Noel Estenson, first CEO of CHS Inc., dies at age 80

ST. PAUL — Noel K. Estenson, who helped lead the 1998 merger that created CHS Inc., died Dec. 11 at his home in Lakeville after a long battle with cancer. He was 80.

Estenson was the first CEO of the new company, which became the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative.

“CHS would not be the organization it is today without Noel’s vision and courage,” said Jay Debertin, CHS pPresident and CEO, said in a prepared statement. “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.”

Raised on a potato and grain farm near Climax, Estenson followed his local cooperative manager uncle into the co-op world. He went to North Dakota State University and earned a degree in agricultural economics. While on campus Estenson 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. The members of Cenex and Harvest States Cooperatives voted to merge operations at Cenex’s Inver Grove Heights headquarters under the new name Cenex Harvest States. The Harvest States headquarters in Falcon Heights were phased out.

Estenson retired as CHS CEO in 2000. He served for many years as a director for Thrivent Mutual Funds. 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.

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