Gary Tharaldson reflects on Ryan Thorpe’s impact
Gary Tharaldson, North Dakota’s successful hotel developer and owner of Tharaldson Ethanol in Casselton, North Dakota, describes how his company will move forward after the death of chief operating officer Ryan Thorpe. Tharaldson urges people to check in on others but said there was no warning at work that would have predicted the tragedy of Thorpe's death by suicide.
Editor's note: If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 to speak with a trained crisis counselor. The number is answered locally.
FARGO, N.D. — Ryan Thorpe, chief operating officer of Tharaldson Ethanol of Casselton, North Dakota, will be sorely missed as a business strategist and company leader, says the company’s chief executive officer.
Gary Tharaldson, 76, who owns about ten businesses including the ethanol plant, said Thorpe's death on July 7, 2022 , at a lake home in Minnesota, shocked the company and industry. Thorpe died by suicide.
Tharaldson described Thorpe’s passing as a great loss, personally and professionally. Thorpe was instrumental in guiding what today is the seventh largest ethanol plant in the country.
“He was the face of our company, really, because he was the man who went to all of the national meetings and state meetings on ethanol, and gave speeches and so forth,” Tharaldson said in an interview with Agweek. “He was a wonderful man and it was a very tough loss.”
Thorpe was instrumental in numerous expansions, especially in recent years.
“He just had this personality that was a ‘A-plus,’” Tharaldson said.
From the start
Thorpe, with training and experience in banking and finance, was on-board from just prior to the plant opening in 2009.
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One of his employees in the hotel business was Kyle Newman, grandson of Harold Newman, owner of Newman Signs, Inc., at Jamestown, North Dakota, who also owned the Alchem Ltd., corn ethanol plant at North Dakota. Kyle encouraged Tharaldson to get into the ethanol business. Ryan Thorpe, who had been with First International Bank, was hired to work in the financial arrangements for the company.
Tharaldson, a hotel building magnate, started the ethanol plant with a 100 million gallon per year capacity. Thorpe and colleagues helped it raise to 175 million gallons of production. The company became proficient in marketing distillers grains and added corn oil production about five years ago.
“I think where his fingerprint is on it is the relationship he had with all of the other (ethanol) plants and the state and national association,” Tharaldson said.
The plant had a rough start. Tharaldson Ethanol had purchased a German-made dryer-pelletizer that never worked. The company successfully sued the manufacturer, but recouped only $16 million of a $30 million investment, and bought a newer $40 million dryer.
As the company found its footing, another hiccup came in about 2011 because of high corn prices and low ethanol prices. Thorpe, and then-manager Kyle Newman and Tharaldson’s son, Matt Tharaldson, then-CEO, navigated those issues. Tharaldson’s capital in the hotel empire allowed them to survive.
Better days eventually came. The company posted a $72 million profit in 2013. Gasoline prices went up sharply but corn prices didn’t rise as quickly.
In 2012, Newman resigned and Tharaldson's son, Matt also sought other pursuits, and Thorpe became COO.
Thorpe oversaw the marketing of distillers grains and corn oil and and marketed ethanol through Green Plains, Inc., of Omaha, Nebraska. He worked closely with Ryan Carter, who has managed the plant’s operations for about eight years. The two worked together, figuring out ways to make the plant more efficient and profitable.
In 2021, gasoline prices rose but the corn prices more quickly followed. The company made $75 million profits that year. “But we made it all in about three months because of the increase in gas prices,” Tharaldson said.
Ethanol from hotels
Tharaldson, raised in rural Dazey, North Dakota, went on to Valley City State University and taught school at Leonard, North Dakota. He sold insurance and soon invested in a Super 8 hotel in Valley City, and then started building hotels in 1983. Starting in 1990, he built 20 a year for the first 20 years and so far has built 480 hotels across 40 years, averaging nearly one a month. He currently ten hotels under construction and another ten in the works, with a goal of hitting the of 500 mark.
In 1999, Tharaldson sold 219 hotels to the employees. (They sold them in 2015, making $600 million across 15 years.) Separately, in 2006, he sold 143 hotels for $1.33 billion and with that — in part — he got into the ethanol business 2009.
Ethanol accounts for about 20% of his other substantial enterprises. The other two are hotels, and land development.
Historically, Tharaldson had steered clear of farmland holdings, but in 2009 acquired an 80% share in a 16,000-acre farming entity in Arizona — essentially half a valley that has a large aquifer. Initially, Tharaldson leased the irrigated farming to a local farmer who raised alfalfa, and to Dole, the international fruit and vegetable corporation, which raised melons. In 2023, he’s changing all that. Instead of crops he’ll produce 9,000 acres of solar energy, and has entered an agreement to sell 5,000 acre-feet of water to a municipality.
In part with Thorpe’s guidance, the ethanol is in the process of transforming and diversifying beyond ethanol fuel into other markets.
“We’re not going to depend on ethanol, per se, but are interested in how we can create the byproducts that will make it more stable,” Tharaldson said. Tharaldson Ethanol is adding onto the plant, to extract “ultra-high protein meal,” and then marketing “concentrated protein” to animal agriculture producers, including cattle, birds and fish.
Tharaldson Ethanol announced it was an “inaugural turnkey partner” in the project with Green Plains, Inc. a leading biorefining company based in Omaha, Nebraska.” Fagen, Inc. , Granite Falls, Minnesota, a company that has built 60% of U.S. ethanol plant capacity, was announced as general contractor are just now starting on the project, Tharaldson said.
Tharaldson said the ethanol plant will produces about 550,000 tons of carbon a year. They’ll feed into a pipeline that will send it to storage areas in western North Dakota. “Now, instead of going into the air, it’ll be captured and put in a pipeline that is expected to be completed in 2024,” for eventual burying deep in the earth in western North Dakota.
Tharaldson thinks this will fit into the nation’s new environmentally-friendly policies, and will fit with markets that especially emphasize “green” policies, and with the state of North Dakota that wants to be “carbon-neutral” by 2030. “We’ve got a little over seven and a half years to get that done,” he said.
Tharaldson, whose life passions have been business and sports (sponsoring nationally-ranked, slow-pitch softball) likened Tharaldson Ethanol to a sports team that must go on, despite the loss of a player.
Brad Kjar continues to handle corn acquisition, as merchandiser for Clifford Farmer’s Co-op Elevator, which supplies corn for the plant. Keith Finney, who had semi-retired from that post, handles distiller’s grain and the corn oil sales. Green Plains sells all of the ethanol for the company. Tharaldson said the company is seeking someone to fill Thorpe’s role.
Top ethanol company brass from all over the country came to Thorpe’s his funerals and memorials. He is buried at Oakes, North Dakota, in a cemetery in view of the family farms.
All of the company’s financials were in place, Tharaldson said. There was no foreshadowing of the death.
“We’d just set up new profit-sharing plan for him,” Tharaldson said, “and so he had the world in front of him, you know. The plant is going to continue to do really well because of his help in getting it done.”
Tharaldson said it is difficult to figure out the “why” in Thorpe’s situation, or to know if there is a lesson.
“The thing is, we knew him from 7 in the morning to 6 at night,” he said, adding, “If you have a friend that’s really struggling, talk to him. They may not talk about what they’re going to do, but sometimes they do. And they really need to get help right away.”