In his typical philanthropic fashion, Buzz Wheeler gave away hundreds of Carhartt stocking caps and bags of Dot’s pretzels Wednesday during the 19th annual Ag Appreciation Breakfast at the Linn County Fair & Expo Center.

The event was sponsored by the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce with several key partners.

Wheeler, the owner of Coastal Farm & Ranch (now called Coastal), was the featured speaker at this year's annual event and took the opportunity to praise the 800 employees in his 17 stores throughout Oregon and Washington.

“We hire great people, we constantly ask what our customers expect of us and we localize our buying,” Wheeler said of the company’s keys to success. “We cater to the rural lifestyle in all we do.”

And, he added, it’s important that his employees are country people with a passion for the job.

“Someone working in animal health likely has a horse, cows, or chickens, just like our customers,” Wheeler said. “They are motivated and interested in what they are doing.”

He said about 70 percent of his employees have ties to 4H and FFA programs — which, he added, are near and dear to his heart as well.

“I think the world of these kids,” he said. “They know the business end of a broom.”

A Nebraska native and Cornhusker football fan who graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, Wheeler spent two decades in retail management before buying a trio of farm and ranch stores in Oregon and consolidating their management in Albany.

“The stores were started in 1963 by Morey Hale and eventually they were purchased by the Orscheln Farm and Home group based in Moberly, Missouri,” he said.

Wheeler recalled that he didn’t have any money and was paying 12.5 percent interest when he made the leap into ownership in 1990.

Today, Coastal stores sell farm equipment, feed, stoves and fireplaces, sporting goods, livestock feed, auto supplies, work wear and footwear. All of its stores are stocked out of the Albany warehouse.

Wheeler said that horse feed was his No. 1 seller in the early years, but chicken feed tops the list today. His chickens are allowed to be raised in nearly every community in the state. But, he admitted, not everything is a sales success: Diapers for chickens, for example, were not big sellers and were quickly discontinued.

Coastal stocks items based on individual store needs.

“We stock a lot of alder wood pellets at our store in Mount Vernon, Washington, because people up there smoke a lot of salmon,” Wheeler said. “Our stores in Wenatchee and Yakima don’t need a lot of rain gear since it doesn’t rain a lot in those areas.”

Wheeler said Coastal stocks primarily name brands including Carhartt clothing and Georgia boots and Romeo slippers.

“I like to say that without us, folks would be naked and barefoot,” Wheeler joked.

Wheeler said Coastal, like other retail businesses, are contending with online sales.

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“But in our business, we think people still want to touch things and ask questions about them,” he said. “We are working on online sales with in-store pickup.”

Wheeler said Coastal’s core values include acting with integrity, investing in people, living by the Golden Rule, serving communities and sustaining financial growth by adding at least two stores per year.

“It not what we say, it’s what we do that matters most,” Wheeler said.

And, perhaps most important of all, is having fun.

“You really need to enjoy what you are doing to be good at it,” he said.

Business challenges including continuing to find good employees, wage increase pressures and locating vacant former big box stores that can be turned into Coastal locations at a reasonable cost.

“There is a survey that shows most people in America would love to live a country life, the life we are living,” Wheeler said.

In 2014, Wheeler was honored as Albany's Distinguished Citizen by the Chamber of Commerce.  He has supported many groups financially and as a volunteer, including the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, SafeHaven, the ABC House and Altrusa’s Kidzshop. When the future of the paddle boats at Waverly Lake was murky, Wheeler provided financial backing to keep them operating.

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Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.