CHICAGO – ConAgra Foods Inc. (CAG), maker of Healthy Choice meals (search) and Wesson cooking oil, Thursday posted a 41 percent increase in profit, as improved results in its food-service and ingredient businesses offset lower operating profit in packaged foods.
The retail foods business, which now accounts for the bulk of ConAgra's sales, has been hurt by higher commodity costs. ConAgra, whose shares moved lower Thursday, said it has raised prices to help defray the higher cost of ingredients and energy.
The Omaha, Nebraska-based company said it earned $212 million, or 40 cents a share, in the fiscal fourth quarter ended May 30, compared with $150 million, or 28 cents, in the year-earlier period.
The company benefited from an added week of selling, income from discontinued operations and a lower tax rate.
In recent years, ConAgra has shed underperforming commodity businesses such as meatpacking and poultry operations. It said it now expects to seek acquisitions to enhance its portfolio.
"We're now completely focused on branded and value-added food opportunities," said Chairman and Chief Executive Bruce Rohde on a telephone presentation to discuss fourth-quarter results.
Sales in the fourth quarter rose 9 percent to $4.0 billion, with comparable sales up 4 percent.
Retail products sales rose 3 percent to $2.2 billion, with sales on a comparable basis roughly flat. Sales gains in major brands such as Banquet meals, Egg Beaters (search) and Peter Pan peanut butter helped offset weakness in popcorn and deli meats.
Operating profit in the division fell 7 percent to $315 million.
Food-service sales, or those to restaurants and other institutions, rose 9 percent to $1.0 billion, helped by cost efficiency moves and demand for specialty potato and culinary products.
Food-ingredient sales rose 32 percent to $731 million, in part reflecting a more favorable environment for commodity merchandising operations, ConAgra said.
In the quarter, ConAgra took charges of 3 cents a share for restructuring and 5 cents a share for setting up a legal reserve.
The company, which bought back 7 million shares in the quarter, forecast that its current fiscal year "will show a solid EPS performance and growth in sales and operating profits from its current business segments."
It benefited by 2 cents a share from a gain on the sale of a minority interest; 3 cents a share from discontinued operations; 2 cents a share from lower taxes; and 3 cents a share from an extra week of selling.
ConAgra's year-earlier quarter included a 12 cent per-share loss from discontinued operations mostly related to the sale of the company's chicken-processing business. The loss was offset by 10 cents a share of benefits from an insurance settlement and lower taxes.
Shares of ConAgra eased 38 cents or 1.4 percent to $26.70 on the New York Stock Exchange (search) Thursday.