LONDON — A drop-off in the sales of prestige brands did little to dent Unilever’s strong 2001 performance. Net profit at the food, home products and fragrances giant rose 62 percent, to $1.65 billion on sales of $46.74 billion. That’s 6 percent higher than last year.

The figures were released by Unilever in dollars and year-on-year comparisons are made at current exchange rates.

Net profit before exceptional items and amortization of goodwill and intangibles rose 7 percent, to $3.17 billion, while group sales — not including turnover from joint ventures — rose 5 percent, to $46.12 billion. Many of the exceptional items were profits from sales of various companies — including Elizabeth Arden — last year.

In a news conference here, Niall FitzGerald, chairman of Unilever PLC, said sales growth of the company’s leading brands — which represent 84 percent of business — reached 5.3 percent. Operating margin, before exceptional items and amortization of goodwill and intangibles, grew to 13.9 percent, compared with 12 percent the year before.

FitzGerald said Unilever’s prestige beauty brands — which include Valentino, Cerruti and Calvin Klein — did not fare as well as its core food and personal care brands. He said sales before Sept. 11 were flat in the prestige division and after the terrorist attacks on New York, they dropped 20 percent.

“We rely on department stores and duty-free outlets for prestige sales, and clearly both were hit in the solar plexus after Sept. 11. Sales have stabilized now, and we’re looking to satisfy the new needs of the consumer.” FitzGerald added, however, that the prestige brands were a “small part” of Unilever and “didn’t dent” the overall business.

In the North American market, Unilever’s sales grew by 16 percent with underlying growth of 2 percent. FitzGerald said the underlying growth figure would have been 3 percent had it not been for a drop-off in sales in prestige fragrances and the impact of selling Elizabeth Arden.

Despite the weak performance of the prestige segment, however, FitzGerald said Unilever had no plans to sell or terminate any of the businesses in the division.

FitzGerald added that he was “bullish” on the North American market — and worldwide — for this year due to the sustained growth of the company’s leading brands, which include Lipton, Knorr and Dove.

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