ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA, U.S. — Noel K. Estenson, who helped spearhead the 1998 merger that created CHS Inc., the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative, and then served as its first chief executive officer (CEO), died Dec. 11 at his home in Lakeville, Minnesota, U.S., after a long battle with cancer. He was 80.
“CHS would not be the organization it is today without Noel’s vision and courage,” said Jay Debertin, president and CEO of CHS. “The steps Noel and others took to create a strong, efficient agriculture and energy supply chain with global market access continue to add tremendous economic value for the farmers and member co-ops who own us.”
Debertin, who considered him a mentor, said Estenson developed a gift of relating to everyone from farmers to employees to global agriculture leaders that helped create a strong CHS culture.
Raised on a Climax, Minnesota, U.S., potato and grain farm, Estenson’s goal was to follow his local cooperative manager into the co-op world. At North Dakota State University, where he received a degree in agricultural economics, he served as student body president and president of the school’s Co-op House. He joined the former Cenex credit department immediately after his 1963 Army discharge and rose through the company’s finance ranks, becoming senior vice-president of petroleum and finance in 1981.
Estenson was named president and CEO of Cenex in August 1987 during the depths of the agricultural economic crisis of the 1980s and made strengthening the company’s performance and balance sheet his priority. He worked to reduce co-op duplication and generate cost savings through the ground-breaking Cenex/Land O’Lakes joint venture.
John Johnson, who succeeded Estenson as CHS president and CEO, recalled the 1997 dinner during which the two leaders agreed that farmers would benefit from the merger of energy and agricultural supply co-op Cenex with its grain and processing counterpart Harvest States. Johnson was CEO of Harvest States at the time.
“We had a beer and a hamburger and talked about the future,” Johnson said. “We knew we had to get bigger to help farmers compete. We got all the merger issues resolved at that one dinner; that’s how definite Noel was about what was needed. We created CHS, a co-op that represents farmers and is built to last. He’ll be remembered for that.”
Estenson retired in 2000 and served for many years as a director for Thrivent Mutual Funds. He also authored the book, “Be Still and Know: Incredible Hunches from Your Creator,” on the power of intuition. He was inducted into the national Cooperative Hall of Fame in 2010 and was recognized with the National Farmers Union Meritorious Service Award, an Honorary American FFA Degree and the Cooperative Communicators Association CEO Outstanding Communicator recognition.