Minnesota’s biggest utility, a fast-growing software firm and the parent of the Famous Dave’s barbecue chain kept deal making alive in the state during the first half of 2020, the worst period for deals since the last recession 11 years ago.

Xcel Energy Co. powered the local numbers in the first and second quarters, somewhat inadvertently.

The Minneapolis-based utility bought Mankato Energy Center for $650 million, amid objections from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, in January.

Xcel resolved the matter by selling the 760-megawatt Mankato plant in April to Denver-based Southwest Generation for $680 million, pledging the gain to COVID-19 relief efforts and contracting to buy the juice.

Without that second deal, little more than $100 million worth of transactions occurred in the second quarter in Minnesota.

The year got off to a very strong start, with transactions in February up 11% in volume from a year earlier, said Doug Cullen, marketing chief at Minneapolis-based Datasite, which provides deal services.

But as the coronavirus spread across the U.S., deal making plunged with other business activity in March. And it disappeared in April and May as offices shut down due to the pandemic.

“But we see an almost complete ‘V’ of that downturn matched by an equal upturn in June and July,” Cullen said. “We anticipate that activity stays steady for the duration of this year and into next year.”

In the U.S. overall, the number of deals slipped 43% in the second quarter and dollar volume was down 79%, according to Capital IQ and Robert W. Baird, an investment bank. But after the decent first quarter, the six-month transaction volume was down 11.4%, according to Baird.

Minnesota’s most active acquirer this year is HelpSystems, an Eden Prairie-based software firm that specializes in data security.

In the first half, HelpSystems announced acquisitions of three software firms, including Boldon James of the United Kingdom, in a $37.2 million transaction, according to Thomson Financial.

Its biggest deal of the year will be counted in third-quarter data. The firm last month said it will acquire GlobalScape, a Texas developer of file-transfer software, for nearly $220 million in cash.

Privately held HelpSystems, with 2019 revenue of about $300 million and 950 employees, is owned by the private-equity firms TA Associates and Charlesbank Capital Partners.

Its trajectory hasn’t all been upward. The firm laid off a few dozen employees this spring after the onset of the recession.

In other significant Minnesota deals, Toro Co. of Bloomington bought Venture Products of Ohio for $167.5 million in January.

And C.H. Robinson, the Eden Prairie-based logistics provider, bought Prime Distribution Services of Indiana for $225 million, also in January.

Minnetonka-based BBQ Holdings, parent of Famous Dave’s, in February bought bankrupt Granite City Food and Brewery, in a deal in which terms weren’t originally disclosed. Thomson Financial reported the sale price as $3.65 million.

Both outfits cook food from scratch when it is ordered. And both have been scratching for traction since the lockdowns crushed restaurants.

St. Paul-based card linking company, Augeo, bought another card linker in February, San Diego-based Empyr.

Card linking allows customers to attach or link their credit or debit card to various loyalty or cash-back programs from retailers.

As a new-media channel an advertiser “pays” only when a transaction occurs. That process makes for efficient advertising and can help optimize restrained ad budgets.

Augeo and Empyr created a new company “Figg,” that utilized the financial institutions of Augeo and Empyr’s network of digital publishers.

Generally, sale prices for good middle-market companies are holding at a lofty 10 times EBIDTA, or earnings before interest depreciation, taxes and amortization, according to Baird.

Bruce Engler, senior M&A partner at the Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath law firm in Minneapolis, predicted deal making will recover strongly when the coronavirus is brought under control.

“Healthy strategic buyers have cash to spend and are desperate for growth,” he said. “Private-equity buyers have lots of cash, too. While most were distracted managing their portfolio companies through the initial shock of COVID-19 … they are ready to move on deals again.”

A strong M&A market indicates buyers anticipate a good price and sellers anticipate growing business. And deal guys tend to be optimists.

CEO Andy Kocemba of brokerage Calhoun Cos., which sells small businesses with sales of $250,000 to $25 million, said: “Small-business brokerage tends to pick up during period of uncertainty. It’s easier to hold on to your business when things are going well.

“All that to say that we are almost at pre-COVID activity levels. Barring a further lockdown, I anticipate increased activity over the next six to 12 months.”