Second generation continues family hobby, ventures
If there is such a thing as reverse empty-nest syndrome, then Mel Toellner — or Bird Man Mel as he’s known to friends, family and viewers of his YouTube channel — probably has it. Since last summer he’s stepped back from his companies’ day-to-day operations; his son, Grant, and daughter, Becky, have taken the reins of different sides of the businesses he built from a few seeds. He’s neither sad to walk away nor concerned for the transition for a few reasons. His business was built on a passion for birding, and that passion was shared with the family. Mel’s kids were born into it, the same way he was.
Mel fledged his family business sense by helping his father with his company, Toellner Tire Co., in his native Bunceton. Later, he’d find his wings as a manager of sales, development and distribution for Ralston Purina. But like so many of the birds he loves to watch and educate others about, there was something instinctive calling the young entrepreneur. Tiny seeds planted by Boy Scout merit badge work, watching the geese in Rochester, Minnesota during trips to the Mayo Clinic with his father and a birding summer camp scholarship given to him by a member of the Columbia Audubon Society all germinated in Mel’s garage in Mexico. There, the idea for a birding store that would one day grow into a company supplying most of the same kind of businesses in North America, was hatched.
“We started doing the little things that make a difference in attracting birds,” Mel says of Songbird Station’s beginnings in Columbia in 1995. The little things, hummingbird feeder cleaning brushes, ant moats and thistle sacks, are Missouri-sourced products that still have shelf space in the store near Forum Boulevard and Chapel Hill Road.
Chances are if you’ve ever bought a bird-related product at one of nearly 6,000 storefronts — ranging from mom-and-pop birding shops to farm supply chains to a certain gift shop in Iowa on the Missouri River — it came from the family’s business, Gold Crest Distributing Inc., which today includes products under the Songbird Essentials and Backyard Essentials lines. Columbia’s birding community flocked to Songbird Station’s humble beginnings in a 900-square-foot bird shop. Today, Gold Crest’s products in the bird and backyard nature divisions total more than 10,000 individual items.
“The No. 1 thing we’ve done is listen to our customer base,” Mel says of the store’s growth over the past 26 years. “If they tell us they need something, we do our best to provide that.”
Some of the company’s most popular products are those made at the headquarters in Mexico, such as the copper hummingbird swing perch. Others were inherited from fellow birding entrepreneurs. Such was the case with the Dr. JB’s Hummingbird Feeder, the Holland Hill line of hummingbird and oriole feeders and the Gordo hand-carved bird houses from Bali. When the Bird Watch America national trade show went belly up in the early 2000s, Mel revived that too, bringing it to the 146,000-square-foot warehouse as the Wild Bird Expo. Just as he witnessed the small farming community dwindle over the years during his days with Purina, so too has he seen many homegrown inventors retire from their days spent building a better bird feeder.
“I look back and very few of those original companies are still in business,” says Mel, also a former Missouri Youth Tour delegate. “We were blessed that so many of them turned to us and said, ‘Would you keep my dream alive by acquiring us?’ ”
Today, the businesses Mel built keep backyards full of seed and birdsong. Gold Crest employs around 100 workers, mostly in central Missouri. At the company’s manufacturing facility in Vandiver Village, part of which is located on Consolidated Electric Cooperative lines, bat houses, bluebird boxes and feeder trays made from cedar and recycled plastics take shape.
In Mexico, forklifts, grocery carts and many busy hands constantly fill orders. As with other sectors of the outdoor recreation industry, birding saw a boom in 2020 and 2021 with families spending more time at home. Managing growth and staying vital in a changing marketplace will be the test Grant and Becky face as the Toellner family makes its transition, but Mel is confident the business will thrive if his kids keep two simple precepts in mind.
“We have a couple phrases we try to remember here: ‘Treat people like you want to be treated,’ and ‘Do what’s right,’ ” Mel says. “If our customers are successful, we’ll be fine.”
True retirement, however, is for the birds. There are too many eastern redbuds and American bittersweets to plant, a long overdue book that needs writing and plenty of feathered friends to feed.
With the legacy he built in his Mexico garage secured, Bird Man Mel is ready to dedicate more time to living out his signature phrase: “Nature is a stress reliever from God. Take time today to listen to the birds sing.”
“That’s what it all boils down to,” he says.
For more tips on how to attract more birds to your backyard, visit www.birdmanmel.com.
Bird Man Mel’s tips for bringing more birds to your backyard
- Attract hummingbirds to your feeders or flowers by hanging out a big red Christmas bow.
- Attract Baltimore orioles with half of an orange, fleshy side out, and grape or blackberry jelly.
- In the fall don’t deadhead zinnias or marigolds. Goldfinches love their seed heads.
- Put out a birdbath. Water attracts 10 times more birds than seed.
- Mosquito problems? Put up a bat house as they eat lots of mosquitoes.
- Best feeders to attract birds? Hanging trays and open, fly-through feeders.
- To get more bluebirds, place your houses at least 100 yards apart.