September 10, 2008 / 3:28 PM / 10 years ago

Viterra profit, sales surge with commodity tide

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Strong world demand for grain and fertilizer helped push Viterra Inc’s VT.TO quarterly profit up 69 percent, but also put prices for potential acquisition targets beyond reach, Canada’s largest grain handler said on Wednesday.

Regina, Saskatchewan-based Viterra is seeking to expand its grain-handling and processing and fertilizer operations in the United States, Europe or Australia, but has shied away from making a couple of acquisitions to that end because of price, Chief Executive Mayo Schmidt said.

But Viterra, which was known as Saskatchewan Wheat Pool before it acquired rival Agricore United for C$1.8 billion last year, hopes to be able to make a deal by the end of the calendar year as the commodity mania cools and target prices deflate, he said.

“Right now, obviously, it’s a little difficult because the marketplace is in a lot of turmoil and there’s a big commodity correction taking place,” Schmidt said on a conference call.

“We realize that, and the targets that we’re looking at realize that, and I think you just continue to have a watchful eye,” he said.

Tight global grain supplies boosted sales volumes and prices for Viterra in the quarter ended July 31.

Viterra earned C$166.7 million ($155.8 million) in the quarter, or 71 Canadian cents a share, up from C$98.5 million, or 58 Canadian cents a share, in the year-before quarter.

The profit beat analysts’ expectations of 54 Canadian cents a share, according to Reuters Estimates.

Viterra stock has dropped about 30 percent in the past three months, caught in a global downturn of commodity-related stocks.

Early on Wednesday, Viterra stock fell to lows not seen in more than a year, but it closed 2 percent higher at C$10.51 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

“Overall, results were very strong,” wrote Orin Baranowsky, analyst at BMO Capital Markets, in a note to clients.

“The company has been able to thrive in a tough market,” said Baranowsky, who has a target price of C$15.50 on the stock, and said recent weakness was an opportunity to buy it.

While grain prices have come off their historic highs, they are still strong, and fertilizer margins also remain strong, boding well for the sector, Schmidt said.

“Food stocks are low and there remains a significant food deficit,” he said.

The company, Canada’s largest retailer of fertilizer, chemicals and seed, has seen farmers pre-order C$89 million of supplies for the fall season so far, up from a more typical C$3 million last year, Schmidt said.

Viterra, which has a dominant market share in Canada’s main grain-growing region, said quarterly sales were C$2.2 billion, up 57 percent from C$1.4 billion a year earlier.

Grain handling margins rose 25 percent to C$34.47 a tonne, and the company increased its forecast of margins for the entire year to C$30 to C$32 per tonne, up from its June forecast of C$26-C$30 per tonne.

That could slip next year to C$26-C$27 per tonne, depending on the quality of harvest now under way, and whether it declines because of cool, wet weather, said Fran Malecha, Viterra’s chief operating officer.

Viterra said it has seen little impact from a strike of its unionized head office staff that began in July. Some elevator workers also are in a position to strike, but even that move would have minimal impact on the company, officials said.

($1=$1.07 Canadian)

Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Peter Galloway

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