When TJ Colson, President of Wilco Stores, speaks about Wilco CEO Sam Bugarsky, it starts out big: “He is a brilliant-minded individual who has this ability and foresight to see trends, to see multiple things other people can’t see.”
Just in case that seems grandiose, though, Colson also wants you to know how Bugarsky pulls people together, asks for their opinions, and seeks out their questions as much as their buy-in. If Bugarsky has a vision, Colson says, “it’s not his idea, he wants it to be our idea.”
Bugarsky seems never to seek the spotlight for his own sake, and yet his career of building Wilco and its contributions to Oregon agriculture have earned him the Agriculturist of the Year award, to be presented by Oregon Aglink at the 2023 Denim and Diamonds award dinner and auction.
Sam Bugarsky grew up in Portland, the son of a Multnomah County Deputy Sheriff Detective and registered nurse. In middle school, Bugarsky and his family relocated to a fifteen-acre hobby farm near Carus, between Oregon City and Canby. His father had grown up on a dairy near Gaston, and his work in Portland had him interacting with fresh market farmers. Moving out of the city was a chance for the family to get back in touch with the land and for Sam to help at local farms and livestock shows.
Enrolling in Canby FFA during high school, Bugarsky had a successful stint raising market hogs during his junior and senior years. He earned the Swine Proficiency award at the FFA convention held at Oregon State University before he graduated. When an e. coli outbreak led to major losses of his stock, Bugarsky reluctantly pivoted away from hogs.
“I was at Wilco a lot then and applied for a part time job while in high school. I enjoyed working and loved interacting with farmers there everyday,” says Bugarsky of that first job in 1978. “After high school I wanted to go to college, but was enjoying Wilco and thinking I might try my own business, so I held off, working and taking a few classes at Clackamas Community College.”
At one point he came across a small feed store for sale in West Linn: “I purchased Willamette Feed and Supply with savings from my market hog operation. I ran that business for two and a half years when I decided I needed more. I contemplated more education then but was offered a management position back at the Wilco branch in Canby.”
Twenty-five years later, Bugarsky had risen to Chief Operating Officer at Wilco when TJ Colson first met him in 2003. Colson recalls that spring, working at the Tangent farm store: “I was just a warehouser, and my first interaction with him was him coming up, shaking my hand, and introducing himself as Sam. Very modest, very humble.”
True to Wilco’s reputation as a top workplace, especially one that fosters leadership and long careers, Colson remembers Bugarsky offering him opportunities to prove himself with special projects. In the summer of 2007, Colson’s first project was the acquisition of a Newberg store and relocating to a new building, consolidating two stores into one location.
“I remember riding with [Sam] in downtown Portland going to pick up some rental cash registers and him saying ‘Hey, do you have a business card?’” says Colson. When he replied to Bugarsky that he didn’t have a title that required one, he remembers Bugarsky’s reply: “‘Well, we hope to change that one of these days in the future.’” Colson soon became a store manager in Tangent and eventually a district manager in 2016, reporting directly to Bugarsky.
Between Sam’s first job at Wilco in 1978 and Colson’s first memory of him as COO in 2003, Bugarsky had spent twenty-five years building the now-familiar retail face of Wilco. After a promotion out of Canby, he became Wilco’s first buyer for the centralized purchasing department. Following that, he took on more responsibility as Retail Sales Director for the five Wilco retail stores operating at the time.
“This was a period when there wasn’t a lot of access to hobby farm supplies,” Bugarsky reflects. “You could buy a black bucket or choose from just a handful of feed choices. We had a vision that if we could give more options to small farm families, they would evolve their purchasing from just what they need, to more of what they want.”
The stores featured bright clean aisles and a new simplified name, Wilco, encouraging a wider range of shoppers beyond their members. The success of this model earned the support of Wilco’s board. Replicating success with new stores became a priority, but one that depended on investing in infrastructure as well. As Bugarsky says, “we didn’t outpace our ability to run a well-managed business.”
The retail growth didn’t come without internal challenges. “At the time and sometimes still today, some farmer members challenged our store format and whether we are supporting ag, because we are opening stores out of our legacy geography and serving part time farmers, not members with our farm stores,” says Bugarsky.
“With the success of this part of the business most of our farmer members have come to realize that profits from non-farmers shopping our stores can [then] be invested in farm causes, supporting our purpose to ‘strengthen agriculture.’” Wilco reinvests the returns from the retail business into better equipment for its other sectors such as Valley Agronomics, and members even see direct benefits in their patronage dividends.
While Bugarsky has led the charge with Wilco’s retail sector for much of his career, he held responsibility at various times for the energy, distribution and transportation, and agronomic sectors. “Along the way I did have the opportunity to participate in a 2 year Agribusiness mini-MBA program at Purdue University with an international segment in Argentina,” he says. Still, for all that professional experience and education, one of Bugarsky’s most important legacies ties back to his high school years in Canby.
The nomination for Agriculturist of the Year submitted by TJ Colson and Nicole Anderson emphasized Sam’s vision for growing Oregon’s future leaders in agriculture.
When budget cuts ended state funding for Oregon’s FFA program in late 2011, Bugarsky realized there would be no FFA programs available like the one he remembered from Canby. “He was the architect and the mastermind behind the FFA Forever campaign where Wilco would donate money,” says Colson, but also the company could leverage its long-term trust with the community and customers to fundraise toward a reliable future for the program.
“He has contributed to agriculture in Oregon by ensuring long-term sustainability of not just the cooperative system itself, but [also] agriculture” says Colson. How? “By investing in our future leaders.”
While FFA Forever kept the program running, doubled active participants, and expanded chapter charters to new communities, the money is only the beginning of the contributions. Bugarsky encourages Wilco managers to stay engaged in their communities by attending ag and career classes, judging competitions, and participating at state contests. Sometimes it can be as simple as a Wilco team member helping students write a resume or build a marketing plan.
Bugarsky’s leadership made FFA Forever a reality, but the award nomination co-authored by Colson also highlighted the 2 million dollars worth of youth project animals Wilco has bought at Junior Livestock Auctions, and the recent return of the Wilco Future Co-op Leaders Event. Just like the retail operation led to replicating the store model, the investment in future leaders keeps growing, too.
For all his visionary qualities in building up Wilco and Oregon agriculture, Bugarsky demonstrates humility rather than hubris. The principles that took him from a part-time job in high school to CEO in 2019 were focused on meeting other people’s needs and expectations rather than his own.
“I think from the beginning and through to now “customer first” comes to mind,” he says, when asked about what has carried him through the years. “We’ve nurtured a culture around ‘we’re here for our members and customers.’ This applies to everyone from those loading feed in a store to the CEO.”
“Putting the customer’s interests first pays off in the long run,” adds Bugarsky. “It’s easier for us as a farmer-owned cooperative and not being investor-owned, but there was a time where I would have prioritized products or service solutions by profit level. What I learned was by prioritizing customer satisfaction and benefits first, we grow more sustainably.”
When asked about what he has learned over the years, not just what he had from the start, Bugarsky is frank: “I’m a little ashamed that I used to have less respect for the importance of people on our team. When I was younger I had a plug and play attitude about employees and staffing. I always knew that processes and procedures are important to consistent service and execution, but learned that it’s even more important to have team members who care about the business and our customers.”
The shift toward building up individuals as part of the whole team and even the community was so complete that it seems strange to hear Bugarsky mention a time when that wasn’t the case. For the last eleven years in a row, Wilco has been named a Top Workplace in Oregon and SW Washington, and Wilco’s board wants management to nurture that culture for years to come.
“One underlying principle here for our team and I is that no one is privileged at Wilco” says Bugarsky. “The CEO and senior management are expected to respect the same values and follow the same rules as our entry level employees.” One example he offers is the travel policy that applies to anyone working for Wilco, whether it’s a warehouser or an executive: “We all have the same seats on the plane and stay in the same class of hotels.”
After a long career at Wilco, including these final four years unexpectedly taking the role of CEO, Sam Bugarsky is retiring at the end of this year. If anyone is worried about Wilco, Bugarsky would probably be the first to tell you not to worry, and that it has never been a one-man show.
The best part about investing in your team, customers, and community? There will always be plenty of people ready to step in and carry forward the vision.
By Allison Cloo