Former head of United Properties loved adventure, family

  • Article by: JANET MOORE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 25, 2013 - 4:52 PM

Kenneth Stensby, former president and CEO of United Properties, on his boat Gone With the Wind on White Bear Lake.

It was that wide, bright smile that ensnared Darlene Auger Stensby, and so many others, too.

She met her future husband, Kenneth Stensby, at a Zion Lutheran Church youth group gathering in south Minneapolis while both were still in high school. That engaging Norwegian boy would become her husband of 49 years. “He had a bright, bright presence,” his wife said. “That smile, it could light up the world. That will stay with me forever.”

Stensby, 73, the former president and CEO of Bloomington-based United Properties, died May 5 after a fall while hiking in California’s Yosemite National Park.

An enthusiastic outdoorsman, the Edina resident and Carleton College alum loved to hike, bike, sail, even sky-dive — photographing his adventures along the way. He once commanded his 54-foot sloop from Bermuda to Spain. He had a competitive streak, as well, running in four marathons. He also participated in long-distance cycling events such as RAGBRAI, the annual bike trek across Iowa.

From 1972 to 1995, Stensby helped build United Properties, once the sleepy real estate arm of the Hamm Brewing Co., into a real estate development powerhouse. “He was a very, very important figure in the real estate industry here for a long time,” said Frank Dutke, the firm’s president and chief executive.

Stensby bet big on the burgeoning Twin Cities suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, focusing on office and industrial development.

“He was the guy,” Dutke said. “He was very approachable. Ken had great people skills. He was very interested in people on a personal basis, and he made connections with everyone.” He was instrumental in forming a local chapter of NAIOP, a national commercial real estate organization, for which he served as president.

Stensby assembled a powerful management team at United Properties, some of whom had no previous real estate experience. Among them was Julie Hughes, who retired last month as a senior vice president for Cushman & Wakefield/NorthMarq, a sister United Properties company. She began her career at the firm 40 years ago as Stensby’s executive assistant.

“Here I was, a bumpkin off the farm, and he hired me,” Hughes recalled. “He never doubted me; he instilled a certain confidence in me. And he never chastised me, and believe me, I made mistakes. He would just say, ‘OK, next time do it this way.’ ”

During one holiday season early on, Stensby asked Hughes whether she’d put up her Christmas tree yet. “I lived in a dumpy apartment at the time, and I said, ‘Why, no, I can’t really afford it.’ That Saturday morning there was a knock at the door, and when I opened it, there was a Christmas tree — fully decorated — from Bachman’s.”

Stensby retired at age 55 with a desire to pursue his formidable interests outside of work and spend more time with family. And he did so with gusto, his wife said.

A few years ago, the Stensbys bought furniture in Iowa that they had inscribed with a mantra: “Go out for adventure. Come home for love.”

A memorial service was held on May 20 at Colonial Church in Edina.

In addition to his wife, Stensby is survived by two daughters, Heidi Stensby of Edina and Angel Bulera of Shoreview; a brother, Gary Stensby of Edina, and six grandchildren. A daughter, Robin, preceded him in death.

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