Company Of The Week

Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer products maker, said that first-quarter profit rose 44 per cent as its focus on premium brands boosted sales. The maker of Lipton soups and Breyers ice-cream said first-quarter net income rose to pounds 426m from pounds 296m a year ago. The company's shares surged 7 per cent to a five-year high of 684p.

Around 18 months ago Unilever started stripping out lower-return assets and broadening market share in higher-margin food and consumer goods markets. This is paying off, particularly in Europe, where Unilever generates 45 per cent of sales.

"These are very pleasing numbers and margins will continue to expand for several years," predicted Paul Deacon, a Goldman Sachs analyst. "They are clearly taking action which is having a marked impact on returns."

Asian sales rose 22 per cent as the company raised prices to compensate for currency devaluations there. It warned of "the first signs of a slowdown in consumption late in the quarter" in the region. "Boiling it down, the Far East is hugely ahead of expectations," said Andrew Saunders at Charterhouse Tilney Securities.

Unilever said: "All corporate categories made good progress, with particularly strong performance in home and personal care."