By Julie Pederson
As a farmer-owned cooperative 3,000 members strong, with thousands of non-member patrons visiting the farm stores each year, Wilco serves a diverse clientele. Satisfying the needs of all these customers, from hobby farmer to production agriculturalist, is a challenge that Wilco faces everyday. However, Wilco sees the divergent needs of its customers not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity for the future. The cooperative has a phrase that will guide it into the twenty-first century: One Wilco.
“One Wilco means one company,” says Wilco President and CEO Doug Hoffman. “Each [cooperative] member is just as important as another, whether they do $10 or $3 million in business with Wilco each year.”
Wilco hasn’t always been the unified cooperative it is today. The origins of the company stretch back to the 1930s when a number of farmer-owned cooperatives emerged in Oregon in order to market grain and purchase petroleum competitively. In 1967, five of these cooperatives merged to form Wilco, and today Wilco is the product of ten cooperative mergers over thirty-five years.
This merging of cooperatives has given Wilco strength in numbers and the ability to provide members with valuable benefits. For a one-time fee of $300, agricultural producers can join Wilco and gain voting privileges in the election of directors and changing of by-laws, the ability to run for positions within the cooperative, and the right to receive year-end dividends based on patronage. The Wilco membership profile is representative of agriculture in the Northwest generally, ranging from small, five-acre family farms to 20,000-acre operations.
Far from its humble roots as a grain-marketing cooperative, today Wilco offers its patrons a wide range of products and services through its four business segments: agronomy, seed and grain, farms stores, and petroleum. Each segment serves a different type of customer, from the country-lifestyle enthusiast that patrons the farm stores to the seasoned farmer visiting an agronomy center. Catering to each type of customer is an important part of the One Wilco initiative, with the diverse needs of all being served by one cooperative.
Wilco’s trade area currently stretches through Oregon and Washington along the I-5 corridor. The agronomy centers offer farmers a place to purchase the products necessary to grow their crops and the opportunity to discuss crop productivity with trained agronomists. The gas stations operated by Wilco provide energy needs to a wide range of consumers, from truckers and loggers requiring bulk fuels to customers simply filling up their tanks. Finally, Wilco’s farm stores promote the country lifestyle by selling clothing, gardening items, grooming services, and other basic supplies to ag enthusiasts. While farm store patrons may not fit the typical Wilco member profile, Wilco highly values its farm store customers and has found success reaching out to this demographic.
“[Through the farm stores] we are trying to reach out to customers that might be new to Wilco,” says Kari Zohner, Wilco’s advertising and promotions manager. “We try to hire people with a farming background, or at least a passion for farming and the country lifestyle.” The experienced staff of the Wilco farm stores have the knowledge and appreciation necessary to meet the customer’s needs. In addition to the quality customer service, the farm stores also offer a number of customer perks, including the Wilco Priority Customer Card and customer appreciation events.
Wilco serves the agricultural community in ways beside serving customers through one of the four business segments. Giving back to the community is an important part of the Wilco culture and another piece of the One Wilco initiative. Wilco supports 4H and FFA in Oregon andWashington through various donations, and the Youth Program is one of Wilco’s several specialty customer programs. Youth up to twenty years old can open an account with Wilco and receive year-round discounts on items related to their ag projects, such as feed, health supplies, and show supplies.
“[Youth] are the future of agriculture,” says Hoffman. “They are the future farmers and customers, but it is important to just develop an appreciation for agriculture.”
The impact of Wilco’s community involvement is felt throughout Oregon and Washington—with the company’s participation in youth programs, rodeos, fairs, and food donation projects—and on a global scale. Wilco recently made a donation to earthquake victims in Haiti and is involved in a project in Kenya helping farmers establish cooperatives and improve agricultural methods.
With its diverse business segments, commitment to community involvement, and unified vision for the continued success of the company, Wilco has a bright future. The company, and the membership, are committed to serving the needs of patrons from all segments of agriculture in order to ensure the long-term stability of the cooperative as a whole. In its 2009-2014 Mission Statement, Wilco commits to “…profitably serving with integrity, the unique needs of customers…” Fully aware of the challenges facing the company, and armed with a plan to overcome them, this cooperative will continue to serve the farming community well into the future as One Wilco.