* Company sees more asset sales, cost cuts in 2013
* More details to come in March investor symposium
* Cash flow declines to $675 million from $824 million
* Shares up 2 percent in Toronto (Adds analyst comments)
By Jeffrey Jones
CALGARY, Alberta, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Talisman Energy Inc’s push to resuscitate its share price and stave off takeover is gaining momentum as Canada’s fifth-largest independent oil producer looks to jettison more assets and cut costs to deal with weak natural gas prices, its chief executive said on Wednesday.
The refocusing of Talisman’s priorities began last year with a change in the top job. The effort is now centering on North American and Asian operations as core operating regions while the company exits costly, higher-risk exploration, CEO Hal Kvisle said after the company reported a fourth-quarter operating loss compared with a profit the previous year.
Investors have criticized Talisman for being active in too many parts of the world, especially in places where it could take years before spending results in cash flow. After being named CEO in September, Kvisle promised a turnaround.
“We’re focusing the capital program on opportunities that effectively have a bigger bang for the buck, and not so widespread,” he said in an interview. “We need to be really zeroing in on opportunities that bring production in the near term, and less money being spent on very long-cycle things - wildcat exploration, offshore Africa and stuff like that.”
In 2012, Talisman sold $1 billion of assets and has served notice that there is more to come.
Executives have said the company will cut its annual general and administrative costs by 20 percent, which translates to about $260 million. Job reductions are expected as part of the moves, but Kvisle did not offer details on Wednesday.
He promised to reveal more in terms of both cost reductions and asset sales when Talisman hosts an investor symposium on March 6. However, he said no assets are deemed to be sacred and the company is rethinking the way it hires and retains staff, as some employees retire or move to other firms.
“It’s a careful focus on the kind of hiring, being very selective and wherever possible reassigning people who already work for the company to the different jobs that have higher priority,” he said. “All of that’s going to be the activity during the year, but we are committed to an overall reduction in G&A (general and administrative), including a bunch of indirect costs, like rent, travel.”
The company is coping with low gas prices by concentrating efforts on more valuable liquids-rich production from regions such as Eagle Ford in Texas and Duvernay in Alberta, and has sharply cut spending in the Marcellus shale region in the U.S. Northeast.
Its shares closed 26 Canadian cents, or 2 percent, higher at C$12.82 on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Wednesday, despite missing profit expectations. That represents a gain of about 3 percent in the past year.
Fourth-quarter results were hampered by a combination of weak gas prices, lower North Sea production, higher operating costs and a number of one-time charges. Some of the lower production was due to the sale of 50 percent of North Sea assets to China’s Sinopec Corp.
They are working on cutting their overhead costs, so I’d say everything is consistent there,” said Michael Dunn, analyst at FirstEnergy Capital Corp. “The U.K. business was worse than we thought. It’s another ‘Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it got worse again’. But they sold half of it in December, so their exposure to that has been cut now.”
Anxious investors are looking to the March meeting for details on the next major steps, Dunn said.
As Talisman seeks to emerge from its strategic shift on a stronger financial footing - and has said often it is not looking for buyers - it has also become the target of activist shareholders, including West Face Capital.
Kvisle said he has had talks with those pushing for more drastic moves as well as longer-term holders seeking steady returns, and seeks to do what is best for all the company’s investors.
“Some shareholders are in it for a 20 percent gain over six months, and others would like to see a 20 percent rate of return per year for 12 years. I generally tend to be more attentive to the long term,” he said.
In the fourth quarter, net income was $376 million, or 37 cents a share, compared with a year-earlier loss of $117 million, or 11 cents a share.
Excluding unusual items, Talisman lost $107 million, or 10 cents a share, compared with a year-earlier profit of $114 million, or 11 cents a share.
Cash flow, a glimpse into the company’s ability to fund drilling, was $675 million, or 66 cents a share, down 17 percent from $824 million, or 81 cents a share.
Production fell 11 percent to 392,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day due to lower contributions from its North Sea operations.
Asset impairments totaled $2.7 billion, on a pretax basis, largely due to uncertainties over the troubled Yme development in Norway, the company’s exit from Peru and other adjustments in the North Sea and North America, it said.
$1=$1.00 Canadian Additional reporting by Shounak Dasgupta in Bangalore; Editing by Peter Galloway and Andrew Hay