Swiss food and drinks giant Nestle SA boasted a full-year net profit of 34.23 billion Swiss francs ($35.8 billion) Thursday, inflated by the sale of its stake in eye care company Alcon that added 24.5 billion francs net to its balance sheet.
Analysts had predicted an even higher profit of 37 billion francs for the world's biggest food and beverage company. But investors cheered strong organic growth of 6 percent and a proposed a 15.6 percent dividend hike to 1.85 francs per share — by Thursday night shares in the company had closed almost 1 percent higher at 52.90 francs.
In 2009, the maker of Nescafe, Perrier, Jenny Craig and Haagen Dazs had made a net profit of 10.4 billion francs. Excluding extraordinary one-off gains such as the Alcon sale, net profit dipped to 8.78 billion francs in 2010 from the corresponding figure of 9.26 billion francs.
Sales reached 109.7 billion francs last year, up from 107.6 billion in 2009. With 280,000 employees worldwide, Nestle is a major buyer of food commodities such as wheat, sugar, milk and coffee and its results are a good indicator of consumer demand and the health of the global economy as a whole.
The popular Nespresso coffee capsules, boosted by ads featuring George Clooney, surpassed sales of 3 billion francs for the first time. That continues a recent streak of more than 20 percent annual organic growth, a measure that excludes acquisitions. Nestle added 36 more Nespresso boutique stores last year, and now has 215 worldwide.
Other brands such as Gerber and Nestea also saw strong sales growth. Among the 29 brands the company listed, the lowest-performing were Stouffer's and Herta with between 0 and 3 percent organic growth, and Dreyer's, Hot Pockets and Lean Cuisine with declining sales, reflective of struggles in the frozen food business in North America.
The Vevey, Switzerland-based company achieved almost a third of its sales — some 34.3 billion francs — with food and drinks in the Americas region, despite strong headwind from the weakness of the U.S. dollar compared to the franc.
The sale of Nestle's remaining 52 percent stake in eye care company Alcon to drug maker Novartis AG allowed it to launch new products, cut its debt, buy back shares and build new factories around the world last year. Early in 2010 it bought Kraft Foods Inc.'s frozen pizza business.
Chief executive Paul Bulcke said the company is aiming for organic growth of 5 to 6 percent in 2011 — the same target as in previous years — and is starting 2011 with continued momentum.
"2010 was a challenging year," he told reporters. "We have actually been able to outperform our industry ... in all geographies of the world."
Jim Singh, the chief financial officer, said the company saw organic growth in sales of 11.5 percent in emerging markets and 3.3 percent in developed markets. He said Nestle reduced costs by 1.5 billion francs through energy savings, reduced workplace accidents and fewer bad risks.
"We expect another good year in 2011," he said.
At the headquarters, a postwar modernist building set in a landscaped park along the shore of Lake Geneva that is worlds away from many of the poor countries the company operates in, CEO Bulcke highlighted the extent of Nestle's global reach.
He singled out the "floating supermarket," a vessel that sells chocolate, powdered milk, coffee and other Nestle products to 800,000 previously unreachable consumers in isolated communities along the Amazon River.
The ship, named the Terra Grande, began operating in South America last June.
Officials also pointed to booming Chinese demand for chicken bouillon, fast food, bottled water and other Nestle products. "I don't go into details, but when I say it is strong double-digit growth, I mean strong," said Frits van Dijk, an executive vice president who oversees Asia, Africa and Oceania.
Bulcke said the company's procurement policies would help guide it through the political crisis in Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer and a focal point for human rights advocates trying to force the world's chocolate makers to improve their labor practices.
Nestle's market value is now more than 180 billion francs, helped by gains in shares of about 2.6 percent during the past year. By stock market value it is now Europe's third-largest company, after HSBC Holdings PLC and Royal Dutch Shell PLC.
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