When Jamie Reese took the reins of Killdeer-based Western Choice Cooperative in 2013, he had a wealth of knowledge at his disposal.
Growing up as a co-op manager’s son — his father John ran what is now United Quality Cooperative in New Town for 30 years — Jamie had good insight into why cooperatives are important. He also knew of a manager’s responsibility.
“There’s an expectation that you know a lot about everything,” he said. “
Jamie hit the ground running, and the cooperative hasn’t looked back. In the last 10 years, they’ve made the hardware store bigger, tripled the size of their bulk facility, built a car wash, expanded the tire shop, added a Dairy Queen and built an apartment building to house their employees.
Jamie credited chairman Gene Harris and the board of directors for having a growth mindset.
“They’re just all real forward-thinking guys,” he said. “We knew a long time ago that diversification is probably going to be our best bet.”
He also noted the important role that former manager Art Perdue played when he was hired.
“He was the interim and then became my mentor here,” Jamie said.
When Jamie was hired, he found himself in a unique position. Suddenly, his father’s co-op in New Town was the competition. Jamie was managing their hardware store at the time.
“When I decided to take this job, he was excited,” he said. “But we share a common trade area between us, so for his last four or five years, he was a competitor. We had fun with it.”
Cooperatives run deep in the Reese family. Jamie’s brother Mitch works for Ag Partners, a cooperative in southern Minnesota.
“They grew up with it and loved it,” said John, who has since retired as a manager and runs a co-op consulting firm. “They’ve been around it and gotten to know everybody in the co-op world. This is what they’ve chosen to do. We’ve got the background for it.”
Jamie’s experience of managing a hardware store paid dividends immediately, as he said the co-op wanted to make sure it was a priority for the sake of the community. They did so by moving the tire shop to a facility on the same site as the bulk fuel location.
“We took the hardware store that was probably about 6,000 square feet and made it 13,000 square feet,” he said.
In 2021, they built a car wash that services both light and heavy duty vehicles right next door, and the timing wasn’t easy.
“It had been on our board room agenda for years,” he said. “I’ll never forget it because the (project) was on my desk, just waiting to be approved (in late February of 2020). Then March 2020 (Covid) happens. But we pushed it through in April or May. We said, ‘We already planned and budgeted for it. Let’s get it done.’”
Not an easy decision considering the pandemic, but timing has been on his side in his 10 years as manager, he said. Many of the improvements, renovations or new construction happened during or just after the oil boom. Most importantly, it happened before the pandemic. Building materials saw dramatic increases starting in 2020.
“We probably spent $25 or $30 million worth of capital investment the first eight years I was here, and then inflation hits,” he said. “We go into the March 2020-Covid situation with basically all new facilities. We’re all nervous. But at the same time, we had pretty good timing in that we were able to get a lot of it (built or renovated) by then.”
Among those risks was an apartment building for its employees, not common for a traditional small-town cooperative.
“It’s 27 units, and it’s 100% employees,” he said. “That’s really been able to stabilize some of the transitionary workforce.”
Jamie said he pulled the idea from his father, who had built one in New Town for United Quality Cooperative. The idea was approved by the board, which felt it necessary to alleviate one of the major concerns with finding help. Since it’s nearby, it also meant the C-store could be open 24 hours.
“Everyone on the board realized the only way (the co-op) could control its own destiny was by having a safe place we could put people,” he said. “That was really the springboard for being open 24 hours a day. And we could have never gone after our Dairy Queen concept without making that work.”
Western Choice has a location in Manning, which is just south of Killdeer. It added another location when it purchased the Cenex station in Sidney, Mont., from Farmers Elevator of Circle, Mont., in 2019.
“We were just in the right place at the right time,” he said. “They were looking to reposition and our name came up in conversation with all the work we’ve done with our retail establish-ments. We were able to come together and make a deal. We took over that location and completely redesigned and rebuilt that store. It’s 18,000 square feet. It’s a big store.”
Growth from the oil boom played a big role in Western Choice’s success, Jamie said. That success has allowed the co-op to be less dependent on oil field traffic.
“Everything we’ve done is to try to make sure we’re not too oil dependent, or not too dependent upon any one (industry),” he said. “Agriculture also has its ups and downs, but agriculture has always been our core support. So, we want to make sure everything is built around something we can sustain.”
So what big idea is next for Western Choice? Jamie said the co-op is looking at a 24-hour hardware store, in which a member would use their Western Choice card to enter the facility after hours, grab what they need, pay for it by credit card and leave. Cameras would be positioned inside and outside for security purposes, and would include surveillance from the 24-hour C-store.
“They would have to use their (co-op) card to get in, so we would get a report on everyone who enters,” he said. “They’d have to be in good standing (financially) with the co-op. It’s something we’re still working on. We’re doing a lot of testing with it.
“There is a Runnings and Menards in Dickinson, but I want customers to have something here that those (stores) can’t offer, and that’s ownership. They’re an owner here at the cooperative.”
Western Choice’s ventures might be a bit outside the box, but Jamie said it’s important to do what’s necessary to maintain the co-op’s strong level of service.
“We’ve had some wild ideas,” Jamie said. “We’re constantly trying to find ways to give new meaning to our co-op, provide new services and promote members.”
— Story and photo by Chris Aarhus, NDFU