Alumna’s bird feeder company soars thanks to partnership with disabled workers

Topic: Alumni

March 26, 2015

Cement block walls inside the Carey Services facility in Marion, Indiana, reflect the passions of those who call the complex their work home.

Jan Long and Nathaniel O’Dell of Mr. Canary

Alumna Jan Long, '77, and her sister co-founded bird feeder company Mr. Canary. Nathaniel O'Dell, a 2014 alumnus, is a vice president.

A large, vibrant, hand-drawn mural celebrates the Indianapolis Colts, another the Indiana Pacers. But the biggest painting is along a hallway leading to the warehouse workspace, the first to greet visitors and regulars alike.

A happy, yellow bird perched on a fence in an outdoor nature scene is a sweet testament to the pride the employees have for the Mr. Canary brand finch feeders they proudly source, assemble, package, and ship to retailers large and small.

“They are all over the country, and that’s pretty cool,” says Shawn Fulton, of Marion, who has worked at the plant since 2000 and makes a notable 400 feeders every four hours. “It’s right there on the package. Everyone knows it’s made by us. And that makes us feel pretty good.”

The “us” Fulton refers to is the group of nearly 100 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who work at Carey—processing and filling orders, sending invoices, and keeping tabs on inventory for Mr. Canary.

It’s a deliberate partnership brokered 20 years ago, almost immediately after company co-founders Jan Long, a 1977 Ball State alumna, and her sister, Christina (Mitchell) Mowery, convinced an executive from Kmart to talk to the pair at the company’s headquarters, then in Troy, Michigan.

“We called Kmart because they were only five hours away,” Long says. Roughly an hour or so after they sat down, the two left the meeting with an auto-replenishment order for the company’s 1,800 stores.

“We were in the elevator on the way back to our car, and we were high-fiving each other and so excited, and then it dawned on us ... We just signed a deal for a company we don’t yet own.”

Mr. Canary meets Carey Services

Though the sisters were in talks to buy the name back from a man who’d purchased it from their father in the 1980s, they didn’t yet own Mr. Canary. And they had no raw materials, no warehouse, and no shipping capabilities.

Nathaniel O'Dell video

Alumnus Nathaniel O'Dell explains how his work with Mr. Canary, first as an intern, then for his senior capstone project as an entrepreneurial management major, led to him becoming a vice president immediately after graduation.

“In pretty short order we had to create a business and find out how to make this work,” Long says. “Chris worked for Vocational Rehabilitation (a state-run social services agency) in Marion ... placing workers in jobs around town, including at Carey. So she had this idea that maybe they could help us.”

That conversation evolved into a relationship with Carey Services that’s spanned two decades. And while pairing with Carey was an intentional business decision, Long said it also speaks to the discrimination Mowery often faced as an adult, due to a childhood bout with polio.

“Even with a college degree and being so smart and a very capable person, she had a difficult time finding work,” Long says. “So when we were in a position to bring it full circle, where we could actually offer jobs to people who have a much worse time trying to find work, that was really important and special to our family. It’s something we’re really proud of, not in a philanthropic way, but in the way that you’re able to do something to tackle a problem.”

Good business, not charity

Long takes pains to make clear: Mr. Canary’s partnership with Carey isn’t charity.

“Lots of people glom on to this notion, ‘Oh what a great thing you’re doing for them. What a wonderful way to help.’ And it’s so ironic to me, because maybe we are helping, but no more than they are helping us,” she says. “It’s not philanthropy. It’s a smart business model for businesses that can handle it.”

Mr. Canary feeders

Mr. Canary bird feeders are assembled by workers at Carey Services, a staffing agency that assists people with disabilities.

Jim Allbaugh, Carey Services’ president, said regardless of the rationale, he’d like other companies to follow Mr. Canary’s lead. For the right business, he said, his staff makes sense.

“Every day, our employees are coming in, and they’re taking great pride in their work,” Allbaugh says. “Through our partnerships, we provide meaningful employment opportunities for people who can and who want to work.”

Gas City resident Scott Glenn has worked at Carey for 18 years, and he likes the independence that comes with the job.

“I’m saving up to go see my sister, Pam. She lives near Atlanta,” Glenn says, adding he likes to spend his paycheck on tickets for Colts games, too. “They’re my favorite.”

Hobby made more accessible

Carey provides services for Mr. Canary, and the company’s subsidiary, Mr. Canary Direct, a subscription service uniquely tailored to appeal to bird watchers who may be homebound or living in care facilities. A trip to the store, lugging heavy bags of feed, getting supplies unloaded, and then filling a feeder can be daunting to bird lovers who have physical disabilities.

About Mr. Canary

Founded: 1995

Owners: Jan Long and Christina Mowery

Location: Carmel

Employees: 4

Subsidiary: Mr. Canary Direct

Retail partners: Walmart, Kmart, Kroger, Ace Hardware, Do It Best, True Value, United Hardware, Roses, Prince Corporation

“It’s one of those things that, as unassuming as bird feeding is, there are a lot of steps involved,” said Nathaniel O’Dell, vice president of Mr. Canary Direct and a 2014 graduate of the entrepreneurial management program.

“We’ve found a way where there’s no guessing (about the kind of feed), there’s no heavy lifting, and once the feeders are empty, you can just toss them into the recycling bin. There’s no refilling mess that goes along with it.”

Allbaugh said in the case of Mr. Canary Direct, his employees especially feel a great responsibility to consumers who benefit from their work.

“They are providing a product that turns around to an end user who may be quite elderly or unable to do for themselves,” he says. “I wish I could harness the pride they feel knowing they are helping someone else.”

Mr. Canary's Jan Long and  Nathaniel O'Dell are among Ball State alumni-turned-entrepreneurs featured in the spring 2015 issue of Ball State Alumnus magazine. Read more of their stories.

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