Generations-old Merchants Financial Group has grown organically and through acquisitions to 21 banks from Apple Valley to southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin.

It also is something of a proxy for the consolidating, increasingly profitable Minnesota banking industry since the Great Recession of 2007-09.

Merchants, which is owned partly by its 444 employees, just posted another year of record earnings of $14.15 million.

It saw the value of its stock rise in value by 27 percent to $54.40. The small business-and-consumer lender’s loan portfolio grew 7 percent last year, twice-plus the growth rate of Minnesota’s economy.

Deposits grew 9 percent at Merchants, which has total loans and other assets of $1.6 billion.

CEO Rodney Nelson, who is retiring to make way for 28-year-employee Greg Evans, credited the stellar performance to exceptional employees serving customers well with loans, mortgages and services.

Meanwhile, Minnesota’s 317 banks earned $646 million during the first nine months of last year, compared to total-year earnings during the recession year of 2008 of $454 million. And that was from 431 banks, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., regulator of federally insured depositories.

Total Minnesota bank assets declined 8.5 percent from $78.1 billion to $71.4 billion, as banks lost some of the loan-market share to credit unions and nonbank financiers over the last eight years.

Over the same period, Minnesota bank employment shrunk by a whopping one-third to 13,946 employees.

In short, Minnesota today boasts a smaller, much-more productive and profitable commercial bank trade, doing well in a growing economy.

Neal St. Anthony

Two major solar projects have started delivering energy in Minnesota

The Marshall Solar Energy Project recently started delivering electricity to Xcel Energy.

This is the second of two large solar facilities that have gone online in the past month.

The Marshall solar installation produces up to 62 megawatts of power, enough to power up to 15,000 homes at peak output.

It follows Xcel’s first large-scale solar project, North Star in Chisago County, and it is one of the largest Midwest solar arrays at 100 megawatts. A megawatt is a million watts.

The Marshall solar array covers 355 acres of privately owned land in Lyon County.

“The Marshall Solar Energy Project puts us on a path to achieve our goal to be 63 percent carbon-free by 2020,” Chris Clark, president of Xcel in Minnesota, said in a statement earlier this month.

Both new solar facilities deliver power to Xcel under long-term purchase agreements.

The Marshall project and North Star are respectively owned and operated by Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources and affiliates of New York-based D.E. Shaw Group.

The two “utility-scale” solar projects, together, have roughly quadrupled solar energy production in Minnesota since they have come online over the past month.

Mike Hughlett

WSI Sports teams with Love Your Melon

Eagan-based WSI Sports, best known for outfitting ski Olympians and NFL players, is about to be known for helping cancer patients stay warm.

WSI has partnered with Minneapolis-based Love Your Melon, a company that makes hats for children battling cancer.

“WSI is proud to team up with Love Your Melon and create a new line of clothing that combines performance, fashion and function and is made right here in Minnesota,” said WSI founder Joel Wiens in announcing the partnership last week.

Love Your Melon was started in 2012 by two students in an entrepreneurship class at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

Their mission?

Improve the lives of children battling cancer by donating 45,000 hats.

After completing that donation, Love Your Melon now wants to donate $1 million to pediatric cancer research and provide immediate support to sick children and their families.

To get there, it is teaming with WSI, which bills itself as “the cold weather experts.”

WSI was founded in 1990 and manufactures high-performance, warm-and-breathable clothing for Olympians, other top athletes and sports teams such as the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, and New England Patriots.

WSI’s fabric technology, which will be used to make Love Your Melon products, is billed as a unique, moisture-activated fiber that lines cold weather gear and warms against the skin.

Dee DePass