ATLANTA – Coca-Cola Co. Tuesday reported a 4 percent rise in fourth-quarter net sales, but sluggish growth in the crucial North American market cast a pall over the soft drink maker's prospects for 2002.
For the three months ended Dec. 31, 2001, the world's No. 1 soft drink company reported net income of $914 million, or 37 cents a share, up from $242 million, or 10 cents a share, a year earlier, including special charges for a discrimination lawsuit settlement, restructuring and other charges. Excluding these one-time items, Coke earned 38 cents a share in fourth quarter 2000.
Analysts' earnings estimates ranged from 34 cents to 38 cents a share, for an average of 37 cents in the fourth quarter of 2001, according to research firm Thomson Financial/First Call.
Revenue in the period jumped to $4.92 billion from $4.73 billion in the year-earlier period. Coca-Cola said unit case volume, a key measure of financial health in the beverage industry, grew 4 percent overall.
But volume in North America, the company's largest and most important market, rose a mere 2 percent, at the low end of the company's target. One unit case equals 24 eight-ounce servings.
"It's pretty much in line with what we expected," said John Faucher, analyst with J. P. Morgan. "The volume was weak at the lower end of the range, which we knew was going to happen."
Softness in the U.S. market was one of the factors that prompted Coca-Cola last year to lower its volume-growth forecast for 2001 to a range of between 4 percent and 5 percent from a previous target of 5 percent to 6 percent.
Volume grew 4 percent in 2001.
The company said it expected 2002 earnings to grow in line with its long-term forecast of 11 percent to 12 percent annual growth, though it noted that currency changes, including the recent devaluation in Argentina, would trim earnings per share by 8 cents to 10 cents.
The soft drink maker, which in the past two years has restructured its operations in its more than 200 markets around the world, said it would continue to focus on boosting carbonated soft drink sales and extending its portfolio of non-carbonated beverages.
"We continue to focus on our strategic priorities, each element of which will continue to strengthen our business model, allowing us to achieve strong results and returns for our share owners," Coca-Cola Chief Executive Doug Daft said.
Shares of Coca-Cola, which closed at $45.25 in Monday New York Stock Exchange trade, have fallen about 30 percent since the company launched its dramatic restructuring. Archrival PepsiCo Inc. , which closed at $48.63 on Monday, has jumped about 40 percent in the same period,.
Coca-Cola is counting on solid marketing for its core brands as well as an improved relationship with its bottlers and customers around the world to help boost its performance this year.
Last month, Coca-Cola's main bottler, Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. , unveiled a new financial agreement providing for increased funding from the soft drink maker and closer cooperation on concentrate pricing.
Relations between Coca-Cola and its bottlers had been strained in recent years in the wake of the soft drink giant's decision to hike its prices for concentrate, the key ingredient used to make soft drinks.
Many bottlers, including CCE, were squeezed by the combination of concentrate price hikes and sluggish volume growth in key markets such as North America.