By  on March 22, 2006

NEW YORK — Fueled by gains in the U.S. and tight expense management, Nike Inc.'s third-quarter earnings surged 19.2 percent and were far ahead of expectations.

The company reported that profits jumped to $325.8 million, or $1.24 a share, from $273.4 million, or $1.04 in the quarter ended Feb. 28, while revenues surged 9.2 percent to $3.6 billion. Analysts on average had been looking for Nike to earn $1.11 a share.

This was the company's first quarter operating under the leadership of Mark Parker, a Nike veteran who became president and chief executive officer in January.

Parker said in a statement Tuesday, "The strength of our product pipeline, brand portfolio and global reach is enabling us to balance continued challenges in markets such as Western Europe and Japan with strong momentum in other key markets and regions."

In a call with analysts late Tuesday, Parker cited the women's fitness business as a particularly strong performer in the quarter. Nike, the world's largest activewear group, has sought in recent years to elevate its women's business with a more fashionable selection of offerings for a range of activities, including fitness dance and yoga.

U.S. revenues in the third quarter increased 14 percent to $1.4 billion, with footwear sales rising 18 percent to $1 billion and apparel sales up 6 percent to $366.6 million. In the Americas region, which includes South and Central America, sales rose 41 percent in the quarter to $203.1 million.

Not all regions saw gains, however. European sales dipped 5 percent to $532.3 million, and were down both in apparel and footwear.

Sales at the company's "other businesses" division, which includes Converse, Nike Golf, Hurley, Starter and other brands, climbed 17 percent to $454.5 million, Nike said. This area has been a key growth vehicle for the company as it seeks to build its business outside of the core Nike brand.

Worldwide future orders, a key indicator of growth, edged up 2.9 percent over the year-ago period. This has been an area of concern to analysts recently, since the company said late last year that it had a slowdown in futures orders.Gross margins fell slightly, to 43.6 percent from 44.1 percent.

In the nine-month period, earnings grew 22.8 percent to $1.06 billion, or $4 a share, from $862.1 million, or $3.18 per share. Sales improved 9.3 percent to $10.9 billion from $10 billion.

Results were reported Tuesday after the market closed. Prior to the market closing, Nike's shares slipped 56 cents to $84.95 on the New York Stock Exchange.

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