It’s a fortunate board of directors that knows the exact leader to bring into the CEO role to confront the organization’s specific challenges and recognize its most rewarding opportunities. Wilco Cooperative found itself in that enviable position several years ago when it elevated Sam Bugarsky, the former Chief Operating Officer, to the CEO role in 2019.
“We needed a CEO who understood our values and would embrace and nurture our traditional culture, at the same time as they’d be forward-looking and foster Wilco’s continued growth,” says Ben Coleman, chair of Wilco’s board. “Sam’s attributes as a leader and history with the cooperative made him the perfect choice.”
Sam joined Wilco more than 35 years ago – in fact, the cooperative is the only employer he’s ever had. With most of his career spent on the retail side of Wilco’s operation, from stocking shelves to once owning his own store, Sam rose to ever more senior roles to eventually lead the retail and petroleum divisions prior to becoming Chief Operating Officer. During that time, he consistently demonstrated unwavering integrity, collaborative leadership and quiet fortitude in the face of challenges.
“Sam has a very calming influence and is collaborative in his approach,” says Glen Goschie, former board chair and current director. “His early decisions as CEO gave our employees confidence that our business would return to the culture they, along with Sam, had helped create and refine over the years, and that our cooperative had a strong leader pointing us forward.”
Wilco’s history goes back to 1967 when the Oregon-based cooperative had just five small locations serving primarily its local farmer members. Since then, and with Sam’s participation since 1988, its retail footprint has expanded to 26 consumer-friendly stores across Oregon, Washington and California, with a long-term strategy to continue growing this division of the business 10% a year.
“Wilco is a first-class farm retailer that can compete with any national chain,” says Gary Mack, CEO of Wheatbelt, a stockholder-owned distributor of which Wilco is a member and on whose board Sam sits. “Of course it takes a team, but if it weren’t for Sam, I don’t think they would have evolved to be the respected, regional retailer they’ve become.”
In addition to its farm stores, Wilco offers fuel services, through a joint venture oversees agronomy centers that provide both products and professional agronomist consultation, and manages Hazelnut Growers of Oregon, a farmer-owned marketing cooperative.
While all its business lines were hit hard by the pandemic, the retail operation faced double-sided challenges: deemed an essential service due to its animal feed and agricultural supplies, retail operations needed to remain open while keeping employees and customers safe; at the same time, the recently launched online retail operation took off more rapidly than anticipated, demanding a rapid ramp up to meet customer expectations.
“At the same time that we’ve built the largest and one of the most successful groups of cooperatively owned farm supply stores in the country, we’ve also developed a team of leaders throughout our business lines who are able to see and plan for what’s ahead and strive for continued growth,” says Sam. “I could not be prouder of our employees for their focus on our customers and the commitment to our mission they demonstrate every day.”
Nearing retirement when he stepped in to lead the cooperative through what turned out to be such turbulent times, Sam will retire from Wilco at the end of 2023. Wilco’s board of directors will now work with FCCS, a professional services and consulting company focused on supporting cooperatives, to select Sam’s successor, as it did when selecting his predecessor.