Unilever confident of meeting growth targets

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The Anglo-Dutch consumer products giant Unilever reassured the market yesterday with confirmation that it would meet its full-year targets for low double-digit earnings per share growth.

The group, famous for brands such as Dove soap and Hellmann's mayonnaise, said that fourth-quarter earnings were expected to grow by around 35 per cent.

However, while delivering its fourth-quarter, pre-close trading update, the group admitted that business conditions in the second half of the year had been "more challenging" than expected.

Analysts said that tougher trading conditions had made Unilever's affirmation that it would deliver on its targets all the more welcome. They highlighted stronger sales of the former Bestfoods brands, such as Knorr and Hellmann's, as particularly encouraging after fears that growth had stalled in the third quarter. Unilever bought Bestfoods of the US last October for $24.3bn (£16.6bn).

The company said that sales growth from its top 400 brands, such as Magnum ice cream and Lipton tea, was expected to be around 5 per cent for 2001, compared with 3.8 per cent in 2000. However, sales in home and personal care slowed on the back of lower sales of its Prestige fragrance, which fell by 20 per cent, or 70m euros (£43.3m), in the quarter.

Unilever added that operating margins were expected to increase by more than 2.5 per cent in the final quarter. Its shares gained 3.5p to 551p yesterday.