Hershey Foods Corp. (HSY) earnings rose 17.5 percent in the fourth quarter, largely on the strength of new and limited-edition candy and snacks rolled out during the holiday season, the nation's largest candy maker said on Wednesday.

Hershey earned $170.3 million, or 68 cents a share, for the last three months of 2004, compared with a gain of $144.9 million, or 55 cents per share, in the same period a year earlier. That figure beat the consensus 66 cents per share forecast of analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call.

The per-share increase was helped by a share purchase in July by the Milton Hershey School Trust (search), the company's largest shareholder, Hershey said.

Net sales rose to $1.27 billion, or 7.6 percent, from $1.18 billion during the same period last year.

"The fourth quarter was excellent," said Richard H. Lenny, Hershey's chairman, president, and chief executive officer.

Lenny credited the company's improving results to cost-cutting and sales growth of new and limited-edition products. Under Lenny, Hershey has concentrated on creating and heavily marketing such products, which bring higher profit margins. In recent months, the company has released a Smartzone (search) "nutrition bar" and chocolate-covered cookies.

For all of 2004, Hershey earned $590.9 million, compared with $457.6 million in 2003. Revenue was $4.43 billion versus $4.17 billion a year ago.

The Hershey, Pa.-based company said it is expecting 2005 sales growth of 3 to 4 percent, before figuring in the effect of its acquisitions last year, and earnings per share growth of 9 to 11 percent.

The company produces well-known brands such as Hershey chocolate bars, Hershey's Kisses (search) and Reese's peanut butter cups.