“Momentum” was the theme as more than 2,300 members of CHS Inc. met Friday at the Minneapolis Convention Center to hear about the financial performance and future ambitions of the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative.
President and CEO Carl Casale said the company wrapped up its second-best year in history in fiscal 2014, with earnings of $1.1 billion, only slightly lower than in 2012. Revenues in 2014 were $42.7 billion, down 4 percent from 2013.
Casale said that several years of operating in a “robust agriculture and energy environment” has positioned the company to invest in long-needed infrastructure. The most ambitious project, under study since 2012, will be a new $3 billion fertilizer manufacturing plant in eastern North Dakota called Spiritwood that the CHS announced in September.
“This is not only the largest project in our history, but one I believe will have a transformational impact on par with the mid-1940s purchase of our two refineries,” Casale said. CHS is one of the nation’s largest fertilizer wholesalers, but the Spiritwood nitrogen plant would be its first production facility.
The co-op, formed from the merger of Cenex and Harvest States Cooperatives, is best known for its grain and petroleum-based businesses.
Building the fertilizer plant 85 miles west of Fargo will likely take three years, beginning next spring, and is expected to employ about 1,500 construction workers, with 175 permanent employees.
Casale said the fertilizer plant is part of $11 billion in investments that the Inver Grove Heights-based company has completed, initiated or planned from 2011 to 2019. Others include $406 million to increase efficiency and diesel production at its Montana refinery, and $24 million already spent on several propane system improvements, including an upgraded and expanded propane rail terminal in Glenwood, Minn.
Members asked about some of those changes during a question-and-answer session.
One asked whether the company’s decision to sell more than $1 billion in preferred stock to capitalize the fertilizer plant and other projects was moving the cooperative more closely to a publicly traded company.
Board Chairman David Bielenberg replied that the preferred stockholders would not have voting rights, and that selling the stock was only to raise capital for investments. “We are not going public,” he said, and voting control remains “in the hands of our farmers and co-op owners.”
Another member asked whether the investments might not be such a good idea if grain prices remain low, crude oil prices drop more and China’s growth slows significantly.
Company Chief Financial Officer Tim Skidmore said that CHS has looked at various scenarios and taken a careful approach to its investments. He said the company will operate within “financial guardrails” — those set by lenders and more conservative internal controls — to assure that balance sheets remain strong.