Ben Labovitz, who spent 20 years working for major conglomerates, decided the corporate world is for the birds — literally.
Labovitz, 52, recently opened an outlet of Wild Birds Unlimited, a backyard bird feeding and nature specialty store at 1305 West Chester Pike in Havertown.
So, how did a nice Jewish boy from Elkins Park land there?
“Maybe it’s a cliché, but I had an itch for something different; call it a mid-life crisis,” he laughed.
A graduate of Lehigh University, Labovitz spent 20 years conducting market research for McDonald’s and Aramark. In that time, he married, had two kids, moved to Wynnewood, became an active member of Main Line Reform Temple and, four years ago, bought a backyard birdfeeder on impulse at a Wild Birds Unlimited store in Dresher.
“I’ve always loved nature but wasn’t a major bird enthusiast or expert. I’d see a cardinal and appreciate its beauty, but that’s about it. I thought it would be nice to have a birdfeeder in the backyard,” he said. “My kids were 6 and 8 at the time, and it seemed like a good way to engage them with nature and add something unique and special to our yard.”
Labovitz began to yearn for a professional change at that time.
“I really liked market research, analysis, interpretation and making presentations, but I started to want something different,” he said. “Something that was just mine, being my own boss and maybe putting the skills I had acquired over my career to work for my own business.”
He researched business options, focusing on the purchase of an existing business or a franchise. And that’s when his Jewish heritage kicked in.
“I grew up in a Conservative home. We attended Beth Sholom [Congregation] in Elkins Park, and we were pretty traditional,” he said. “The values instilled in me from a young age influenced this step in my professional life. I was always taught to be a mensch, to be a good person, to respect people and the world around us.”
As he researched potential businesses, Labovitz had strict criteria, which he also attributed to his heritage.
“I wanted the business to be unique — I have nothing against frozen yogurt, but I didn’t want something that had been done before. I also wanted something interesting, not selling mere commodities,” he said. “I looked for something tangible and easy to understand so that my kids could connect with it. They had no idea what I did as a market researcher, and I have a vision that maybe they will work here someday or at least be a part of it.
“Finally, I wanted something that was a feel-good enterprise. I love being part of the community — both the Havertown business community and the backyard bird-feeding community. This connection to nature is good for people, and providing high-quality bird food and equipment is good for the environment.”
He did a deep dive into Wild Birds Unlimited and found the company to be sound, noting that it’s been in business for 35 years. Founder Jim Carpenter still runs it, and there are 300 locations throughout the country.
In the four years that Labovitz has been involved with backyard bird watching, he has grown to love it and is excited about the prospects of both introducing the hobby to a new generation of bird-watchers as well as engaging with those who already participate.
Backyard bird-watching is on the rise. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 45 million people watch birds around their homes — this comprises 88 percent of total birders. The remaining 12 percent travel for the activity.
Labovitz said Wild Birds Unlimited’s grand opening has been successful, with new customers enrolling in the shop’s loyalty program daily and a staff that has grown to include three part-timers.
Special events have included a master gardener’s presentation on creating a bird-friendly yard, a professional photographer who came to offer advice on how to take quality pictures of birds, and participation in the town’s Earth Day celebration and the Philly Home + Garden Show.
More than anything, Labovitz is happy in his new role.
“I love coming to work. I’m proud of what I am creating here, and meeting new people — fellow birding enthusiasts — has been wonderful. I’ve learned a lot and have enjoyed sharing what I know with my customers.”
Keri White is a freelance writer and a Jewish Exponent food columnist.