Chewing tobacco maker UST posts lower earnings
GREENWICH, Conn., July 20 (Reuters) - UST Inc., the top U.S. maker of chewing tobacco, on Thursday reported a 9 percent decline in second-quarter earnings, even worse than the company forecast just last month, due to weaker sales of its premium brands, hi
The company, whose United States Tobacco Co. makes Skoal and Copenhagen chewing tobacco, said net earnings fell to $112.2 million, or 69 cents per share, from $122.9 million, or 70 cents per share, a year earlier. Net sales climbed 4 percent to $392 million.
``The good news is that they basically seem to be stabilising their market share,'' Goldman Sachs analyst Marc Cohen said. ``The less encouraging news is that is happening because they are getting a greater contribution from discount products.''
In June, UST -- which also markets wine under the Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and Villa Mt. Eden labels and Don Tomas, Astral and Habano Primero cigars -- said profits for the second quarter would fall about 2 percent from a year ago because of weaker premium brand sales and much higher interest costs. It also said profits for the full year would suffer, probably coming in flat with 1999 results.
Before the June warning, analysts had expected UST to earn 74 cents per share in the second quarter, according to the consensus estimate by research firm First Call/Thomson Financial. After the warning, analysts' revised their forecast downward to 68 cents a share, and actual results topped that lowered estimate by a penny.
The dimmed outlook in June came on the heels of a warning the company issued in April, when it released first-quarter results. At that time, UST said it might not meet its goal of 10 percent growth in earnings per share for the year because of a massive judgment against it in a civil antitrust suit.
Shares of UST climbed 3/8 to 14-9/16 in Thursday morning trading, above a 52-week low of 13-15/16 but well below a 52-week high of 32-5/16. The shares then retreated to close off 3/16 at 14.
``Many factors, including higher interest expense, increased cost of sales'' and higher excise taxes hurt earnings, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Vincent Gierer Jr. said in a statement. ``These are issues that should not affect next year's comparative results.''
During the second quarter, tobacco segment revenue increased 4 percent to $347.8 million on higher selling prices and a 2.4 percent increase in net smokeless tobacco unit volume to 167.7 million cans.
Regular stock premium can sales were off 6 percent, mainly due to a significant decline in Skoal Long Cut, caused by the recent conversion from 1 ounce to 1.2 ounces of tobacco per can, UST said.
Including promotional cans, premium can sales declined slightly, while non-premium can sales tripled.
Operating profits for the tobacco segment dropped 4 percent to $196.7 million.
``The profitability is not as attractive as we're accustomed to seeing,'' Cohen said, but he noted that operating profit in the company's moist smokeless tobacco operations did not decline as deeply as he had expected.
On March 29, a Kentucky judge ordered U.S. Tobacco Co. to pay $1.05 billion in damages to privately-held rival Conwood Co. over U.S. Tobacco's marketing tactics. That amount tripled a jury's call for the company to pay $350 million in damages.
Cohen said UST is ``very constrained from a financial standpoint pending some judgments'' in the antitrust suit.
In its second quarter statement, UST said it had no new information regarding Conwood, and also noted that it was not named as a defendant in the Engle class action suit.
In April, UST said it had suspended its share buyback programme in connection with the litigation.
Second quarter wine segment revenue rose 2 percent to $36.8 million due to an increase in premium case sales. Increased selling and marketing expenses caused operating profit to drop to $1.2 million.