Anglo-Dutch manufacturer Unilever has posted turnover increases of 4.4% in the first nine months of 2006, with 3.9% underlying sales growth, buoyed by third quarter ice cream category increases and key market growth in Europe and the Americas.

In the company’s third quarter, underlying sales grew by 4.8%.

Pricing has made an increasing contribution with 0.9% in the first nine months and 1.2% in the quarter at Unilever, which said that all regions and categories grew in both the year to date and the quarter, the company said.

A strong third quarter for European ice cream added 0.4% to overall third quarter growth and made up for a relatively weak start to the ice cream season for Unilever.

In Europe, the firm’s largest source of sales, underlying sales grew by 1.4% in the first nine months, and by 3.5% in the third quarter, with the impact of Vitality-led innovation in savoury, spreads and leaf tea identified as key drivers for the improvement.

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Unilever’s group chief executive Patrick Cescau said: “We continue to see good progress with another quarter of broad-based growth. All categories and regions grew, with a notable contribution from Europe. Stronger innovation and additional investment behind our priorities are driving the growth of our brands.”

The company’s operating margin for the first nine months of the year, at 14.5%, was 0.3 percentage points higher than a year ago, while the quarter at 14.8% was 0.8 percentage points lower.

Investment behind the manufacturer’s brands has been stepped up in priority categories and regions, and advertising and promotions as a percentage of turnover increased by 0.6 points in the first nine months of 2006 and by 0.8 points in the third quarter.

Net profit from continuing operations increased by 5% in the first nine months and decreased by 22% in the quarter, following the preference shares provision.

However, net profit including discontinued operations was down by 45% in the quarter, additionally reflecting the profit on disposal of UCI in the third quarter of last year.

The sale of Unilever’s European frozen foods businesses is now expected to complete very shortly, for a price at the top end of the company’s expectations. Having not invested any significant amounts in acquisitions, Unilever has decided to return an additional EUR250m to shareholders this year over and above the firm’s originally planned EUR500m share buy-back, and offered a one-off dividend of EUR750m to be paid at the same time as the normal interim dividend.

Looking forward, Unilever also plans a share buyback programme of EUR1.5bn, commencing in 2007.

Cescau added: “I am pleased with the sustained improvement in the top line, maintaining the momentum of the first half. Looking ahead our priority is to improve our operating margin, while delivering our growth ambitions. We are confident we will achieve this through a combination of savings, mix improvement and appropriate pricing actions.”

Unilever’s share price has jumped 4.33% to GBP13.50 following the announcement, from a close of GBP12.94 on the London Stock Exchange yesterday (1 November).