(Recasts, adds background, details from conference call and new share price)
By Anjali Athavaley
Oct 21 (Reuters) - Coca-Cola Co on Tuesday announced new cost-cutting measures and a timeline for selling its bottling operations after its quarterly profit slumped 14 percent and the world’s largest beverage maker struggles to find growth amid a soft market for soda.
The Atlanta-based company said it would hand back, or refranchise, about two-thirds of its North American bottling territories by the end of 2017, and a substantial portion of the remaining territories no later than 2020.
It is the clearest timeline that Coke has given to date as it seeks to sell the bottling operations to franchisees in a bid to shift away from the capital intensive and low-margin business of distribution.
Coke also said that it was targeting $3 billion in cost savings by 2019, up from its announcement in February of $1 billion.
But the moves failed to impress investors. Coke shares were down 6 percent to $40.54 on Tuesday morning and down 1.8 percent this year while the S&P 500 was up 4.3 percent.
Coke is grappling with deteriorating economic conditions in major emerging markets as well as softness in consumer spending in the United States and Europe.
“This is placing strong pressure on the short-term performance of our business,” said Chief Executive Muhtar Kent on the company’s earnings conference call.
U.S. sales of carbonated soft drinks have been declining for nearly a decade, and more recently, consumers have shifted away from diet soda because of health concerns over artificial sweeteners.
Coke has tried to diversify its business by taking a smaller stake in companies in faster-growing markets and in some cases, eventually acquiring them. In August, Coca-Cola said it was buying a 16.7 percent stake in Monster Beverage Corp. Earlier this year, it bought a 10 percent stake in Keurig Green Mountain Inc which it raised to 16 percent in May to become Keurig’s largest shareholder.
Still, analysts said investors have been agitating for further cost-cutting. On the earnings conference call, Kent declined to give specifics on how much of the $3 billion would be reinvested in operations as opposed to flowing through to the bottom line but said the company would achieve a balance.
Industry watchers also have been waiting for more specifics on Coke’s North American bottling operations. Following a similar move by rival PepsiCo Inc, Coke bought back its top bottler in the region in 2010 to streamline decision-making and cut costs.
The company also said it expected to miss its long-term earnings growth target in 2014, due in part to currency fluctuations.
Net income for the third quarter declined to $2.1 billion, or 48 cents a share, from $2.4 billion, or 54 cents a share, a year earlier.
Excluding charges for refranchising some North American bottling operations and other special items, earnings per share were 53 cents, in line with analysts’ expectations.
Overall revenue was flat at $11.97 billion versus expectations of $12.12 billion. (Reporting by Anjali Athavaley; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Jilian Mincer and Marguerita Choy)