PolyMet Mining Corp.'s proposed copper mine in northern Minnesota, which could open next year as a lengthy permitting process nears completion, would still be profitable amid a recent plunge in metals prices, the company's financial chief said Wednesday.

Copper prices fell to a six-month low on Monday, weighed down by slowing economic growth in China, the world's largest consumer of metals, and broader pressure on commodities from coal to corn to gold.

In a presentation at InvestMNt, the annual conference of the CFA Society of Minnesota, PolyMet Chief Financial Officer Douglas Newby said prices for copper are still well above the company's break-even point.

"If we were in operation today, we would be making money even with the pressure on commodities and metals," Newby told the audience of analysts and institutional investors.

Each year, several hundred investment professionals gather for the one-day conference, where about 50 of the state's publicly traded companies, along with a handful from elsewhere, provide updates on their performance. This year, 3M Co. presented for the first time and attendees also had the chance to listen to sessions on public debt.

Though its project to revive a former steel plant and iron mine near Hoyt Lakes has generated headlines for more than a decade, St. Paul-based PolyMet is relatively small among Minnesota's listed companies, with a market capitalization of $255 million.

For years, it has subsisted on capital from investors led by Glencore, the Swiss mining giant, which has $170 million exposure to the firm in investments and loans. As environmental reviews near an end — the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to give its final approval in November, triggering the state permit issuance process — interest is starting to grow in the company's financial potential.

Newby said that, while there are many influences on profitability, in general PolyMet needs copper to be priced somewhat over $1 a pound to break even. Even with a drop of about 20 percent in copper prices over the past two months, the metal is still being traded at about $2.30 a pound.

Asked whether the company's output would put more pressure on copper prices, Newby suggested its production would be too small for that. "I don't think we're a day's worth of annual global consumption," he said.

The project is one of four copper mines proposed for the Iron Range northwest of Duluth, though it is the only one with a mill and is positioned to help others process copper ore.

In other presentations at the InvestMNt conference:

• Buffalo Wild Wings has started to roll out handheld wireless devices for servers to run customer checkouts at tables rather than going back to a cash register.

"The U.S. is very behind other countries in this technology," said Heather Pribyl, investor relations chief for the restaurant company, which is based in Golden Valley. The company is starting the devices in states where labor costs are higher, aiming to see if they have an effect on labor hours.

Buffalo Wild Wings has placed tablet computers on tables in about 90 percent of its restaurants, allowing customers to send orders straight to the kitchen.

• UnitedHealth Group executives are outwardly nonplussed by the mergers that competitors announced in recent weeks.

The nation's largest health insurer and health services firm, based in Minnetonka, had been rumored to be considering acquiring another insurer itself in recent weeks. Instead, Anthem Inc. moved to buy Cigna Corp., creating a health insurer that, by some measures, is bigger than UnitedHealth. And Aetna Inc. is buying Humana Inc.

"We feel very positive about our growth and future profitability," John Penshorn, senior vice president for UnitedHealth Group, said at the company's presentation. "We're confident in our scale."

UnitedHealth's revenue is expected to grow to $154 billion this year from $131 billion last year. About $10 billion of that growth comes from its recent purchase of Catamaran Corp., a pharmacy benefits manager. Even without that, its sales would have jumped more than 10 percent to around $144 billion.

• Minnesota's colleges and universities are facing considerable pressure as they try to raise money, chiefly through bond issuances, to pay for new buildings and other improvements, Barry Fick of Springsted Inc., a St. Paul-based public sector advisory firm, told the investment audience.

He noted that student growth rates, which have been in decline for several years, are starting to recover, though they will not get back to the high levels colleges saw in the 1980s and 1990s. That means the main source of college revenue is not as steady.

In addition, he noted that most colleges are now "in perpetual campaign mode," trying to raise money from alumni and other donors. Contrary to perceptions, however, colleges need the donated funds to pay for financial aid, not new buildings, Fick said.

Some colleges, such as Concordia University in St. Paul, have tried to break the cycle by cutting both tuition and financial aid sharply.

Evan Ramstad • 612-673-4241