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The year’s top business stories

December 26, 2010

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The year ended much as it began, with a struggling economy, high unemployment, and hope for better times ahead. Much of it was about new realities: cautious consumers, conservative hiring, and a slow process of repairing the damage from the recession.

Still, Massachusetts businesses and residents pushed ahead. Businesses expanded, putting cash to work by acquiring other companies. Employment began to grow again, and the jobless rate declined. And chief executives of the state’s biggest companies continued to enjoy seven- and eight-figure compensation packages.

Financial struggles persisted for many, however, especially some 300,000 unemployed Massachusetts residents.

The Globe covered these and many other Massachusetts business stories in 2010. We asked readers to vote online for their top stories of the year. Here’s what they chose:

1. A mighty windAfter years of opposition, the groundbreaking Cape Wind project not only won federal and state approval to be built in Nantucket Sound, but also struck a deal with its first utility customer — despite concerns that businesses and households would pay too much for the electricity.

The approvals, finalized this year, were the last major hurdles for the 130-turbine project, which would be the nation’s first offshore wind farm if construction begins, as expected, next year. First proposed in 2001, the wind farm spurred the federal government to develop rules for offshore wind farms, opening the door for projects stretching from Massachusetts to Delaware.

Building Cape Wind also hinged on finalizing a deal with utility National Grid, which has 1.2 million customers in Massachusetts. State regulators spent six months reviewing a proposed contract before deciding in November to allow National Grid to purchase half of Cape Wind’s power at a starting price of 18.7 cents per kilowatt-hour — more than double the price of electricity produced by fossil fuel plants. Even so, Cape Wind’s energy is expected to cost residential customers less than $2 a month because it accounts for a small percentage of National Grid’s power supply.

But as traditional energy prices dropped during the recession, Cape Wind’s expensive electricity became a sticking point for many critics. Longtime opponents also argued the project would ruin the Cape’s picturesque coast, affect property values, and harm fishing, birds, aviation, and historic and cultural sites. They are appealing the project approvals in state and federal courts.

— Erin Ailworth

2. Can you spare a job?Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending. Record low interest rates. Soaring corporate profits.

At another time, any one of these might have kick-started the job market. But in 2010, near-record unemployment seemed to resist every effort to get people back to work.

Stubbornly high joblessness overshadowed business and the economy throughout the year, unsettling a tentative recovery and undermining confidence, a key ingredient in any long-term rebound. With unemployment hovering near 10 percent nationally and above 8 percent in the state, millions of Americans — including hundreds of thousands in Massachusetts — have yet to enjoy the benefits of the improving economy.

A recent Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll, for example, found that nearly eight of 10 Massachusetts residents don’t believe the recession is over, even though it officially ended in June 2009.

Such perceptions, which analysts attributed to anemic employment growth, weighed on all aspects of the economy, not the least of which was housing. That market, revived early in the year by federal home buyer tax credits, sputtered again when they expired — despite record low mortgage rates. A major reason: concerns about jobs.

By year-end, there were signs that firms might be increasing hiring, including a jump in advertised job openings. But there’s still a long way to go. Nearly half of 15 million unemployed Americans have been out of work for more than six months, and most economists expect it to take years before unemployment retreats to prerecession levels.

— Robert Gavin

3. Friends of BerniePhilanthropist Carl J. Shapiro, known around Boston for giving millions to hospitals and universities, agreed this month to hand over $625 million in fictitious investment returns he had received over 40 years from convicted swindler Bernard Madoff.

It wasn’t quite the $1 billion authorities had been seeking, but it was a stunning figure all the same, representing one of the largest settlements that the bankruptcy trustee in the Madoff case has reaped on behalf of Madoff’s victims.

The deal threw into question the future giving of one of the Boston area’s most generous families, which most recently helped finance the new wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. The Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation has promised to honor past pledges to nonprofits, but will have to forfeit cash reaped from Madoff as part of the settlement.

The agreement capped two years of questions swirling around Shapiro, 97, over how he parlayed $21 million from the sale of a dress-making company in 1971 into a massive fortune with Madoff. But it left unanswered how a man known for a painstaking attention to detail in business and charitable endeavors had no idea that the investment profits he received for so many years were rigged.

No charges have been brought against Shapiro, and he and his family insist that they, too, were fooled by the man who ran the largest Ponzi scheme of all time. Madoff confessed his fraud to his sons in December 2008 and is serving a 150-year prison sentence.

— Beth Healy

4. The price is wrongA surprise attempt by a French pharmaceutical giant to take over Genzyme Corp. unsettled the Massachusetts biotechnology sector and left in limbo the fate of the state’s largest biotech.

The $18.5 billion proposal made last summer by Sanofi-Aventis SA was quickly rebuffed by the Genzyme board, while Genzyme investors let a $69-a-share tender offer expire without turning over their stock. The Cambridge firm, however, suggested it might sell at a higher price — closer to $89 a share.

That guaranteed the takeover battle would stretch into 2011. Sanofi recently extended its $69-a-share offer through Jan. 21 after fewer than 1 percent of Genzyme shares had been tendered.

The fate of Genzyme has been watched closely in the state, where biotechnology is a key growth sector. But Genzyme and the state’s second-largest biotech, Biogen Idec Inc., have been selling businesses and laying off workers under pressure from activist investors. Increasingly, much of the growth in the local industry is driven by global pharmaceutical giants, such as Sanofi and Swiss drug maker Novartis AG, which both have major research operations in Cambridge.

In a recent interview, Sanofi’s chief executive, Christopher A. Viehbacher, gave no indication of whether he would raise his bid for Genzyme.

Genzyme chief executive Henri A. Termeer was clear, however, that Sanofi needs to increase its offer before Genzyme commences serious negotiations. After the tender offer flopped this month, Termeer said, “Our shareholders strongly support the view of the board that the Sanofi offer substantially undervalues Genzyme.’’

— Robert Weisman

5. Shop ’til you dropIf consumers were reluctant to spend in 2010, technology companies weren’t. Despite a sluggish economy, some of the biggest tech firms poured billions into acquiring Bay State companies.

IBM Corp. led the way, buying four Massachusetts firms. The biggest deal was in September, when IBM bought Marlborough data analysis firm Netezza for $1.7 billion. Earlier in the year, the industry giant snapped up another Marlborough firm, data storage company Storwize, as well as two companies in Waltham: Internet marketing firm Unica and risk-management company OpenPages.

The spending spree was another sign of technology’s rebound from the recession — a rebound that has helped Massachusetts recover faster than the nation as a whole. The acquisitions were also a testament to the vibrancy of the state’s tech industry.

IBM and other major computer companies are scrambling to expand product lines and have long found Massachusetts an attractive source of acquisitions because of the broad array of advanced technology firms.

Oracle Corp., for example, beefed up its presence in online retailing with the $1 billion purchase of Art Technology Group of Cambridge.

Also buying in Massachusetts were Google Inc., which agreed to pay $700 million for ITA Software Inc., a Cambridge maker of online travel-reservation software; and Attachmate Corp. of Seattle, which agreed to pay $2.2 billion for Novell Inc. of Waltham, a provider of networking software and Linux operating systems.

Local data storage titan EMC Corp. of Hopkinton also got out its checkbook, acquiring three out-of-state firms, including Isilon Systems Inc. of Seattle for which it paid $2.25 billion.

— Hiawatha Bray