The growth of UnitedHealth Group dominated the Minnesota business scene in the 2010s and made the company’s investors immensely wealthier.
The Minnetonka-based health insurance and data-services company grew at a speed rarely seen in American business for companies of such size — and never before in Minnesota.
As trading ended Tuesday for 2019, UnitedHealth’s shares were worth 10 times as much as they were a decade ago, and the company’s total return to investors, including dividends and buybacks, was 1,020%.
Its outsize performance illustrates one of the broad changes in American life over the past decade: the rise of health care as a component of the economy.
Some of Minnesota’s other big companies also shaped — or were shaped by — sweeping forces that have made life today different from 2010.
A look at the stock charts illustrates these changes.
The decade of UnitedHealth
For decades, 3M reigned as the most valuable company in Minnesota. But that ended Jan. 21, 2015, when UnitedHealth Group reported its results for the last three months of 2014.
Its shares increased 3.5% that day, not too surprising after results beat expectations and executives gave an upbeat outlook for 2015. But it was the first day that its market capitalization, at just more than $100 billion, surpassed 3M’s.
Just two months earlier, Maplewood-based 3M became the first company in Minnesota with a market capitalization of $100 billion.
But after UnitedHealth passed 3M, the two companies went back and forth for weeks as Minnesota’s most valuable company. Then, in late February, UnitedHealth’s shares accelerated and the company’s value never trailed 3M’s again.
Broadly, UnitedHealth’s growth in the 2010s was shaped by demand in the form of aging baby boomers and supply in the form of new drugs, therapies and devices to keep people healthier longer.
But it has also been fed by the company’s strategy to provide a variety of services to front-line doctors, nurses and its clinics and hospitals. That started with acquisitions in the previous decade. The most significant: the 2005 purchase of PacifiCare Health Systems, which had a managed-care prescriptions unit that would become a core business for what is now the Optum unit of UnitedHealth.
Optum in the last decade grew even faster than UnitedHealth’s insurance business. The business played a key role implementing the federal health care reforms as the first contractor to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. UnitedHealthcare, the insurance business, jumped in and then out of insurance exchanges created in those reforms.
Starting in 2011, UnitedHealth ballooned from $100 billion to $200 billion in revenue in just six years, a pace beaten only by Amazon and Apple this decade. As part of that rise, UnitedHealth in 2015 passed privately held Cargill Inc. as Minnesota’s largest business by revenue.
In October 2017, UnitedHealth’s market cap passed $200 billion for the first time. When trading ended Tuesday, the company was worth $279 billion.
Triumph of Target and Best Buy
At the start of the decade, no one was sure what would happen to Target and Best Buy. The giant retailers’ fast growth from 1980 to 2010 helped diversify the Twin Cities economy from food and finance.
But the challenge facing both was clear. Amazon was already a major competitor. And smartphones were making it possible to do online shopping away from the desktop.
Target started the decade by focusing north, with big plans for an expansion in Canada that fell apart because of a technology system. Meanwhile, Best Buy was wracked by an executive scandal and abortive buyout by its founder.
Both companies turned to new leaders who wiped the slate and found the right formula for balancing digital sales with their physical locations.
Even so, investors remained cautious. At the end of 2018, shares in both companies were up about 75% from the start of 2010.
But in 2019, as the so-called retail apocalypse produced a record number of store closings, Target and Best Buy thrived. And investors became believers in their ability to survive in a world where consumers mix their digital and physical shopping.
The total return for Target was 250% for the decade and for Best Buy 206%.
Low-carb, keto, Atkins, paleo. The diet trend that emphasized protein had many names and many forms — though bowls often seemed to be involved — and helped drive winners and losers in the food business.
Hormel Foods, based in Austin, Minn., reshaped itself during the decade from a traditional meatpacker into a branded food company that sold everything from boutique-y peanut and nut butters to guacamole. And protein was at the heart of most it.
Hormel expanded its portfolio through acquisitions that included Skippy peanut butter, Applegate Farms and Columbus Craft Meats. Hormel casts a wide net in protein with lean-meat options like Jennie-O Turkey and indulgent products like bacon.
Hormel’s total return rose more than 465% in the decade.
Not sleepy at all
Wellness and the growing willingness of consumers to spend on it also helped drive the strategy and rise of Sleep Number, the Minneapolis bed maker that until 2017 was known as Select Comfort.
At the start of 2010, the company had just opened its first stand-alone store outside of shopping malls.
Later that year, it stopped allowing other retailers to sell its goods.
Until then, only a handful of brands sold mattresses as an upscale product. Sleep Number executives decided to become one of them.
Sleep Number also continued innovating, following the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. By 2014, it produced SleepIQ to track how well its users slept. Soon, it was regularly introducing new products at consumer technology events instead of furniture industry shows.
Its shares grew fastest in the first half of the decade and its total return was 655%.
3M Co. became one of the 30 stocks in the Dow Jones industrial average in 1976 and was Minnesota’s business bellwether long before that.
Its shares rose and fell nearly in lock step with the widely watched Dow throughout the decade — until this year.
The ongoing trade war with China separated manufacturers like 3M from other major companies. The company also is contending with environmental-damage costs from chemicals connected to some of its best-known products.
3M’s total return to investors rose about 176% in the decade.
Benchmarks and exits
By way of comparison, the broad-market S&P 500 index and the Dow Jones industrials both rose around 180% in the decade. The Piper Jaffray Minnesota index rose 133%.
The number of publicly traded companies based in Minnesota fell from around 115 a decade ago to 64.
Many were sold to other companies, but some moved or delisted. The biggest departure was St. Jude Medical, purchased in 2017 for $25 billion by Illinois-based Abbott Labs.