Irish ready-meals supplier Greencore said it remains cautious about growth in its convenience division but insisted that levels still remain “very encouraging”.

The firm this morning reported a return to profit for the full-year boosted by a strong performance in the firm’s convenience division.

For the year ended 24 September, Greencore made a profit of EUR34.5m (US$47m) compared to a loss of EUR8.4m in the prior year. The manufacturer said trading in its convenience foods division was “very strong” in the year with operating profit from continuing operations 21.1% ahead of 2009.

Group operating profit climbed 17.6% to EUR59.7m, while sales rose 6.9% to reach EUR856m.

Speaking on the firm’s earnings call this morning, group chief executive Patrick Coveney said it has continued to experience “attractive levels of growth” overall and has performed “a nudge better” than that of its underlying performance.

“We have continued to exceed the underlying market growth rate as we have come into the new year,” Coveney said. “I want to be appropriately cautious here, history teaches us that it is difficult for large mature categories to continue to grow at close to double-digit levels perpetually. But where we are operating, it’s in a part of the market with underlying structural growth characteristics that aren’t mirrored by many other parts of the UK food market, so the levels still remain very encouraging.”

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Outside of the UK and Ireland, Coveney said the firm is making “good progress” in the US, with 18% sales growth in the country – 58% ahead of 2008 figures.

“The big driver is the new food-to-go range, which have replaced main in-store propositions and we have considerable further opportunities to do more with that,” Coveney said. “We have brought on board a lot of new players and done all of that while having to deliver general factory upgrades. This will give us lots of opportunities on how we move forward.”

Greencore this morning announced that it will merge with Fox’s biscuits maker Northern Foods in a transaction that will create a company with annual sales of around GBP1.7bn (US$2.7bn).

Coveney said that Greencore now has the portfolio it would like, having been through “a real journey” to get where it is today.

“It is only having done that, that we have the right and the ability to put together the exciting combination that we announced this morning,” Coveney said. “I think we are optimistic, we believe the chilled and convenience market is here to stay – the dynamics of it and the capacity environment. It is a good place to be. We are very much on track to deliver strong performance on a continuing basis in 2011.”