During my first year as an editor with Hardware Retailing, I had the opportunity to meet a handful of retailers who shaped my young career. One retailer I specifically owe thanks to is Will Barnhart of Wilco Cooperative, which has 13 stores in the Pacific Northwest.
I interviewed Will for my first cover story. Fresh out of college and new to the home improvement scene, I was terrified. Will patiently covered all my inquisitive questions about retailing—and didn’t laugh when I asked what margin was. Now a half a decade (and a few business prep classes) later, I still recall tips from that interview to help me in my writing.
Will is a mix of new ideas and old values, a progressive leader who embraces technology and returns home in the evening to tend to his own small livestock farm and sings bass in a local bluegrass band on the weekends.
What is particularly amazing about Will, besides his patience with new trade publication editors, is his desire to give back to the industry.
He truly loves retailing. Not just retailing at Wilco, either. Will loves being able to work with other independent retailers to make a stronger shopping option for consumers. It’s something that I can get behind.
Wilco was born in 1967 when several other area cooperatives merged together to combine their buying power. Like most other agricultural cooperatives, Wilco, short for Willamette Consolidated, was established as a way for members to pool their resources to get better prices on the fuel, seed, machinery and tools they needed to work their farms and tend to their animals.
Today, the company has expanded well beyond its roots. Its 13 retail locations offer customers a blend of hardware, tools and lawn and garden supplies along with a healthy mix of products with an agricultural focus, such as feed, animal health, equine items, pet supplies, fencing and more.
What I really noticed when I visited Will was the spotless stores, awesome pricing and its unique offering of products and services that allows the retailer to stand out—let’s just say I had to do everything in my power not to leave Oregon with a new pair of cowboy boots.
And, as if managing 13 stores and raising a farm and family at home isn’t enough, Will also serves on the North American Retail Hardware Association (NRHA) board of directors. He believes so much in what independent retailers are doing that he spends his own time helping improve operations for customers.
Sometimes I call Will to just geek out over merchandising ideas I’ve seen. It’s something that reaffirmed to me that independents aren’t just about selling; they truly believe in the need of the independent home improvement store—not the cascading corporate overtake of the big boxes.
That’s just cool.