UPDATE 1-AkzoNobel to speed up cost cutting, sets new targets

Wed Feb 20, 2013 2:04am EST

(Adds details of strategy, quotes)

AMSTERDAM Feb 20 (Reuters) - The new chief executive of AkzoNobel NV said on Wednesday the Dutch paints and chemicals group would speed up cost-cutting and focus on improving returns and cash generation over the next three years.

It will aim for a return on sales of 9 percent, return on investment of 14 percent by the end of 2015, and a ratio of net debt to EBITDA - earnings before interest, tax and depreciation - of less than 2.0 times, all by the end of 2015.

AkzoNobel's results over recent quarters have been hit by fragile consumer demand and weak housing markets in the United States and Europe, as well as high costs for raw materials such as titanium dioxide, a pigment used in paint.

In the last six months, it has taken a huge writedown on its purchase of Dulux paint maker ICI and sold its struggling North American decorative paints arm to U.S. rival PPG Industries for $1.1 billion to focus on its larger European and faster-growing businesses.

Ton Buechner, who took over from Hans Wijers as chief executive in April 2012, had originally planned to outline his strategy alongside the third-quarter results last year, but had to postpone the announcement when he went on medical leave.

"AkzoNobel's new financial targets are designed to drive operational excellence, cash generation and accountability and demonstrate a clear focus on creating value for shareholders," the company said in a statement.

AkzoNobel shares trade at a discount to those of its U.S. rivals PPG Industries and Sherwin-Williams, based on Starmine's SmartEstimates for the price-earnings (P/E) ratio and for the ratio of enterprise value (EV) to EBITDA.

AkzoNobel said it would complete its EBITDA improvement plan in 2013, a year early, delivering 500 million euros in EBITDA gains at a cost of 205 million euros.

It said it has delivered structural EBITDA gains of 250 million euros so far since the launch of the program in late 2011, while one-off costs amounted to 292 million euros.

AkzoNobel, which also makes coatings for cars, aircraft and ships, and specialty chemicals such as those used in the pulp and paper industry, reported fourth-quarter EBITDA of 363 million euros, slightly up from a year ago, and a quarterly net loss of 59 million euros, on revenue of 3.67 billion euros.

Analysts in a poll commissioned by Reuters had expected EBITDA before one-off items of 355 million euros, net profit of 44.5 million euros, and revenue of 3.89 billion euros. (Reporting by Sara Webb; Editing by Mark Potter)