UPDATE 3-Pão de Açúcar beats profit forecasts on cost-cutting
* Net income rises 36 percent, shares touch all-time high * Stronger profit margins offset softer same-store sales * CEO sees more than 150 new store openings in 2013 By Brad Haynes SAO PAULO, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Shares of Grupo Pão de Açúcar touched an all-time high on Wednesday after Brazil's biggest retailer beat profit forecasts by cutting costs in the face of slowing sales. Net income rose 36 percent to 539 million reais ($275 million) in the fourth-quarter from a year earlier, the company said on Wednesday. That beat the average forecast of 408 million reais in a Reuters poll of six analysts. Pão de Açúcar improved profitability even as faster inflation and growing consumer debts weighed on demand, highlighting its dominant market position and budget discipline. Shares of Pão de Açúcar rose 2.3 percent in Sao Paulo trading to 98.57 reais, after hitting an intraday record of 99 reais early in the session. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization rose 34 percent to 1.323 billion reais, above an average estimate of 1.2 billion reais. Pão de Açúcar had already warned of lackluster sales for the period. Sales at its food and home electronics stores open for at least 12 months rose from a year earlier at their slowest pace since early 2009. But cost cuts in the ViaVarejo appliance unit and a more profitable sales mix at supermarkets helped to lift profit margins. EBITDA as a share of net revenue rose 1.7 percentage points to 9.1 percent. In November the company had declined to comment on reports of plans to cut 98 million reais from the security and transportation budget for the Diniz and Klein families, which founded Pão de Açúcar and home furnishings unit Casas Bahia. Earnings on Wednesday showed a reduction of 95 million reais in "other operating expenses" in the quarter. French group Casino took control of the Brazilian retailer from its founding families in June and has since asserted increasing influence over management. SPEEDING EXPANSION Pão de Açúcar nearly doubled investments in new stores last year, and Chief Executive Eneas Pestana said in a note to shareholders that the company was just getting started. "The rising investment in 2012 signals the beginning of a sustained cycle of investments in new stores over the coming years," he said. The group plans to open at least 150 new stores this year, Pestana told analysts on a conference call, adding 160,000 square meters (1.72 million square feet) to its sales area. The retailer opened about 100 new stores in 2012. Pão de Açúcar already announced plans to open 100 new Minimercado Extra stores in 2013, with a focus on northeast and midwest Brazil, where it has a smaller presence. Convinced they can outperform a cooling market, Brazil's biggest retailers are set to expand their floor space more than their sales this year, analysts say, heightening competition and threatening their hard-won profit margins. Pão de Açúcar said it would finance investments this year with cash from operations and it expected to reduce its cash position from nearly 7 billion reais at the end of 2012. Deals with real estate developers added 55 million reais to revenue in the fourth quarter, and Pestana told analysts he saw "excellent opportunities" to unlock more value from the group's land holdings.
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