Born in Rhame, North Dakota to parents who ran a wheat farm and cattle ranch, John D. Johnson from an early age developed a love of the land and the people who earn their livelihoods from it. After earning a bachelor’s degree in business from Black Hills State University, he began his cooperative career as a feed salesman with GTA Feeds. During the mid-1970s, Johnson worked his way up through the Minnesota-based co-op, which merged with North Pacific Grain Growers in 1983 to form Harvest States Cooperative. By 1995, Johnson was its president and CEO.
As competition within the agricultural industry intensified, Johnson envisioned a revolutionary path for Harvest States, beginning with a merger he helped orchestrate. During this critical point in his career, he was also battling a cancer diagnosis. Still, in 1998 Harvest States and Cenex-an agricultural supply and energy cooperative-successfully merged under Johnson’s guidance to create CHS, a full-service grain-marketing, energy and agricultural cooperative serving members across the Midwest, West and Pacific Northwest. The merger was a game changer in the cooperative movement, positioning CHS to compete in the global agribusiness market. Two years later, Johnson became the new organization’s president and CEO.
Under his leadership, CHS consistently outperformed most of its public-company competitors and secured its current status as the largest farmer-owned agricultural co-op in the U.S. The company’s revenue grew from $8 billion to $40.6 billion during his tenure. At the time of Johnson’s retirement in 2010, CHS was ranked a Fortune 100 company.
Once CHS had the size and scale to have real impact, Johnson set his sights on taking the co-op global-not initially an easy sell for a co-op whose members were exclusively U.S. farmers and ranchers. But Johnson knew that relying solely on the U.S. farm production would limit CHS’s growth and ultimately lead to market loss for its members. Using his unparalleled communication skills and dedication to honesty and transparency, Johnson was able to convince stakeholders that CHS needed to be global to effectively serve its members and survive in an increasingly global marketplace. Not many business leaders have the opportunity to play an integral role in the creation of a new organization; even fewer profoundly shape the direction and future of that organization, as Johnson did at CHS.
During Johnson’s career, alleviating hunger became one of his priorities-especially finding funding for summer food programs and local food banks so children wouldn’t go hungry when school was out. In 2009, the Greater Twin Cities United Way honored John for his decades of commitment with its award for “Best CEO Involvement.” Another of his passions was education. Preparing for the next generations of dedicated agricultural professionals, John enthusiastically supported CHS efforts in youth and leadership development. During his time as CEO, the CHS Foundation, which is funded by charitable contributions, presented more than $2.5 million in scholarships to high school and college students pursuing studies in agriculture.
As a member of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) Board of Directors for more than a decade, Johnson helped guide the trade organization through turbulent times for agriculture and farmer co-ops, never leaving any question about his commitment to the cooperative model or belief in its huge potential for improving the economic well-being of member-owners.
The Cooperative Hall of Fame is administered by the Cooperative Development Foundation (CDF), a 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation headquartered in Washington, D.C. promoting community, economic and social development through cooperative enterprises. The Cooperative Hall of Fame gallery is on display at NCBA CLUSA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and can also be viewed online at www.heroes.coop.