Coca-Cola’s 4th-quarter profit climbs as beverage maker sees drink sales rise overseas

Coca-Cola’s strong overseas growth more than made up for a weak North American market in the fourth quarter, sending profit up 55 percent for the world’s largest beverage maker.

The company, whose brands include Sprite and Diet Coke, sold 5 percent more beverages worldwide — with unit case volume up sharply in emerging markets like China and India. It also posted solid growth in Latin America.

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Shares rose $1.86, or 3.5 percent, to $54.51 in morning trading.

The only region to report a decline in case volume was North America, which makes up about one-fourth of the company’s sales. The region reported a 1 percent drop-off in the figure — a sign that those consumers are still wary about their spending.

Many U.S. shoppers have clamped down on their purchases amid the recession, and beverages are no exception. Consumers in North America are either cutting their soft drink purchases or switching to healthier juices and teas. Their shift away from restaurant dining — also a move to save money — has hurt the company’s fountain business.

All of this has led Coca-Cola to concentrate more on expanding in emerging markets, said Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo. The company will keep marketing its beverages to people who find themselves with extra money to spend as their economies improve and aspire to drink Coca-Cola, he Russo.

“We take it for granted here,” he said. “And it’s not something you take for granted in these markets.”

The potential in these markets is big, CEO Muhtar Kent told investors on a conference call. He said growth in China, India, Mexico and Brazil in the fourth quarter is equal to adding another Germany, the company’s sixth-largest market.

“No question, absolute growth is vital,” he said.

Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta, reported its fourth-quarter earnings rose to $1.54 billion, or 66 cents per share, even with the expectations of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. These estimates typically remove one-time items.

Revenue for the three months ended Dec. 31 increased 5 percent to $7.51 billion from $7.13 billion, beating Wall Street’s $7.21 billion estimate. The company, based in Atlanta, said its results were affected by six fewer selling days in the period.

Unit case volume in China jumped 29 percent in the quarter, with India’s figure rising 20 percent. Developing markets like Brazil saw an 8 percent gain, while developed markets such as France posted a 12 percent increase in unit case volume.

While North American unit case volume dipped, Coca-Cola Zero posted double-digit unit case volume growth in the region.

The beverage maker credited its “Open Happiness” ad campaign and strong holiday programs with boosting its namesake brand’s unit case volume 4 percent in the quarter.

The still beverage category — which includes juices and teas — saw its unit case volume climb 9 percent.

Full-year profit increased 17 percent to $6.82 billion, or $2.93 per share, compared with $5.81 billion, or $2.49 per share, in the prior year.

Revenue for the year dipped slightly to $31 billion from $31.94 billion

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