By Judy McKinnon
Fertilizer-maker Agrium Inc. (AGU) said late Thursday it had a record fourth-quarter profit, which came in well ahead of analyst expectations, as sales from its retail segment climbed 8%.
The Calgary, Alberta-based company, which is embroiled in a proxy battle with U.S. hedge fund Jana Partners, said net earnings rose to $354 million, or $2.34 a share, from $193 million, or $1.20 a share, a year earlier.
Results in the latest quarter were bolstered by gains totaling 18 cents a share, while year-earlier earnings included a loss from discontinued operations of 85 cents a share.
Excluding those items, Agrium earned $2.16 a share, up from $2.05 a year earlier. The Thomson Reuters mean estimate was for a profit of $2 a share, while Agrium itself had previously guided for $1.50-$1.90 a share, excluding any hedging gains or losses and share-based payment expenses.
Sales of $3.26 billion were up from $3.18 billion a year earlier, also beating the $3.20 billion analysts were expecting. Retail sales rose to a record $2.0 billion, Agrium said, while wholesale sales fell slightly due to weak international potash demand.
Late last year, Jana Partners proposed a slate of five new directors for election to Agrium's board. The New York hedge fund Thursday bumped up its stake in the fertilizer producer to 7.5% from 6.5%, saying it's "confident" it's going to prevail in the proxy battle. Agrium has said it believes it has "overwhelming" shareholder support. Shareholders will vote at Agrium's annual meeting April 9.
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