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Shannon Wilburn ('92)
2013 Distinguished Alumni Citation
At 12 years old, Shannon Wilburn watched her father’s body betray him.
Within six weeks, the successful oil company finance officer moved from walking upright to using a cane, then a walker, then a wheelchair as multiple sclerosis took its toll.
“His sickness was really the turning point for our whole family,” said Wilburn, a recipient this fall of a Distinguished Alumni Citation for her role as cofounder and CEO of Just Between Friends, the nation’s largest consignment sale.
Shannon (McKnight ’92) Wilburn has grown Just Between Friends from a single consignment sale in a 400-square-foot living room to a company with $25 million in sales across 130 franchises in 25 states, serving more than 400,000 customers.
And much of the credit goes back to the tough days after Doug McKnight (’71)’s illness, when her mother went back to work and the family struggled to work with restricted budgets.
“I got put very early on a clothing budget,” Wilburn said. “We had to make our money stretch. We would shop consignment because you could get the name-brand things and the nice things for pennies on the dollar.”
Along with fostering an appreciation for consignment stores, the illness led McKnight to pass on his sense of budgeting and bookkeeping to his daughters – and, most important, led the family to invest more heavily in their local congregation than they had previously.
All three developments have become huge pieces of Wilburn’s career with Just Between Friends.
“Looking back on it, the Lord really had our back,” Wilburn said.
In 1988, she followed in her parents’ footsteps and attended ACU, where she met Mitch Wilburn (’90) during Welcome Week. The couple was married two years later, and immediately moved to Tulsa, Okla., where Mitch Wilburn became youth minister for the Park Plaza Church of Christ.
Initially a schoolteacher, Shannon Wilburn stopped teaching to raise their two children, but she continued looking for ways to supplement Mitch’s income. Her mother suggested hosting a consignment sale.
Wilburn ran the idea past a member of their church, and the pair decided to try it. The first sale in 1997 featured clothes from 17 consigners, many of them Park Plaza members. Wilburn and her fellow sale workers handwrote the tags, trimmed loose threads, washed dirty clothes and fixed broken zippers. They used clothes racks recovered from the trash outside of the local mall and kitchen drawers as cash registers.
“We had it inside,” Wilburn said, “because we didn’t want people to think it was a garage sale. “We each made $150. Looking back, that was probably a penny an hour."
Nevertheless, Wilburn and her business partner, Daven Tackett, continued to host sales, and each was larger than the last. As the Internet grew, so did word about the sale. It moved to the Tulsa Fairgrounds in 2000, and soon after friends and family began asking how they could do something similar in their hometowns. That led Wilburn and Tackett to franchise JBF in 2003.
“We grew slowly,” Wilburn said. “We took baby steps. We did this as we had money. There’s no way in my wildest dreams that I could have believed a living room sale would become a multimillion-dollar company.”
From 17 original consigners, Just Between Friends now has about 60,000 for the two sales its franchisees hold annually in each city.
“The Lord made the way for it, and it continues to prosper because it’s under his guidance,” she said. “I’m just glad I get to be a part of it.”
The company serves a vital niche – providing families a way to clothe their children when they could not otherwise afford retail prices, Wilburn said.
“We help so many people,” she said. “It’s a win-win. I feel like we’re helping people be good stewards of what they’ve been given.”
That was a lesson taught early by her father, who died in 1998, just after Wilburn began Just Between Friends. After his death, Pam (Rhoads ’71) McKnight Willingham – faced with the prospect of working without the ability to retire – opened her own JBF franchise in Fort Worth with a business partner. It’s now the No. 3 franchise in the country, Wilburn said, and her mother is selling it this summer, earning enough money to retire.
“He would be so excited,” Wilburn said of her father. “My mom will sometimes say, ‘Daddy would be so proud of you.’”