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Letter: Remembering irreverent visionary: Don Senechal

Don Senechal was a business consultant who understood cooperatives, agribusiness and agriculture. He was a farm boy who never lost his love of farming and rural North Dakota. He passed away in August of 2013, and this is an overdue tribute.

Senechal filled a huge need when farmers were suffering from low commodity prices. He worked with them to improve their economic situation by helping them move into the processing of their commodities. He brought not only a road map of how to build the enterprise but a sharp eye on risk factors that could lead to failure.

Senechal did most of his work out of an office in Massachusetts. He had various partners, but the firm was at its peak when it was Senechal, Joregenson, and Hale, located in Danvers, Massachusetts. Toward the end of his career, Senechal and his wife, Peg, moved back to the family farm at Drake, N.D., where he continued his consulting practice.

Senechal was irreverent and direct, relentless in the pursuit of the economic truth. He was smart and required those around him to work hard and be smart also. He used to say his only asset was his reputation. He earned that good reputation, one feasibility study at a time. In the conduct of the study, the client learned the industry from Senechal. None of Senechal’s clients ever launched a company without understanding the opportunities and the risks.

Senechal said no as often as he said yes. The negative feasibility studies Senechal produced have saved hundreds of millions of dollars, and should have saved more. He said no to a pasta plant at Crosby; the one built there failed. He said no to a beef plant in Aberdeen; the one built there failed. Senechal said yes to a pasta plant at Carrington, and yes to a corn wet milling plant at Wahpeton, and yes to a potato plant at Jamestown, and yes to a bison plant at New Rockford, and yes to an egg production plant at Renville, Minn. These plants are operating today.

There are no sure bets in life – each new venture is filled with risks. Senechal knew the two big risk factors – management and capital. He insisted the enterprise could be run by “normally competent” people and it had enough capital. Senechal knew the difference between balance sheet equity and spendable equity (cash).

Senechal’s feasibility study benchmarks provided projects a fail-safe option: Raise enough equity capital to successfully launch the enterprise or give the money back. Northern Plains Premium Beef Cooperative, according to Senechal, needed $25,000,000 to launch. The cooperative raised commitments for $11,800,000 and gave the money back. Dakota Growers Pasta Cooperative raised the money they needed and launched.

This practical approach to value added agriculture caught the attention of the public. Cooperative Fever, as the story became known, was the North Dakota Associated Press’ story of the year. The chairman of Dakota Growers Pasta, Jack Dalrymple, became North Dakota’s governor. The information director for Northern Plains Premium Beef, Ryan Taylor, is running for North Dakota agriculture commissioner.

Dylan Thomas wrote: “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, and learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.” Those of us who worked with Senechal can still feel the excitement of the projects he helped bring into existence. We don’t want to go gentle into a world without Senechal. We wish his family happy memories of this good man, and appreciate his life, which was so richly shared with us. Goodbye, Don Senechal. Thanks for what you have done.

Patrie worked with Senechal during Patrie’s 16 years with the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives. Ludwig worked with him in Massachusetts, and Hofstrand, who worked with both men, was an economist at Iowa State University.