With a love for the land and the people who live and work on it, TJ Colson has built a successful career in the farm and ranch industry. As someone who raises cattle himself, he feels a personal connection to his customers and uses this bond to bring success to his operation. Those accomplishments in business and his commitment to his community over the past two decades have led to him being named a North American Hardware and Paint Association (NHPA) 2023 Top Guns Awards honoree.
Awards Abound: Read more about TJ Colson and his 2019 Young Retailer of the Year honor at hardwareretailing.com/tj-colson.
Honorees are chosen for their commitment to the independent home improvement channel. They are pillars of innovation, helping grow their businesses through strategic leadership with consideration for their communities and their teams. This year’s honorees were chosen for their focus on utilizing technology to improve operations.
Colson currently serves as president of Wilco Stores, which is part of Wilco Co-op, a farmer-owned cooperative made up of 3,000 farmers and ranchers with stores in Oregon, Washington and northern California.
As soon as he was old enough to drive, Colson started working for a small family-owned independent feed store in central Oregon called Central Oregon Ranch Supply.
Colson worked there his junior and senior years of high school and then took time off to focus on school during his freshman and sophomore years at college. As fate would have it, he wouldn’t stay away from the industry for long. What ended up being a disappointment for his college roommate turned into a prime opportunity and the start of a remarkable career at Wilco for Colson.
In 2003, Colson’s roommate at Linn Benton Community College went into the local Wilco store to apply for a job, but the manager was looking for someone with previous industry experience.
“He came back a little discouraged but told me I should apply there because they were looking for somebody who had the unique skill set of working on the old Triad blue screen computer system,” Colson says. “I had that experience from Central Oregon Ranch Supply, so I went in to apply and was hired on the spot. That was 20 years ago, and I’ve been with Wilco ever since.”
Relishing Different Roles
Colson has spent the last two decades expanding his knowledge and experience beyond feed, ranch and farm and into hardware, paint, lawn and garden and other home improvement categories. Through it all, he says he has always had the focus of helping customers pursue the rural lifestyle they desire or love. He has had the unique opportunity to work as a team member with nearly every team within the retail division at Wilco.
While all his transitions were significant, his move to store manager in 2009 to one of Wilco’s full model stores—which are more than 20,000 square feet of retail space—in Springfield, Oregon, was one of the most impactful to his career. The Springfield location was in a new market for Wilco and the store that kicked off the company’s retail store growth strategy. Colson says he appreciated the experience of being able to build his own team.
“I wish I had more time with that team, but I was also very fortunate I had the opportunity to take the next step and become a multistore leader. With a team of more than 35 people, and doing more than $10 million in sales annually, Springfield was where I faced a lot of first challenges that allowed me to learn and grow the most,” Colson says. “My time there was career-defining for me. I was 26, and I grew up fast, learning how to become a leader and working with a larger team and more customers.”
In 2014, Colson had the opportunity to transfer back home to Corvallis, Oregon, when he opened a store for Wilco in that city.
“Opening the Corvallis store was a highlight for me because it was back in my hometown, which I have a passion for and love being able to serve,” he says.
Beyond a Job: Learn how two retailers turned their jobs in hardware into full-time careers in the independent home improvement industry at hardwareretailing.com/job-to-career
Investing in People
Just as his roles with Wilco have varied, Colson’s duties within his current role cover many areas of the business, including operations, merchandising, marketing, e-commerce, technology and more. He says he appreciates the ability to continually learn, grow and develop, honing his skills, taking on new opportunities and being open to think innovatively.
“Leadership at Wilco believes in investing in their people, evolving their human capital and growing their teams. It is such an important part of the culture and one of the reasons it has found great success,” Colson says. “I’m very fortunate that leadership at Wilco has invested in me, and now that I am in a leadership role, I want to make sure our organization continues to invest in our teams.”
One way Wilco invests in its employees is through a positive company culture founded on the operation’s core values and continuous improvement. From annual planning and new hire training to employees working with customers every day in the stores, Wilco’s core values—integrity, respect, excellence, accountability, community and teamwork—are foundational to everything the company does, Colson says.
“We continually communicate and share our values, mission and vision,” he says. “We want our employees to go beyond just reading the words on a poster in a break room; we want them to live those values.”
Another unique aspect of Wilco’s company culture is, like Colson, most of the company’s employees live the same rural lifestyle their customers do and can relate and connect with their customers on that level.
“Our employees, whether they live in the city or country, have an affinity and passion to be a part of this network of customers who enjoy the rural living lifestyle, from outdoor enthusiasts to gardeners to individuals who raise backyard poultry,” Colson says.
Along with a great employee discount program, employee profit sharing, flexible scheduling and many other employee perks, Wilco offers employees an opportunity for a career, not just a job. Colson says he and other leaders in the company work to hire from different audiences, including students in high school and college. They also encourage college students to work for Wilco regardless of the degree they are pursuing because the company offers positions in areas like accounting, human resources, marketing, merchandising, IT and other roles outside of the retail stores.
“You can chase the dollar, but chasing the career is where you’ll find true success and happiness,” Colson says. “Once you find something you connect with and you’re passionate about, it’s no longer about chasing the dollar. I recognize everyone needs to survive and have an income where they can thrive. But we try to offer an opportunity for employees to find a career where we invest in their personal and professional development.”
Company culture and a desire for continuous improvement has set the foundation for Wilco’s success, but technology has helped achieve many of the goals Colson and the leadership team set forth. Colson says the company’s vision when it comes to technology is to make significant investments every year from a capital expenditure standpoint to stay relevant.
“We invest where it makes sense, where we’ll see a return and where it supports the needs of the business and the objectives of the strategic plan,” he says.
“We invest where it makes sense, where we’ll see a return and where it supports the needs of the business and the objectives of the strategic plan.”
—TJ Colson, Wilco Stores
The company accomplishes these objectives through technology that supports customer privacy and security, e-commerce, communications, infrastructure and more. Wilco is utilizing handheld communications technology, including iPads, iPhones and two-way radios, to make correspondence among employees clearer and more efficient and is consistently updating its wireless technology strategies.
“With our e-commerce platform, we were very fortunate to have made those significant investments right before the pandemic,” Colson says. “It was a differentiator and an absolute game changer for us. It kept us relevant in a time of chaos and fulfilled a need for our customers.”
Grateful for a Chance
Colson is grateful to a long list of family members, fellow teammates and mentors who have guided him over the years. He says he’s fortunate to be part of a team of leaders who have contributed to his career, including current Wilco CEO Sam Bugarsky, who had the vision to encourage Colson to participate in the NHPA Retail Management Certification Program. Others who have played a role in Colson’s professional life include former Wilco CEO Doug Hoffman and former Wilco district manager Will Barnhart, both who provided guidance early in his career.
“The team I had in Springfield during that pivotal point in my career also shaped me as a leader,” Colson says. “They challenged and rewarded me, and they did so many things that developed me into who I am as a leader. If it wasn’t for that initial team in Springfield, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I owe so much to that team.”
On a personal side, Colson also gives much credence to his wife Samantha. At their farm, they raise show cattle together, a difficult job but one both are passionate about.
“She’s been my rock, supporting me through my long days, nights and weekends spent working and traveling. I appreciate so much what she does to take care of our home and farm when I’m away,” he says. “I’m also grateful to my parents and my friends and industry partners, Scott Jerousek, Ryan Ringer, Jason Blair, Scott Wright and the many others I have the opportunity to learn from or work with.”
As a Top Guns honoree, Colson is looking forward to advocating for the independent channel and bringing awareness to the many people and businesses that make up the industry.
“I want to share the stories of this industry, all it has to offer and recognize the vast number of dealers, cooperatives, owners and managers out there who get up every day, unlock the door, turn on the lights and serve their communities,” he says. “I want to share that passion and let people know that our industry offers tremendous opportunities and can provide a wonderful career.”
Innovative Ideas From NHPA’s Top Guns
Be a part of one of the industry’s biggest awards at the 2023 NHPA Independents Conference Aug. 3 in Dallas and glean insights from this year’s Top Guns Awards honorees in an exclusive panel discussion. Honorees will share the strategic investments they’ve made in technology to improve productivity, employee morale and overall customer experience. Immediately following the panel, join the honorees at the NHPA Top Guns Awards reception sponsored by STIHL and the National Hardware Show.