The Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group Unilever has reported a leap of 37% in earnings per share to EUR3.88 (US$4.65), despite continued challenges in Western Europe.

The group reported 2005 operating profits up 25% to EUR5.314bn on overall turnover up 2.9%, while group underlying sales for the year rose 3.1%.
Net profit and EPS from continuing operations both increased by 21% and 22% respectively in the year.

In Europe, the company said volume had been slightly positive (compared with a 2% decline in 2004), but investment in pricing meant that underlying sales declined by 0.8% in the year.

Central and Eastern Europe performed well, notably in Russia which was ahead by nearly 20%, in buoyant markets. However, Western Europe was challenging, with continued weak consumer demand. The business grew in the Netherlands and Spain, but declined by around 2% in France and Germany and by nearly 4% in the UK.

“In Foods, we have held overall market share through the course of the year, with growth across all key categories apart from frozen foods,” a statement said.

In the Americas, underlying sales grew by 4%, all coming from volume gains, broadly based across the region, underpinned by what the company said was a successful innovation programme. In the fourth quarter, like-for-like sales growth was 5%.

“Consumer demand in the US showed a sustained recovery. Our sales in the US grew by 3.2%, accelerating through the year, and we gained market share in aggregate.

In Brazil and Mexico, a strong first half was followed by relatively weaker demand in the second half of the year. We grew in line with our markets in Home and Personal Care, but saw some share loss in Foods,” a statement said.

“Another strong Foods performance in the US was driven by further share gains in ice cream, continued good results from the extension of the Country Crock and Bertolli brands into new categories, and from Lipton Ready-to-Drink and speciality teas. Slim Fast continued to regain share, but in a much contracted weight management market and sales were well below the previous year.”

In Asia, underlying sales grew by 9%. In the fourth quarter, like-for-like sales growth was 10%.

“The growth was broad-based in terms of both categories and geographies. There were notable performances in all major developing and emerging countries, including a strong recovery in India with market share gains, and significant contributions from China, which was up by over 20%, and from South East Asia, Turkey and Arabia. Japan returned to growth. After a weak first half, Australia improved in the second half of the year.

Most of the increase came from volume, but price growth gained momentum through the year, as we moved to selectively recover increased commodity costs, especially in home care,” the company said.