25 Key Moments in Minnesota Business

Including MOA’s grand opening, Minnesota Wild’s debut, and the Delta-Northwest merger.
25 Key Moments in Minnesota Business


University of Minnesota’s Transformation

Beginning in the 1980s with U of M president Ken Keller’s “commitment to focus” vision, the university began a transition from a general education institution to one driven by selective admission standards. The goal was to retool for a different era and create a better pipeline for its world-class graduate programs. Responding to an era of declining government support for higher education, the U launched an eye-popping $4 billion fundraising campaign in 2011 coinciding with the start of Eric Kaler’s presidency. Called “Driven,” it sought to realign the U’s core research focus toward solving the “grand challenges of our time,” while providing “a world-class education to Minnesota’s future leaders.” The ambitious fundraising effort ranked as one of the largest ever by a U.S. public university.

Early 1990s–present

Redevelopment of the Minneapolis Riverfront

Twenty-five years ago, hopes for revitalizing the long-neglected downtown Minneapolis riverfront were at a low point, following the devastating 1991 fire that destroyed much of the historic Washburn “A” Mill. But those hopes were soon revived when the remaining structure was repurposed as the Mill City Museum and the reopening of the Stone Arch Bridge, which served as a spectacular advertisement for the potential of living, working, and playing in the increasingly scenic area. Conversions of historic Mill District buildings into hotels and apartments followed, and since then, millions of dollars in new construction have transformed the neighborhood from a blight to a boon. Insiders credit Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton’s commitment to the effort for essential early advocacy.

Early 1990s

Mall of America Opens

Minnesota sports fans of a certain age may never get over it, but the razing of Bloomington’s Metropolitan Stadium in the 1980s paved the way for the Mall of America, forever changing the Twin Cities’ retail and tourism market. It was the biggest indoor shopping mall in the country when it opened and now draws more than 40 million visitors each year. Owners Triple Five Group of Edmonton, Canada, tout an annual economic impact of $1.9 billion. The formidable local competition it provided prompted many ripple effects in the early ’90s, spurring Dayton’s to upgrade its stores and downtown Minneapolis stakeholders to launch the Holidazzle Parade to draw people back to the city center.

Early 1990s–present

Greater Minnesota’s Economic Evolution

Minnesota sports fans of a certain age may never get over it, but the razing of Bloomington’s Metropolitan Stadium in the 1980s paved the way for the Mall of America, forever changing the Twin Cities’ retail and tourism market. It was the biggest indoor shopping mall in the country when it opened and now draws more than 40 million visitors each year. Owners Triple Five Group of Edmonton, Canada, tout an annual economic impact of $1.9 billion. The formidable local competition it provided prompted many ripple effects in the early ’90s, spurring Dayton’s to upgrade its stores and downtown Minneapolis stakeholders to launch the Holidazzle Parade to draw people back to the city center.

Rural housing and labor shortages

Employers in Greater Minnesota have been dealing with a workforce shortage for decades—companies in southwestern and western Minnesota have been busing workers in from distant population centers for many years, as managerial, creative, and tech jobs have gone unfilled. Meanwhile, there’s not enough housing for the younger workforce that’s needed to keep the rural economy afloat; rising construction costs have priced younger families out of the starter-home market. Even existing properties for sale are scarce because the lack of assisted-living centers in Greater Minnesota means seniors don’t want to leave their homes.

Regional centers boom

Regional centers across the state have bulked up as small towns have depopulated. Fargo-Moorhead grew by nearly 15,000 residents between 2010 and 2014, a 7 percent increase, which put it near the top of the list of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. Likewise, St. Cloud and surrounding areas in central Minnesota have also seen significant growth. Census figures released in 2017 showed that Sherburne County was Minnesota’s fastest-growing county. Meanwhile, thanks to the influence of the Mayo Clinic, both the city of Rochester and Olmsted County have grown quicker than Minnesota as a whole since 1980 and are expected to continue as the Destination Medical Center effort advances.

Long-term mining decline

At its peak in 1979, the taconite mining industry produced 56 million tons and employed 15,000 workers on the Iron Range, but it has not been the same since. One reason: China’s policy of dumping below-cost steel on U.S. market. Since the disastrous recession year of 2009, when production slumped to 17 million tons, the industry has been tentative and cyclical, highly dependent on outside influences and international politics. Successful efforts by Minnesota’s Congressional delegation to crack down on dumping in 2015 has been credited with stimulating the industry.

The vanishing family resort

Nothing is as Minnesotan as the culture of summer vacations at small family-owned resorts in lake country. The beloved tradition reached its peak in the 1980s and has been declining ever since. The number of such resorts fell 19 percent from 2004 to 2014, tumbling from 983 to 800; another 50 had disappeared by 2015. Part of the problem is Minnesotans love their lakes too much, which has bid up the valuations of lakeshore property beyond what the mom-and-pop operations are worth. As owners look to retire, they are selling to housing developers for millions of dollars rather than trying to recruit newcomers to run the businesses.


Cenex / Harvest States Merger

1998 Cenex / Harvest States Merger The merger between Cenex Inc. of Inver Grove Heights and Harvest States Cooperative of Falcon Heights was a landmark in U.S. agricultural history, creating one of the nation’s largest farmer-owned co-ops, with about $10 billion in annual sales. Harvest States had 600 local co-op members and 2,350 employees; it was already the biggest cooperative grain marketer in the United States. Cenex, with 1,400 local co-op members and 2,500 employees, specialized in the sale of fertilizer. Harvest States was one of Cenex’s biggest customers at the time of the merger, which saw the marriage of two co-ops, under the CHS Inc. brand, with little operational overlap and many members already in common.


Wells Fargo, Norwest Bank Merge

Twin Cities–based Norwest Bank was the nation’s largest mortgage lender and one of its most profitable banks when it agreed to a $34.4 billion merger with California’s Wells Fargo & Co. in 1998. It was part of a flurry of banking mega-mergers during those years of rapid industry consolidation. Although the better-known Wells Fargo brand inevitably won out, it was Norwest’s executive team of Richard Kovacevich and John Stumpf that took over the merged entity. At the time of its completion, the merger demonstrated the growing financial clout of the Twin Cities, which had produced a pair of “super-regional” banks in Norwest and U.S. Bank.


The Star Tribune’s Serial Ownership

The rise of the internet, declining readership, and the disappearance of classified advertising sales were felt at newspapers around the country beginning in the late 1990s, and the Star Tribune was certainly no exception as it went through five owners in a 16-year period. In 1998, the Cowles family sold the paper to McClatchy Co. for $1.2 billion, and in 2006, private equity firm Avista Capital Partners bought it from McClatchy for $530 million. The business declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, and after emerging, ownership was again transferred, this time to its creditors. Current owner Glen Taylor bought the Minneapolis institution in 2014 for around $100 million.


Honeywell Leaves

Honeywell Inc.’s 1999 sale to New Jersey-based AlliedSignal and the subsequent headquarters relocation from its longtime Minneapolis base was a big blow—the Fortune 500 corporate campus employed 1,500 people. At the time of the merger, Honeywell ranked eighth among Minnesota-based companies in revenue. Just a year later, however, Wells Fargo Bank bought the Honeywell property in the wake of its own merger with Norwest Corp. to house its expanded mortgage banking business. By 2005, it had roughly doubled the number of workers employed there under Honeywell.


MinuteClinic Debuts

The walk-in retail clinic concept was introduced when QuickMedx Inc., the precursor to MinuteClinic, opened its first centers in the Twin Cities, offering treatment for common medical conditions such as flu and ear infections. Services were cash-only and positioned as a more affordable alternative to ERs and urgent care centers. QuickMedx became MinuteClinic in 2003 and expanded quickly when large employers added its services to their health networks. The company launched a relationship with CVS Health in 2006, opening its first pharmacy-based clinics in Minneapolis-St. Paul. By 2017 there were more than 1,100 MinuteClinic locations in select CVS pharmacies and Target stores.


NHL to St. Paul

Downtown St. Paul was looking for a boost in the late 1990s—it seemed to be in a death spiral with the loss of retailers, entertainment and restaurant venues, and office tenants. Then along came billboard magnate Robert Naegele Jr. and a collection of all-star partners including Hubbard Broadcasting. The group won a National Hockey League expansion franchise in 1997 and worked with St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman on a state-funding deal for the city to construct and own a new arena. The Minnesota Wild began play at the new Xcel Energy Center in 2000, setting the stage for a redevelopment spurt along West Seventh Street following the Great Recession.


ADC Telecom Fails

Equipment maker ADC Telecommunications was a technology high-flyer by the late 1990s, using acquisitions and a soaring stock valuation spurred by market euphoria over internet-related companies to grow quickly. With its shares trading as high as $325, the company even built a shiny new manufacturing plant in Shakopee. But it all came crashing down with the dot-com bust of 2001, taking ADC to the verge of bankruptcy. During that time, it eliminated about 18,000 of its more than 22,400 jobs. The downsizing allowed it to survive as an independent entity until it was ultimately purchased by Tyco Electronics for $1.25 billion in 2010.


Boom/Bust Real Estate Arrives

Until the early 2000s, the rate of residential housing construction in Twin Cities was relatively stable; with the exception of a brief slowdown following the recession of 1990–91, it chugged along at a predictable pace. Home values appreciated gradually, but rarely declined, as they did in more volatile coastal markets. That changed when, fueled by subprime mortgages, construction in the Twin Cities spiked—peaking in 2004. It was followed by the biggest bust for many decades, triggered by the 2008 financial crisis. It took 12 years for the local residential construction curve to once again reach its long-term average, which it finally did in 2017, thanks mostly to a new wave of apartment development. Today the Twin Cities residential real estate market exhibits the same volatility as its nationwide counterpart, with spikes and dips driven by national macroeconomic bubbles.


The St. Paul Cos. Merge with Travelers

“The St. Paul” was Minnesota’s oldest corporation, founded in 1853 as the St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co., when it landed an ambitious new CEO, Jay Fishman, in 2001. He was a protégé of Citigroup’s Sandy Weill, whose numerous 1990s acquisitions included Travelers, another general property and casualty insurer. Fishman’s hiring at the St. Paul Companies portended deal-making, which is just what happened when the Twin Cities firm completed a blockbuster $16.4 billion acquisition of much-larger Travelers, creating the nation’s No. 2 commercial insurer. At the time, the combined St. Paul Travelers had about $26 billion in combined capital.


Dayton’s Sells to May/Federated

By the early 2000s, Target Corp. and CEO Bob Ulrich were firmly committed to focusing growth on the Target discount chain, leaving the fate of its Marshall Field department store division uncertain—until St. Louis-based May Department Stores announced it would buy the group in a $3.24 billion transaction. It meant that, for the first time, the iconic downtown Minneapolis store known for generations as Dayton’s would no longer be owned by a Minnesota-based company. Federated Department Stores bought May the next year and rebranded it once again, this time as Macy’s.


Target’s Lost Decade

Target Corp.’s formerly unassailable reputation as the smartest and best-run of the nation’s big retailers faltered after its board handed the reins to CEO Gregg Steinhafel, whose tenure began just as the Great Recession started. The decade was characterized by three troubled initiatives: A capital-intensive and infrastructure-heavy expansion into grocery, a traditionally low-margin category; a balky website that ill-positioned the company for retail’s online revolution; and a disasterous expansion into Canada, which his successor abandoned in 2015 after enormous losses. (The board gave Steinhafel his walking papers in 2014.) After several difficult years facing his predecessor’s music, successor Brian Cornell has effected a strong turnaround, as Target’s 2017 and 2018 results show.



Northwest Air Merges with Delta Air Lines

The 2000s were a tumultuous decade for legacy hub carriers such as Northwest Airlines, buffeted by competition from low-cost operators, changing consumer preferences favoring direct flights, labor unrest, and rising fuel costs. The period saw four major bankruptcies and two big mergers among the old guard: Both Northwest and Delta Air Lines declared bankruptcy on the same day in 2005. Their merger three years later, engineered by former Northwest and then-Delta CEO Richard Anderson, proved to be successful, since the two carriers had little overlap in route systems and boasted different strengths. In the process, Minnesota lost an iconic local brand and headquarters.


The Green Line

Like almost all mass-transit infrastructure projects, the Metropolitan Council’s effort to build the $957 million Green Line light rail between the two downtowns was politically charged from the beginning, but GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the DFL-controlled Legislature agreed to move it across the finish line with $70 million in state bonding money. Since its 2014 opening, the Green Line has become an economic development machine, generating $5.8 billion in private investment along its route, according to the Met Council. That’s not counting the upcoming $200+ million Allianz Field soccer stadium in St. Paul’s Midway, located near several stations and a proposed massive mixed-use development.


The Fall of Tom Petters

Once a feel-good story of a St. Cloud lad who turned a humble overstock-liquidation business into a corporate empire that included Sun Country Airlines and Polaroid, Tom Petters had what was perhaps the most spectacular fall from grace in Minnesota business history. Already famous for his lavish lifestyle and personal charisma, Petters’ wealth was revealed to have been built on the proceeds of a $3.5 billion Ponzi scheme, one of the biggest such plans ever uncovered. The one-time Minnesota golden boy was convicted of federal fraud charges and is serving a 50-year prison sentence at Leavenworth.


The Return of Faribault Woolen Mill

The historic Faribault Woolen Mill had been closed for two years when an astute investment group led by cousins Paul and Chuck Mooty saw in it an opportunity to tap growing consumer preference for longtime American-made brands. As one of the last vertically integrated woolen mills in the country and with a history stretching back to 1865, the maker of wool blankets and throws had plenty of authenticity but lacked the right marketing strategy. That changed with the Mootys, who quickly lured key executives and retailers and built media buzz around the comeback story. By 2015, the mill’s workforce had risen from 35 to 80 employees.


Eric Dayton and the North Loop

The remaking of Minneapolis’s North Loop has been the urban redevelopment story of the past decade. Perhaps no one personifies its transformation into a cultural and economic trendsetter better than Eric Dayton, son of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. In 2011, Eric and his brother, Andrew, birthed a pair of popular independent businesses: the Nordic-inspired eatery Bachelor Farmer and the Nordic-inspired retailer Askov Finlayson. The idea underlying both is Eric Dayton’s conviction that the Twin Cities should celebrate rather than downplay its identity as a cold-weather playground; in so doing, the North Loop became the headquarters for the “Cold Is Cool” movement.


Minnesota Orchestra Standoff

The state’s cultural standing took a hit with a bitter labor dispute between the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and its management, resulting in a 15-month lockout and the resignation of music director Osmo Vänskä. Management, citing a $8.9 million two-year deficit, initially sought a 40 percent pay cut from the musicians, whose average salary was $135,000. Ultimately futile efforts to resolve the standoff included those of high-profile figures such as former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell who had helped broker peace in Northern Ireland. The entire 2012–13 season was canceled before back-channel negotiations finally resulted in a three-year deal in which the musicians accepted a 15 percent pay cut.


Cirrus’ Vision Jet Takes Flight

Over the last 25 years, the city of Duluth has sought to diversify its economy, branching out from its traditional natural resources-related industries of taconite mining and paper. So it’s probably not surprising that city leaders backed the promising start-up Cirrus Aircraft. Duluth provided subsidies for an “aviation incubator” building in 2002 and an industrial finishing facility in 2015. Those moves were looking good in late 2016 when Cirrus, after a decade of planning and anticipation, unveiled an innovative new personal aircraft called the Vision Jet. Priced at $1.9 million, the single-engine mini-jet debuted with a waiting list of about 600 customers.


The Death of Prince

A generation of younger Minnesotans might not have realized the stature of Prince until they witnessed the worldwide outpouring of grief at the death of the Minneapolis-born musical genius. In the decades following his spectacular successes of the 1980s, he had receded into the Minnesota background for those who weren’t around to experience the initial frenzy of his fame. But after his untimely end from an opioid overdose, Prince’s legacy as one of the prime cultural forces of the last 25 years received its due. Included in that reassessment: Prince was the ultimate businessman, an economic engine who battled for years to retain control of the rights to his creative output.


Wells Fargo Fraud

Wells Fargo bank employees opened at least 3.5 million unauthorized credit card and deposit accounts in customers’ names; investigators blamed a corporate culture that demanded relentless “cross-selling” of banking products, first instituted at Norwest by CEO Richard Kovacevich and his then-deputy John Stumpf, then imported into Wells Fargo when the two banks merged in 1998. The Norwest management team that ran the combined entity after the merger bore the brunt of the consequences. Stumpf announced his retirement as CEO in October 2016 in the midst of the scandal’s fallout.


Abbott Labs Buys St. Jude Medical

Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories completed a $25 billion purchase of St. Jude Medical, marking the end of the suburban St. Paul company’s 41-year run as an independent entity. With insurers such as Medicare moving to fee-bundling as part of the “value-based care” movement, device makers had an incentive to consolidate; Abbott’s acquisition of St. Jude created a consolidated cardiovascular device source, bringing together St. Jude’s atrial fibrillation and heart failure devices with Abbott’s existing line of stents and mitral repair products. St. Jude, meanwhile, got out from under a burdensome $5.7 billion debt load, which had gotten heavier following its 2015 acquisition of California heart-device firm Thoratec Corp.