UPDATE 1-Chocolate maker Barry Callebaut sales volume growth slows in first nine months
* Nine-month sales volumes rise 2.4 pct on stand-alone basis
* Barry blames low cocoa price, profitability focus on slowdown
* Confirms mid-term targets (Adds CFO quotes, details)
ZURICH, July 3 (Reuters) - Barry Callebaut, the world's biggest chocolate maker, said on Thursday sales volumes growth slowed to 2.4 percent in the nine months to the end of May.
The Zurich-based company, which makes chocolate for Nestle , Unilever and Mondelez among others, is benefiting from a trend among big food groups to outsource chocolate production.
But a lull in outsourcing deals in recent months and a focus on profitability in Western Europe has kept volume growth at Barry Callebaut below that of levels seen in earlier years.
Low cocoa powder prices also discouraged aggressive expansion of production.
"As we continue to focus on increasing our product margins, we concentrated on selective growth in developed markets," Chief Executive Juergen Steinemann said in a statement.
On a stand-alone basis, nine-month sales volumes rose 2.4 percent. This was below the group's mid-term target of 6-8 percent per year, and slower than the 3.1 percent achieved in the first half of the year.
Including the cocoa business acquired from Petra Foods at the end of 2012 and consolidated since July 2013, sales volumes grew 15.8 percent.
Chief Financial Officer Victor Balli attributed the slower stand-alone volume growth to the company's reluctance to push cocoa powder volumes given the relatively low price levels and a focus on profitability in Western Europe.
"Another reason why we slowed down a bit was also because we didn't implement larger outsourcing deals in the last months, but we have a few upcoming which we will now implement," Balli said in an interview, adding the outsourcing pipelines look "very attractive".
On top of industrial production, Barry Callebaut also supplies restaurants, bakeries and catering services with 'gourmet' chocolate products, a high-margin business that grew 6.9 percent in the first nine months of the financial year.
Balli said the gourmet business and emerging markets, where volumes surged 63 percent, would continue to drive growth. In Western Europe, volumes slipped 0.2 percent as the company focused on improving product margins.
Barry Callebaut confirmed its mid-term targets for 6-8 percent average volume growth per year and to restore profitability to pre-acquisition levels by 2015/16. (Reporting by Caroline Copley; Editing by Susan Fenton)