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Saputo seeks global acquisitions to offset more competitive Canadian market

MONTREAL - Saputo, the country's largest cheese and dairy processor, plans to offset its lower profits in Canada by seeking more global acquisitions and convincing Australian dairy farmers to boost their output.

"I see that our runway is still very, very long," CEO Lino Saputo Jr. said Thursday during a conference call after the company reported strong fourth-quarter and annual results.

While he said small $100-million deals are possible in Canada, the larger growth prospects for the dairy are in the fragmented United States, where it controls about 10 per cent of the cheese market; Australia or new markets such as Brazil, which is seeing a growing middle class.

Saputo told analysts that deals up to $4 billion "would not be out of the question" if the right opportunity came along.

The company would also like to replicate its successful foray in Argentina by encouraging Australian dairy farmers to feel confident about their futures and increase milk production. It has vowed to invest in the infrastructure of Warrnambool Cheese & Butter, which it recently acquired for $450 million, to take on more milk. WCB is the oldest dairy in Australia, where seven or eight players control 90 to 95 per cent of the industry.

A similar drive over the past decade in Argentina has seen the volume of milk processed more than double and in excess of one billion litres from 400 million litres in 2003. Any additional organic growth in supply would be in addition to some smaller acquisitions.

The Montreal-based company said it benefited during the fourth quarter from higher block cheese prices in the U.S., a lower Canadian dollar and increased international volumes and prices, which offset higher costs in Canada. It said a focus to lower costs at home will continue as it seeks to grow volumes of basic and specialty-type cheeses, along with higher margin flavoured milk

The latest earnings, which included the operations of Warrnambool and a previous large merger in the U.S., helped Saputo cap off a strong year by boosting net earnings by more than 19 per cent to $119.8 million in the final quarter of its fiscal year. It earned 61 cents per diluted share for the period ended March 31, compared to 51 cents or $100.5 million a year earlier.

Saputo incurred $9.2 million in after-tax acquisition costs in the quarter, $19.9 million in costs for plant closures in Canada and the U.S. and $3.9 million in pension related costs for executives.

Excluding these items, Saputo's (TSX:SAP) adjusted earnings attributable to shareholders were $151.9 million or 78 cents per diluted share. That was four cents better than analyst forecasts and up from 65 cents per share a year ago.

Revenues were $2.49 billion, up 21 per cent from $2.05 billion in the fourth quarter of 2013.

Saputo said the Canadian division's pre-tax operating profits (EBITDA) decreased 8.6 per cent to $108.9 million, despite higher revenues at $881.4 million. Higher ingredients and operational costs offset increased sales volumes, in both retail and food service segments.

Meanwhile, the company is consolidating its distribution activities at a new facility in Montreal and has announced plans to close three facilities across the country, which will result in about $8 million in annual savings, of which $6 million should start next fiscal year. It will also evaluate cost-saving opportunities from its recent acquisition of Scotsburn dairy in the Maritimes.

The company's U.S. division earned $128.2 million on $1.22 billion of revenues, compared with $103.1 million on $971.3 million of revenues in the prior year.

International profits soared to $40.5 million from $7.5 million as revenues grew 70 per cent to $384.5 million.

Irene Nattel of RBC Capital Markets said Saputo closed out the year "with a bang."

"The outlook for fiscal 2015 suggests continuing pressure in the Canadian segment, but favourable outlook for both U.S. and international," she wrote in a report.

For the full year, Saputo earned $534 million or $2.70 per diluted share, up from $481.9 million or $2.41 per share in 2013.

Adjusted profits attributable to shareholders for the full year were $566.1 million or $2.87 per share. That compared to $510.6 million or $2.55 per share in the prior year. Revenues increased 26.5 per cent to $9.2 billion, from nearly $7.3 billion a year earlier.

On the Toronto Stock Exchange, its shares closed down 14 cents to $58.95 on Thursday.

Follow @RossMarowits on Twitter.

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