Working hard and taking opportunities: Steve Johnson retiring after 40 years

Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson, Basin Electric CFO and senior vice president.

As Steve Johnson sat on horseback in a field near his family’s Kintyre, North Dakota, farm, he marveled at how different his surroundings looked just hours before. Less than 12 hours prior, he had been overlooking Manhattan, New York.

Paul (Sukut, former Basin Electric CEO and general manager) and I were often there together, and we’d remind each other that even though we were in the big city, we were still a couple of North Dakota farm boys,” Johnson, Basin Electric senior vice president and chief financial officer (CFO), says. “Overlooking the city, we’d say, ‘Who’d ever have thought?’”

Johnson had a modest upbringing, and always felt gratitude for the opportunities to travel and see different places, like going to New York to conduct business. He earned those opportunities by having a long career with Basin Electric.

Johnson’s career with the cooperative began in 1982 when he crossed paths with a former college classmate who told him that she was a budget analyst at Basin Electric, and that there was another position open. Johnson researched the position, applied, and got the job.

“I grew up on a farm served by KEM Electric (Basin Electric Class A member headquartered in Linton, North Dakota), but I had no idea who Basin was. I was just excited and appreciative to work for an organization that large,” Johnson says.

Johnson worked in budgeting for three years before moving into finance in 1985 where he served as a financial analyst. He knew he wanted to advance his career, so he set his sights on gaining management experience. He then managed cash operations for more than 11 years before being selected as director of Financial Services for Basin Electric’s subsidiary Dakota Gasification Company.

“That role was a game changer for me. It got me in front of the board, rating agencies, and our banking group, so I had a lot of exposure,” he says.

After three years, Johnson became Basin Electric’s treasurer, and from there vice president and treasurer. It was when Sukut was named CEO and general manager in 2014 that Johnson was named senior vice president and CFO.

“I always wanted to take the next step in my career, but did I foresee myself as a senior vice president? Further into my career, I hoped, but I didn’t have my sights on that early in my career,” he says.

Johnson is in a small group of people who can say they’ve worked with each of Basin Electric’s six general managers. He says Sukut has played a key role in the later part of his career.

“When Paul became CFO and I was the treasurer, he had been away from the finance arena for a bit and I was more removed from the members, so we were a natural fit. He took me to member meetings and I reintroduced him to the financial sector,” Johnson says. “We worked well together professionally from the start and developed a friendship over time that I think has served Basin well the last number of years.”

Johnson says his farming background has helped him stay connected to the membership.

“I still follow the grain and cattle markets, and I obviously know what different pieces of machinery are and what they cost, and that definitely helps,” he says. “For all practical purposes, our farm is still that guy at the end of the line, so it’s been huge in connecting with the membership.”

One of the reasons Johnson says he’s found success in his career is that he has tried to treat everyone with respect and dignity and give people an opportunity to express their opinions and thoughts.

He says that if he could give advice to someone early in their career, he would tell them to, “Work hard and take advantage of every opportunity. Develop a reputation that people see you as a valuable asset because you have kept proving yourself. And depending on your aspirations, put yourself in front of as many people as you can. People need to see who you are and learn of your reputation, and hopefully the opportunity to advance is there when you’re ready.”

After 40 years with Basin Electric, Johnson says some days he still has “buyer’s remorse” about declaring his retirement.

Steve Johnson
Johnson in 2002 receiving his 20-year service award.

“I told Todd (Telesz, Basin Electric CEO and general manager) that part of me wishes I was 10 years younger. I could say, ‘I want to work until this,’ but there’s always a ‘this.’ It’s been a great run, I’ve worked hard, and it’s time to step back and pass the baton,” Johnson says.

“I’m going to miss it. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t. A lot of it is the people. You spend your life here, and the relationships and friendships that you develop matter,” he says. “When I started, I’d see people having kids. Then those kids were going to school, in school events, graduating, going to college. Pretty soon they were getting married and having their own kids. You go through all that with your coworkers.”

In retirement, Johnson says he’ll still keep an eye on happenings at Basin Electric.

“How can you spend 40 years of your career somewhere and not?” he says. “I’m excited to watch and see what happens.”

Johnson plans to spend a lot of time at the farm, traveling, spoiling his grandsons, and “reading something besides a business periodical or legal document.”

“At the end of the day, I’m very humbled and honored. I wouldn’t have been able to script my career to be what it is, but it turned out to be a pretty darn good story,” he says. “I thank God for the opportunity.”