

She said people ask her all the time how she got in Walmart Stores.

“I just remember calling them in 1998, back then I had a system where I would call shipping in the evening hours because these folks would often give me the name and extension number for the buyers. Once I got the number I called nonstop. One Friday night about 7 o’clock a buyer answered and agreed to meet with me the following Wednesday,” Long said.

She said Wal-Mart gave her 1,700 stores to start with and the education began. Learning Retail Link was just the beginning she said. Over the years, Long said she has trained on everything from packaging design to replenishment practices.

A few years ago when Long was struggling to keep Mr Canary in Wal-Mart Stores, she took a hard look at herself and her company to find that there was definitely room for improvement – a lesson, Long said, she learned for Wal-Mart.

“Several years ago I had a chance meeting with an executive vice president at Wal-Mart who was incredibly candid and helpful to me about my product. When my store count got down to 480 or so I remembered this guy and looked him up. He had retired, but I called him at home and he agreed to meet with me in Bentonville,” Long said.

The retired executive took her to the store in Bentonville and told her to look at all the competition and how they had improved their product and packaging over the years. He then asked her if she knew anything about birding in Norway.

Long said she quickly replied, “No, do you ?” To which he nonchalantly answered “It’s not my business,” she shared.

“That hit me like a ton of bricks, here I was pouting about my loss of stores and doing nothing to improve my product. It was a major wake-up call for me that forced me to totally revamp the packaging and cut the shelf space in half. That was huge because it has opened lots of new possibilities,” Long said.

Long says she’s not a bird enthusiast, but has found her passion as an entrepreneur and is excited to work on new ideas because her next goal is getting a second product on Wal-Mart shelves as well as expanding her sales with other retailers.

In 2011, Long and her sister Chris who retired last year, got a 25-minute sit down meeting with Mike Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“I was honored that he took the time to meet with our little company. We declared that day our annual shareholders meeting with 100% in attendance. We wanted to share our story as part of the Wal-Mart’s women’s initiative, given that we were 100% female owned,” Long recalled.

She said Duke told them that he meets with CEO’s of big company’s all the time but he would be pulling for their venture in hopes that it did well.

“I told him that I would like to drop his name from time to time about our little meeting, he laughed and then agreed it would be ok,” Long said. “So I did.”