UPDATE 2-Campari first-quarter pretax almost halves as sales edge lower
* Q1 pretax down 47.4 percent to 20.7 mln euros
* Organic sales drop 3 pct
* April sales grow at "low-mid single digit" rate
* Shares down over 4 pct, hit lowest in a month (Rewrites first paragraph, updates shares, adds reiteration of margin guidance, quotes from CFO and CEO, detail)
By Isla Binnie and Maria Pia Quaglia
MILAN, May 13 (Reuters) - Italian drinks group Campari said pretax profit almost halved in the first quarter as sales of its spirits and sparkling wines fell, potentially putting it on course for a fourth year in which earnings have shown little or no increase.
Its shares fell more than 4 percent to their lowest in over a month and were briefly suspended from trading after the results were released.
The maker of the eponymous bitter red aperitif, as well as the Aperol and Cinzano brands, said organic or self-generated sales dropped 3 percent in the period, although sales returned to a low- to mid-single digit growth rate by the end of April.
A Milan-based analyst who declined to be named said the results were disappointing, noting organic sales growth had also been negative in the first quarter of 2013.
Campari has been active on the acquisition trail this year, announcing deals to buy Sicilian spirits maker Fratelli Averna in April and Canada's Forty Creek Distillery in March, and the analyst said this could be at least partly to make up for a lack of growth elsewhere.
"They look like they are doing (buys) ... like Averna because their underlying business does not grow anymore," the analyst said. "2014 is likely to be the fourth year with no earnings growth."
The drop in sales was exacerbated by a 24 percent decline in like-for-like terms in Russia, where the group makes around 2.5 percent of total sales. The fall was due to unpaid deliveries rather than lower demand from consumers there, Chief Executive Bob Kunze-Concewitz said on a conference call.
"This is much more about collecting the cash for what we sold previously ... our local team feels pretty good about the prospects of our business from a consumption standpoint," he said. "It's not the easiest corner of the world right now, so we're not making any predictions, but we'll follow it very closely."
Chief Financial Officer Paolo Marchesini reiterated that the company expected EBIT (earnings before interest and tax) as a percentage of net sales to remain flat, as a forecast 80 basis point increase in gross margin would be re-invested in advertising and promotion.
Marchesini said on the conference call the company would give formal guidance when it releases half-year results in August, but suggested the overall trends were positive.
"On the back of the bouncing back of the top line in the month of April with respect to March ... we're in a much better spot now," Marchesini said.
Pretax profit fell to 20.7 million euros ($28.5 million) in the three months through March, down 47.4 percent on the year before. Devaluation in most of the currencies it uses cost the group, which also makes Cinzano sparkling wines, a 6.7 percent decline in net revenue.
The impact of exchange rates was particularly sharp in the Americas, carving 11.4 percent off sales which dropped 16.5 percent in a market which accounts for 41 percent of revenue.
Kunze-Concewitz said in a statement the forex outlook remained challenging for the remainder of the year but the company expected to gradually strengthen its underlying business.
Italian sales continued an uptick which began in the second half of last year, mirroring a fledgling recovery in Italy's economy. Organic sales rose 5.2 percent, boosted by sales of Campari and non-alcoholic Crodino, which the company is relaunching in its home market.
The stock was down 3.6 percent at 5.98 euros by 1448 GMT, after falling as low as 5.87 euros, its lowest since early April. ($1 = 0.7270 Euros) (Editing by Louise Heavens and David Holmes)