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BILLINGS (AP) - MDU Resources Group Inc., the investor-owned cooperative based in North Dakota, made a record $174.6 million in net income during 2003, an increase of nearly $27 million over the previous year, the company says.

"I am extremely pleased with our 2003 results," Chairman and CEO Martin White told investors and others Thursday. "We thrived while the economy struggled, and with the positive outlook for economic improvement, we are enthusiastic about the future."

The company's fourth-quarter earnings report, which was released Thursday, shows net income for the final quarter at $46.2 million, or 40 cents a share, up from $45.9 million, or 42 cents a share, during the same quarter in 2002.

Net earnings per share for the year were $1.55, compared with $1.38 during the previous year, the company said.

MDU Resources Group is the parent company of Montana-Dakota Utilities, which provides electricity to portions of eastern Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The company attributed much of its income growth in 2003 to earnings from independent power plants or facilities built to sell power on the open market. Income from them rose from just $900,000 in 2002 to $12 million in 2003, the company said.

Citing expected strong prices for natural gas and oil in the future, the company also boosted its forecast of net income for this year, and said it expects to spend $370 million on capital projects in 2004.

White said he remains optimistic despite some recent tough times in the U.S. utility industry. For its long-term growth, MDU expects to earn 6 percent to 9 percent more per share annually, he said.

"It's a brand new year," White said. "Hopefully, everybody will have a great return as they did last year."

MDU was among the members of a coalition on utilities and cooperatives that announced late last year that it was interested in buying NorthWestern Corp., the Sioux Falls, S.D., company that has filed for bankruptcy reorganization.

NorthWestern, the parent company of Montana's largest utility, NorthWestern Energy, has so far spurned the offer, saying they expect to emerge from their bankruptcy reorganization a stronger company.

White and other top executives said MDU remains interested in expanding.

"We would buy any utility that makes economic sense to us and strategic sense, but we're not going to pay too much," White said. "We haven't seen (public service) commissions rewarding companies for paying too much."

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