NEW YORK — A substantial improvement in Cone Mills Corp.’s denim business helped it reverse a year-ago loss and generate its best third-quarter profits in seven years.For the quarter ended Sept. 29, Cone posted income of $3.8 million, or 11 cents per share, after preferred dividends against a loss of $4.6 million, or 22 cents, in the year-ago period. Sales were up 4.4 percent to $111.7 million from $107 million.John L. Bakane, president and chief executive officer, said in a statement, "Market conditions for Cone’s business segments were mixed in the third quarter with denim markets holding up well and home furnishings markets sharply weakened. Nonetheless, Cone was able to report its best third-quarter earnings in seven years and exceed previous earnings guidance of 8 cents to 10 cents per share."Denim sales for the quarter spiked up 15.3 percent to $95.4 million. The company said that the increase in denim sales was "positively impacted by higher denim volume and better product mix for the quarter." Operating income for the denim segment skyrocketed 375.5 percent to $11.7 million for the quarter.In August, the company hired Jefferies & Co., an investment bank, to help it implement a long-term capitalization of its balance sheet in a move to provide funding for its Mexican denim operations expansion.Cone said Tuesday that it has continued to focus on cash-flow management and had reduced inventory levels to $45.6 million in the year from $64.5 million a year ago. Debt and receivables sales financing, it added, were reduced by $45 million from a year ago.The company said it continues to operate with "sufficient liquidity."In its quarterly report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in August, Cone noted that while it has funds available under its revolving credit facility to meet working capital and domestic capital spending needs for the year, it will have to refinance or replace its revolving credit facility and its senior notes by January 2003.In the nine months, the profit-loss gap widened even further with the company reporting net income of $8.4 million, or 20 cents per share, against a loss of $34 million, or $1.45, in the same period last year. Sales were down 5 percent to $343.3 million from $461.3 million.Shares of Cone Mills closed Tuesday at $TKTK, up-down TKTK, or TK percent, in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

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