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Building a Family Business

Bill and Elsa Thompson -- Marietta, Ohio

By Carolyn Allen

Birding is about the facts of life -- food, shelter, and family. We can get so busy with the food and shelter side of the business that we sometimes take family for granted. But survival is frequently a family matter. Joy is a family matter. And thriving is a family matter.

One such active family is highlighted in this issue -- the Thompsons, founding family of Bird Watcher's Digest and Pardson Corporation, their information company that has provided practical ideas and solutions to bird watchers and backyard birders since 1978.

"Mom was the first birder in the family," say both Andy and Bill III -- the current publishing team and sons of the founding couple.

"We had a family meeting in which we shared our choices with our children -- then in their preteen years -- and they helped us decide between a publishing business and another option," says Mom -- Elsa Thompson, the "Martha Stewart of the office" who makes sure, among other things, that the working environment is homey and personal.

A quote by Carl Jung summarizes the essence of the Thompson family, "The soul is for the most part outside the body. The modern person is taught to believe that the soul -- or whatever language is used for soul -- is contained in the brain or is equivalent to mind and is purely subjective. But if we were to think of the soul as being in the world, then maybe our work would be seen as a truly important aspect of our lives, not only for its literal product but also as a way of caring for the soul."
Thomas Moore, "Care of the Soul"

This community-based soul stands out in the Thompson legacy. Based on the passionate bird watching interest of Elsa in the earliest days, and carried on by the focused innovation of the family, the Thompsons put love into their work and it became a created a tradition of caring for nature and personable customer service. Attitude has made them an industry attraction on the page and off.

The signs of this love and "soul" are feelings of attraction, curiosity, passion and loyalty in relation to their work and relationships. Like the stories of artists' intensive pursuit of their vision and craft, the Thompson history reveals an archetypal dimension of soulful work. Take their jazz music, for instance.

Brought together in college through music, Bill and Elsa have involved their entire family in the joy of jazz. They encouraged creative thinking -- and Andy became a political strategist. They encouraged creative expression -- and young Bill, III, became an advertising executive and editor -- and married a nature artist, Julie Zickefoose. Their daughter, Laura, and her husband are creative restaurateurs. And the elder Bill -- the family statesman -- is passionate about the community foundation work that keeps him busy after retiring from Bird Watcher's Digest. This nutshell history hides within it the trials, traditions and joys of building a successful family business over 23 years.

Pioneering Passion

"I guess we were kind of 'pioneers'," explains Bill. "It was scary on the publishing part, and fun on the birding part. At the time we started the magazine, there really were no publications for the casual weekend bird watcher. Audubon published "Bird Lore" but it was pretty technical. We were very fortunate to meet Roger Tory Peterson early in our venture. He told us, 'People become interested in the environment by becoming interested in one part of the environment and then they start to observe the world around them.'

"We were innocent and ambitious enough to think that maybe we could make a living and bring more people into an awareness of nature. We were very aware of the fragility of the environment, even in 1978, and we are still concerned about its growing fragility."

Bill recalls that Elsa was almost a fanatic about birding, and he was very neutral about it all. But his fire was lit when he saw and identified a Sora in a swamp along the Ohio River. "I don't know why I stopped there that day -- I had been a reluctant participant in family outings, but I was able to look the bird up in my Peterson Field Guide and ID it -- and that hooked me!" He became mesmerized by the wonder of blending reality with knowledge.

The Thompsons are steeped in the humanities -- music, literature, politics, and their interest in birds has revolved around that cultural focus. They observe how people have changed the habitat of birds. Bird behaviors. The social aspect of bird watching. The conservation projects sponsored by their longtime birding club -- Brooks Bird Club, Wheeling, WVA, (just over the state line from their home).

Bill has now retired from publishing, and has turned his attentions to community development as chairman of the Marietta Community Foundation. "We are able to bring young people into concern for the environment with a variety of projects -- like providing boats to study water quality." The "AWARE" project supported water and air quality research in the entire industrial valley and encouraged companies to improve their environmental practices." Environmental awareness runs in the family. Elsa, with two friends, founded the thriving Marietta Natural History Society. Bill III, is a founding board member of a local air-quality group called RECOVER.

Bill has concluded that we must be constantly concerned as floods, global climate changes, fires, and fossil fuel usage will continue to present us with the continuing battle to safeguard our environment.

Entrepreneurship Insights

"It's been a fun business, but it was hard on the kids," he observes. "They just recently paid off their college loans -- we used their college funds to start the magazine back when they were still in public school. People who say that family entrepreneurship is fun are full of bologna -- it was the hardest thing ever on our marriage. But the grueling start-up times are past now and it's been good for our sons."

The small "digest" format was chosen based on a friend's Pro Football Digest -- which lasted only five issues. "We were curious how he put it together, and learned that we could reprint stories by current writers. A newspaper clipping service helped us scout the country for good bird writers from whom we asked permission to reprint articles. We found 900 columnists -- and this group is now a vanishing breed. They wrote for next to nothing in places they knew intimately and wrote for the love of nature. They probably brought more people into nature than any other factor because they focused on local areas. These are the early heroes and heroines of the birding world."

Entrepreneurship opened Bill and Elsa's eyes to the real world. Having come from being a governor's press secretary and from academia, Bill shares his pet peeve, "Everybody at some time should have the experience of signing their own paycheck. It certainly brings new appreciation to those who do fundraising!

Subscriptions grew and for about five years they put almost everything back into the magazine. They added a color section and grew it galley by galley. In 1987, just nine years after they started their magazine, Wild Bird and Birder's World were started. They heard rumors about one of the magazines starting, and it did cause some nervousness -- "We’ve found that having more magazines has really been a help. But it sure scared us in the early days!" Elsa recalled.

And Bill, too, remembers those first scary days. "We now can look at it as a good thing -- competition provides more people out there working to identify new customers. And many birders read not just one magazine, but several. It's really not about stealing customers, but keeping us on our toes and using different methods to expand the marketplace. Their new subscribers are potentially our customers as well!"

It wasn't too long before people started knocking on their door for custom information solutions. They are very proud of their backyard booklet series. "We've sold millions of them! If it hadn't been for the mass market's volume, we wouldn't have been able to make such good products available to the specialty stores at a reasonable price. And the outreach to people who have never thought about birds before is an added bonus.

"Competition is an ongoing topic of discussion in the industry, and some people welcome it--others are scared to death by it. We find that the mass market just isn't a threat to quality independents. People can't find answers to their questions at the mass merchandisers. Once their interest is piqued, they need someone to talk to about this new passion -- and a new, enthusiastic customer has been cultivated," shared Elsa.

"We were fortunate to find a wonderful editor, Mary Beacom Bowers -- who knew nothing about birds, but was an excellent writer and editor," recalls Bill. "Our job was to keep the money coming, handle promotion for subscribers, advertisers and keep our head on straight! Elsa and I reviewed and rated all the articles and knew the level we were aiming for and the readers' interests. Our dear friend Roger Peterson was sent an early issue of BWD and we received back a four pages letter filled withof suggestions. We followed every one. He then wrote a regular column for the magazine for more than ten years, until his death in 1996."

Bill's voice held reverence and awe when he told about Roger's talents, "There aren't many people who are excellent at the wide combination of talents that Roger Peterson had. He was an excellent photographer, he could hear the minute differences in songs, could write well and was a wonderful artist. What a rare talent! And he would get just as excited at seeing a bluebird as the most exotic species. He was just down to earth, kind, approachable, inclusive and he really knew his stuff."

The Thompsons' three children and six grandchildren now live close to the homestead. Elsa has made sure of that! "Else is a wonderful mother and grandmother, and she decided she wanted her family close, so she found a way to get them back here."

The Thompsons built their business on their love of nature, bootstrapping economics, and dedication to the environment. But they also made the foundation one of emphasizing customer service. Elsa was in charge of that--and still is! She hand wrote the subscription renewals in the early years' and still hand writes notes to many subscribers. All three men spoke with a slightly hushed tone about Elsa's iron fist in a velvet glove -- customer service comes first and foremost for Elsa! Her enthusiasm and resourcefulness are highly appreciated by her menfolk.

"Those tough times are mere mud puddles on the dirt road to success."
There have been tough times "and there will be again," says Bill thoughtfully. "Those tough times are mere mud puddles on the dirt road to success. The companies who have a solid footing during the good times will be the ones who survive the tough times. They can stick out the slow periods and their products and services are good enough to make people want them. Those are the keys. Good business practices and quality deliver value to the customer."

The Heart of the Family

Elsa Thompson is a hard lady to track down. But once you get her on the phone, it's like she is sitting beside you. Her enthusiasm and generosity of spirit just wraps you up in a cloud of energy! A jazz singer in college, it was fate that brought her Elsa together with this handsome jazz musician -- and it's been a jazzy ride ever since! When the couple moved back to Bill's hometown, Elsa was determined not to get caught in the volunteer world. But she read about some weekly bird walks and the people in the group sounded so interesting that she just had to see what those people with their strange code names were all about!

"I'll just go meet the people, I told myself -- because I thought I already knew all about birds! But I found out that there were so many more birds around me all the time that I had never seen or heard. Educated people tend to make assumptions that we know things! So with this new discovery, I became obsessed. So much so that during school holidays I didn't want to stay home with the kids. So I just naturally persuaded the leader to let the boys come with me.

"There's a Freudian thing about boys and birds. Kind of like girls and horses. Adolescent boys are fascinated by the ethereal, gentleness of birds, and girls are drawn to the power of horses. Boys become quickly interested in birds -- must be the hunt and the vulnerability of the age, too. Our boys took a lot of joshing from their friends -- until they took their friends along on a walk, and they became enamored with birds, too! In researching the top ornithologists, I found that they almost all had an epiphany experience at that preteen age," Elsa related.

Elsa is an avid reader and when she asked what there was to read about her new passion, she was directed to scientific magazines put out by Cornell and Audubon. They were all too intimidating for popular appeal. And when Elsa's birding mentor's local birding column that was cancelled by the paper, the hue and cry from Pat's readers not only saved this precious community resource, but gave Elsa and Bill the spark of an idea. Maybe. Just maybe.

Today's Perspective

Elsa noted several trends in birders' ages, differences, and passions. "There are the older, dedicated bird watchers who have the time to dedicate to serious travel in their retirement years. But there are new attitudes coming from the Baby Boomers -- it's 'I want my space to be wonderful and I'll enhance it.' They have had more exposure in school to environmental issues. They want flowers for the butterflies, and bird baths. It's more of 'I want to possess my things.' They are creating little niches of nature -- and that's a good thing!

"Audubon and the bird clubs have older members with disposable income for trips, binoculars and enhanced yards. Even new affluent birders will buy high-end binoculars and expensive accessories. They're very sophisticated consumers and hobbyists. But there are a lot of light peripheral bird lovers, too -- those who put out a feeder. They offer good business potential, as well. They ask, 'Do I care WHICH birds come? Maybe.'"

The people who read about the birds are the most limited part of the audience. The casual birders want a lot of pictures of birds -- a visual way to enjoy and learn about birds. Birds and Blooms fit this biggest segment of the general population. And the publisher is certainly aggressive. The color and glamour of this magazine is similar to the difference in appeal of television and radio. Both have their place and their loyal audiences and their purpose.

The readers of Bird Watcher's Digest want to read about and enjoy their birds -- behaviors, habitat, seasons, and learn about the species in their yards and around the world.

The backyard booklets are for a general audience. Non-intimidating small bits of information. We've sold so many that we're constantly coming out with new titles and we're now resuscitating the old ones with a more updated look. Coming titles include a revised booklet on hummingbirds and a new booklet on backyard owls.

And the birding world is expanding. The Thompsons launched titles in England, France and Germany earlier in 2000. They contain unique information based on Bill (III)'s interests in the European market.

Bill, III, has also helped the family publishing business make the transition to the Internet. The magazine's website has become a focal point for online birders seeking information and a sense of community. "We strive to deliver the same services on our website tangible and intangible that make our print magazine special to our readers -- always with our traditional focus on customer service."

Andy is the financial side of the new generation -- and is creatively bringing new business models to the industry. A partnering relationship will be of great benefit to the bird clubs who need fundraisers. "HomeEarth.com" is a new Web-based watering hole for these clubs. It will offer steady accounting and records in a central place for the clubs. It will serve as a business manager or bank, to process memberships and several birding magazines will be offering their magazines as fundraisers for the groups. Bird Watcher's Digest is one of the early supporters of this tool for bird clubs.

"The US Open Golf tournament used taped bird calls to add ambience to the event," enthuses Andy. "Birds are seen as important assets to golf courses. And birders are lending a certain amount of credibility and substance to the legitimate concern about our environmental, cultural, and spiritual world. That's rewarding!" Birding allows the Thompsons to experience so many wonderful things and share it. "It's health enhancing!" he says with a smile.

The birding industry is built on the investments of time, commitment and caring of founding families. From products to conservation -- to information -- family life is frequently the catalyst to getting something done about the environment -- especially in our own backyards.

Bill and Elsa Thompson, founding Publishers
BirdwatchersDigest.com


Published in "Birding Business" magazine, the leading trade magazine for the backyard naure products niche. Carolyn Allen was the founding editor for this niche market trade magazine.