Noel K. Estenson, who helped spearhead the 1998 merger that created CHS Inc. and then served as its first CEO, died Dec. 11 at his home in Lakeville after a long battle with cancer. He was 80.
“CHS would not be the organization it is today without Noel’s vision and courage,” says Jay Debertin, CHS president and CEO. “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, says 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 potato and grain farm, Estenson’s goal was to follow his uncle, a local cooperative manager, into the co-op world. He earned a degree in agricultural economics at North Dakota State University, where he served as both student body president and president of the school’s Co-op House.
Estenson 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.
He 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 was a key player in efforts to reduce co-op duplication and generate cost savings through the groundbreaking Cenex-Land O’Lakes joint venture.
John Johnson, who succeeded Estenson as CHS president and CEO, recalls the 1997 dinner during which the two agreed farmers would benefit greatly long-term 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 what the future looked like. 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 he was about what was needed,” Johnson says. “We created CHS, a co-op that represents farmers that’s 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.
Estenson is survived by Ethel, his wife of nearly 60 years, along with children Keith (Susan) Estenson, Craig (Sharon) Estenson, Kim (Scott) Amundson and Dennis (Barb) Estenson; 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and another expected, and his sister, Kate Hedman. He was preceded in death by his parents, Ordean and Helen, brothers Wayne and Lionel, and an infant granddaughter.
Visitation is scheduled for Dec. 29 from 3-5 p.m. at Lord of Life Lutheran Church, 16200 Dodd Lane, Lakeville.
A celebration of life will take place on Dec. 30 at 11 a.m. at Lord of Life with visitation one hour prior. In lieu of flowers, memorials preferred to Lord of Life Lutheran Church.