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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — NorthWestern Corp. reported a profit of about $17.4 million for the first quarter Thursday, a significant jump from the same quarter last year when the company posted a loss of more than $46 million.

Earnings per share of common stock was 26 cents, for the quarter, which ended March 31. Last year, the Sioux Falls-based utility company reported a loss per share of $1.91.

"Without the gain from the cancellation of debt, NorthWestern would have reported a loss for the first quarter of 2003," NorthWestern CEO Gary G. Drook said in a news release. "While cash and cash equivalents increased during the quarter due to financing activities, our operations continued to use more cash than they brought in."

But NorthWestern's earnings report also included a loss of $2.6 million from discontinued operations related to the sale of certain business locations of Blue Dot, a subsidiary.

The quarterly report comes as Drook has begun saying publicly that bankruptcy is an option for the troubled company.

In April, NorthWestern announced $878.5 million in losses in 2002. The company has $2.2 billion in debt and faces a string of shareholder lawsuits.

NorthWestern has announced it will sell several assets, including its Expanets and Blue Dot subsidiaries. Blue Dot is the company's heating, ventilating and air conditioning business, and Expanets is in the communications business.

NorthWestern is the parent company of NorthWestern Energy in Montana, which is the successor to the Montana Power Co., and serves electric and gas customers throughout much of the state.

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