Food processor and distributor George Weston saw its fourth-quarter earnings more than double yesterday (24 February), boosted by the sale of its dairy and bottling operations and higher grocery sales.

The international bakery operator saw earnings rise to C$404m (US$324.2m), from C$151m a year ago, thanks to a C$335m gain on the sale of its Ontario dairy operations.

The unaudited results showed sales were up 11.4% to C$8.05bn from a C$7.23bn year earlier.

Operating income for the quarter increased to C$345m from the prior-year quarter.

The quarter included the sale of the Canadian dairy operation to Saputo, along with the sale of Weston's US bread and baked goods business to Grupo Bimbo for US$2.5bn. The gain on the US divestment, about $800m will be booked in this year's first quarter.

Full-year sales rose 4.8% to $32.09bn with net income of $832m, up 48% from $563m in 2007.

Galen Weston, chairman and president, indicated that the company has "significant" cash reserves and hinted that these could potentially be used to fund strategic acquisitions.

"Having sold both the dairy business and the US fresh baking business at good multiples, we sit at George Weston Limited with strategically well positioned companies with leading market positions in food retail and baking in Canada, our retained US bakery businesses and a significant amount of cash. We intend to use that cash wisely and at the appropriate time."