A positive charge
Minnkota’s chief money maven Karen Thingelstad is preparing for retirement after an impressive 27-year cooperative career.
Karen Thingelstad’s smiling face isn’t the only one that greets you when you walk into her Minnkota office. The cooperative’s vice president and CFO is flanked by bright doodads, grinning mugs and upbeat mementos that personify her essence.
“You see all of these? Positivity is important to me,” Thingelstad said, pointing around her desk to several gifts received over the years from friends, family and co-workers. “[Minnkota vice president and CISO] Dan Inman brought me that one over there – ‘One small positive thought in the morning can change your whole day,’” she continued, reading from a wall hanging.
This is a part of the legacy Thingelstad will leave when she retires from Minnkota on Nov. 6. The power player well-known as Minnkota’s first female executive has leveraged her optimism and never-quit attitude into an incredible career.
“It’s just been a big challenge, and that’s probably the part I’ve enjoyed the most. I never felt bored or that I wasn’t learning something,” she reminisced. “I was given a ton of opportunity that I so very much appreciate.”
An accountant’s account
As a public accountant in 1993, Thingelstad was working long hours, six to seven days a week during tax season when her daughter, Hannah, was an infant. She knew it was time for a career change when she came home in time to say goodnight – and was met by terrified tears.
“She didn’t know who I was. So, I just cried with her, and I said I just can’t do this anymore,” Thingelstad said. “We always say that we thank Hannah for mom’s job, because the next day I opened the paper… and there was a job for Minnkota Power. I so believe things happen for a reason.”
Thingelstad spent four years as a Minnkota accountant before being promoted to procurement manager – a role that had her splitting time between heels at headquarters and steel toes at the station. The Milton R. Young plant was entering an era of large projects such as environmental upgrades, and the construction of the 345-kV Center to Grand Forks transmission line would be a cross-state effort. They were massive undertakings with many moving parts, and it took someone with a balance of finance, friendliness and feistiness to help bring everything together.
Through the monumental work of those projects, Thingelstad had proven herself an exemplary leader. She was promoted to senior manager of finance in 2013, and less than a year later was named Minnkota vice president and CFO – the first woman to hold an executive role.
“It was humbling and exciting. I always wished that my mom and dad would have been alive to see that,” she said with welling eyes. “They were just really proud of me and what I had done here already.”
Since accepting the CFO role in 2014, Thingelstad has artfully overseen more than a half dozen Minnkota departments, spanning finance and accounting, procurement, HR, safety, buildings and grounds and more. Her tenacity has not only inspired her colleagues, but has lifted her to role model status among other aspiring female leaders in the community. In 2018, she was named to the UND Accounting Hall of Fame and last year was asked to deliver a keynote to the Greater Grand Forks Women’s Leadership Cooperative. Her subject of choice was, unsurprisingly, “Your Attitude, Your Choice.”
But Thingelstad doesn’t see herself as exceptional.
“I just see myself as me, as one of all the other women in the city. I think a part of it is not to be afraid to let your path take you where it takes you,” she said. “You have to be willing to just say, I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find out.”
Thingelstad has enjoyed watching Minnkota evolve into an innovation leader in the industry and a philanthropy leader in the community. In her retirement, she plans to keep her ties to both strong. She’ll continue to be active with the UND School of Business advisory board, the UND Alumni Foundation board, the Altru Health Foundation board and other charitable endeavors. As for her connection to the industry, it’s safe to say her Minnkota family won’t shake her.
“It’s a great place to work, with awesome people. My executive staff colleagues are far more like my really good friends than they are simply co-workers,” she said. “That’s also what makes it so hard to leave.”
When it’s time for Thingelstad to pack up all of her small office keepsakes of the past, she’ll do it with big plans for the future. She’ll have more time to do what she loves – spending time with her family, especially her children and grandchildren, traveling (she already has a Florida trip planned with her best friend), and relaxing hobbies like reading, walking, biking and cooking.
“I have always worked and given it my all, so I don’t really know who I am not working. I’m going to figure that out,” she said. “You have to let the doors open and the paths change, kind of like your career.”
Main image: Retiring Minnkota vice president and CFO Karen Thingelstad stands in the lobby of Minnkota's Grand Forks headquarters. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)