Chris Coile is alive and well and residing in blissful obscurity here in the Big Sky Country, a world away from the real estate empire he left behind in the Washington-Baltimore-Annapolis region.
"People in Montana couldn't care less what you did before," says the Realtor-turned-rancher. "They are not at all concerned whether you've got money, or don't have money. You're judged on your ability as a rancher and on your willingness to chip in and help your neighbors."
For the former wunderkind of Anne Arundel County real estate, publications like Irrigation Today and Beef Journal have become must reading. And, although he still owns a few shopping centers, offices and rental homes back in Maryland, he'd rather discuss herd health than housing sales. He even wears a "Beefing Up" belt buckle.
The self-effacing, self-made millionaire, now nearly 38, sold his real estate business in 1980 to Merrill Lynch Realty, a subsidiary of the nation's largest stock brokerage firm, then managed the company's entire operation east of the Mississippi for nearly a year.
When he resigned last December, the housing market was slumping sharply and, he says, "a lot of people gave me credit for a lot of foresight, but I was just tired and wanted to move West."
The 1,000-acre spread Coile acquired for $800,000 in January sits at the end of an eight-mile gravel road in the Blackfoot Valley, 70 miles northwest of Helena, the state capital. Above the valley, where he also leases 3,500 acres to graze his herd, rise the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
The Coile ranch, the first to be homesteaded in the valley back in the 1890s, is bordered by two national wilderness sanctuaries, and the closest town--12 miles away--boasts about 50 residents.
There is no television here, not even cable. And no housing tracts.
"Yes, there's not a subdivision in the valley," beamed the urbane cowboy, whose fortune was built in no small part on sales of such houses in the sprawling suburbs back East.
"When you're around Annapolis or Washington, people have elected to live in a metropolitan area," he said. "When you come out here to an area totally unsubdivided and someone wants to subdivide it , people get excited--and justifiably."
Christopher and Susan Coile live in a modest, two-story frame house decorated with Western art and sporting an old roll-top desk in the living room. Susan, a former high school art teacher, has a small studio upstairs. Only a single framed picture of Chesapeake Bay work boats--inconspicuously displayed--serves as a reminder of the state they left, without regrets, earlier this year.
Coile's odyssey from the metropolitan areas to the wide-open spaces began in Glen Burnie, where his mother sold real estate. Coile was a high school pole-vaulting champ who worked his way through Penn State playing the guitar and piano. After college, he managed a music company in Florida, where he met his wife. Her job brought them back to Ann Arundel and him to real estate.
Working for another broker, he sold $1.5 million worth of property the first year. He was 23. By 1970, he was a fully licensed broker with a firm of his own. By the end of the decade, the firm had 17 offices and 250 agents (including his mother) and total sales of $240 million in 1979. Merrill Lynch acquired the Coile companies in 1980 and added the Washington area firm of Colquitt-Carruthers that October. Sales last year amounted to $800 million.
Chris Coile was becoming a household word, as "Merrill Lynch Realty/Chris Coile" signs sprang up from Towson, north of Baltimore, to Northern Virginia. Coile himself was working now under a two-year contract, first as president and chief executive officer of Chris Coile and Associates and then as Merrill Lynch's man-in-charge of all its companies in the East.
"I got on a plane every Monday and came back every Friday--maybe," he said.
Success took its toll. The price included two ulcers and little time to enjoy the fruits of his labors. With his contract almost up late last year, Chris Coile called it quits.
The move, he insists, was not sudden.
Real estate is "a very, very hectic, frantic business," he observed. "When we started, we knew we had a good market, in time to really roll. It was a very frantic, very hectic 10 years. Not that we didn't take trips, have fun, enjoy ourselves they still own a 400-acre mountain farm in western Maryland where they kept horses, fished and grew hay , but we recognized the pace was a killer . . . .
"We've been coming out here to Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, for seven years," Coile said. "Many years ago, we realized we wanted ultimately to move West. We wanted a complete change of life style, because we realized at the pace we were going back East, there was no way to continue for another 20 years without getting an early heart attack."
His escape plans began to take shape as early as 1976. Without children, he realized he had "no one to leave the company to." The following year, the Coiles started seriously looking for a place to settle far from the fast lane.
"Montana had what we wanted," said Coile. "Scenic beauty," Susan Coile noted. "A tremendous amount of wilderness area, limited population," her husband said. "No standup cocktail parties," Susan added.
They are members of the Ovando Snowmobilers Club and of the Blackfoot Cattlemen's Association, at whose annual picnic Coile recently played his guitar.
"We're legitimate ranchers," said Coile, whose herd consists of 106 breeding cows, 104 calves, 11 replacement calves and four bulls. With four feet of snow and sub-zero temperatures the first winter, the Coiles birthed all their calves, losing only two. "We were very lucky," Coile said. Two ranch hands have helped run the place since May.
To feed the cattle, they grow hay on 600 acres during the 39-day, frost-free growing season. "Once you get into it, you're really into it," he says, going on to discuss the fine points of cow vaccines and bovine economics.
The price of beef, he says, "has been down forever. It's getting slightly better, but the long-term prognosis is not good. The American public is off beef, for a lot of reasons--price for one, health for another . . . .
"A person ranches because he wants to see the cows, touch his calves," Coile said. "You don't do it to make a lot of money. It costs you as much to run a ranch as you bring in."
Money, after all, isn't that important in the Wonderful World of the West, Coile maintains.
"A family can be pretty much self sufficient," he said. "We have chickens, raise our own eggs, have a garden. You trade with everybody. You trade with a sheep rancher, lamb for beef. I'll combine a guy's field. He'll bale my hay. Barter's a big deal in the West . . . .
"Guys out here don't have a nickel, but they're happy doing what they're doing. A lot of people say to me, 'you can do this because you've made all this money,' but you could do it if you didn't have a nickel. The guy picking rocks next to me is enjoying the same life style we are. He didn't go through 15 years of whatever to get it.
"There are 50,000 guys in Washington and Baltimore saying they'd love to do this. They can do it. A lot of them would rather sit around and cry about the lost opportunities and say if, if, if.
"The only thing that holds people back from doing what they want," said Chris Coile, "is the misconception it's not possible."