Dennis Johnson, former president & CEO of the St. Paul Bank for Cooperatives
An early investor behind a new generation of Midwestern co-ops in the 80s and 90s and a key figure in the development of senior housing co-ops, Dennis Johnson holds a pivotal place in cross-sector cooperative history.
His legendary career at the St. Paul Bank for Cooperatives saw him advance from credit analyst in 1973 to president and CEO in 1989, a position he held until the St. Paul Bank merged with CoBank in 1999. Early on, Johnson recognized the integral role the cooperative business model could play in improving life in rural America and, under his leadership, the St. Paul Bank became a leader in supporting new venture co-op formation and finance. He also oversaw the bank’s most significant change during its 55-year history when, in 1989, it transitioned from a lender with a four-state charter to one with a national charter under the Agriculture Credit Act of 1987. The expansion placed the St. Paul Bank in a unique position to influence, support and encourage the application of the co-op business model to spur rural economic development.
Working alongside Rod Nilsestuen in the mid-80s, Johnson was an early supporter of a new entity-a cooperative development center that would provide needed technical assistance to both existing co-ops and startups. He and the St. Paul Bank were a reliable source of funding for what is today known as Cooperative Development Services.
Starting with the Homestead Housing Cooperative program in the 1990s, Johnson has long played a leading role in the senior co-op housing sector. After retiring from the St. Paul Bank in 1999, Johnson devoted the next 15 years to finding a new approach to developing and financing senior housing co-ops. In 2002, he helped organize the Senior Cooperative Foundation. In 2006, Johnson joined Cooperative Housing Resources (CHR) as executive vice president, strengthening the organization as the nation’s only lender focused solely on financing senior housing co-ops. Johnson was the lead organizer of the annual Senior Cooperative Housing Conference, for which he continues to shape content. Recognizing the need for members to understand the cooperative model, Johnson created the Senior Co-op Housing Education Program, which has benefited more than 6,000 member-owners. In 2009, he incorporated a purchasing co-op to leverage the buying power of senior housing co-ops that procure flooring, phone/Internet/TV, appliances and other items. In 2013, he was a key part of the group that launched a successful grassroots network to convince the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development not to shutter its Minneapolis office. Instead, staff grew from 11 to 50 people, most of whom continue to provide services and resources to senior housing cooperatives both regionally and nationally.
During his years as board member and chair of the Cooperative Development Foundation, Johnson served as finance chair of the National Rural Development Task Force. In that role, he helped secure the congressional authorization and appropriations for the USDA Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program. Today, this program remains the primary source of federal funding for cooperative development.