UPDATE 2-SGS shares jump after dividend hike and growth forecast
* SGS sees annual sales growth of 6-9 pct over next 3 yrs
* To pay dividend of 65 Sfr, up 12 percent
* FY net income up 13 pct to 600 mln Sfr vs f'cast 611 mln
* Sales 5.8 bln Sfr vs 5.9 bln forecast
* Shares up 5.3 pct, hit three-month high (Rewrites first paragraph, adds detail, analyst comment, shares)
By Alice Baghdjian
ZURICH, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Swiss testing and inspection firm SGS has underscored its financial strength with a 12 percent dividend hike and a forecast of annual revenue growth of up to 9 percent through the next three years, sending its shares to a three-month high.
Testing and inspection companies like SGS are benefiting from increasing regulation in many sectors, though they were hit by the sluggish European economy and a downturn in the mining industry that has curbed demand for minerals testing.
SGS, whose activities range from food safety to testing London's black cabs, had warned in July it may fall short of growth forecasts set out in 2010, so its latest projection was seen as a demonstration of its underlying qualities.
"Minerals (testing) in the second half was not so catastrophic as expected by the market ... SGS remains the absolute sector star performer in consumer testing services," said analyst Jean-Philippe Bertschy at banking group Vontobel, who has a "buy" rating on the stock.
"SGS remains a cash machine, on track to achieve a return on invested capital of 30 percent in the next years," Bertschy added.
SGS, the world's biggest in a sector that also includes Britain's Intertek and France-based Bureau Veritas , set a target for sales growth excluding acquisitions of between 6 and 9 percent per year, more modest than its previous forecast of 11.3 percent per year to reach 8 billion Swiss francs by 2014.
But analyst Chris Burger at brokerage Helvea said the old target had been unrealistic, whereas the new goal was in line with rival Bureau Veritas's 6 to 8 percent forecast.
SGS also said it would pay a dividend of 65 francs per share for 2013, up from 58 the year before, which Vontobel's Bertschy said showed the firm's confidence in future cash flow.
The lastest outlook from SGS comes after Intertek told investors in November that first-half headwinds had continued in the latter part of the year, but that these should ease in 2014.
SGS, which has more than 80,000 employees, said it would continue looking for growth opportunities in emerging markets while keeping a tight control over costs and efficiency in mature markets such as Europe.
The company said it would continue to deliver top-line and bottom-line growth in 2014, although it acknowledged economic recovery in Europe would be limited and the mining exploration sector was unlikely to regain momentum in the next 12 months.
SGS also said full-year sales rose to 5.8 billion francs, just falling short of an average 5.9 billion forecast in a Reuters poll. Net income rose 13 percent to 600 million francs, just short of forecasts for 611 million.
By 0951 GMT SGS shares had jumped 5.3 percent to 2,139 francs, making them the best performers in the Swiss blue-chip index. The stock rose as high as 2,171 francs, its highest since early October