UPDATE 2-SGS fishing for marine acquisition as growth slows

Thu Jul 17, 2014 9:27am EDT

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(Adds quotes, details from news conference)

By Tom Miles

GENEVA, July 17 (Reuters) - The world's largest testing and inspection company, SGS, is hunting for an acquisition in the marine sector to add to a portfolio of businesses slowed by weak demand for minerals services and a strong Swiss franc.

First-half net profit at SGS rose 6.3 percent to 255 million Swiss francs ($284 million), short of a forecast of 283 million francs in a Reuters poll of analysts.

"All of the businesses grew. Not all of them grew as much as we would like them to have done," Chief Executive Chris Kirk told a news conference. Sales would grow by around 6 percent in 2014, he said, at the bottom of a previous forecast range of 6-9 percent.

SGS shares were down 2.6 percent at 2,079 francs by 1318 GMT.

The Swiss company, whose activities range from food and toy safety tests to anti-corruption certification and vehicle inspections, wants to move into marine services, which Kirk said was a $300-$400 million business for most of its competitors.

Because of the technology involved, SGS would not be able to start a marine business from scratch, unlike its home-grown oil and gas unit, he said.

"In the marine business, I think I'm going to have to buy something. I don't know what. We look on an absolutely daily basis," Kirk said, adding that he had already looked at two or three potential targets.

Last year, SGS said it would not be able to meet ambitious growth targets set in 2010, including almost doubling sales by 2014. But it is pursuing acquisitions, snapping up small, highly specialised rivals almost every month.

It plans more in 2014, adding more in terms of sales than the businesses it has bought so far this year.

In the first half of 2014, SGS's sales were up 5.3 percent at 2.8 billion Swiss francs, driven by its oil, gas and chemicals segment. But sales for the minerals unit slumped 6 percent as mining firms cut operating and capital expenditure.

The cyclical downturn in mining has also hit SGS's peers, such as Britain's Intertek and France's Bureau Veritas .

SGS has cut 2,000 jobs in its minerals business in the past 18 months, including 400 jobs in the first half of 2014, which Kirk said should enable margins to improve later this year.

The firm was also expanding market share with new testing laboratories at existing mine sites, which were not reliant on new exploration expenditure, he said.

SGS is investing 50 million francs to expand into opportunities from the U.S. shale oil boom, and has about 100-150 people working in the Bakken field and in West Texas.

"We're putting a lot more in there," Kirk said.

But the switch from coal to gas was eroding SGS's U.S. coal business and causing a worldwide slowdown in coal exploration.

Another potential boon could be a global agreement on "trade facilitation" at the World Trade Organization, which would involve slashing red-tape at customs and expanding international standards for traded goods.

"We're waiting with baited breath," Kirk said, adding that he hoped the impact of a deal would come within 18 months. ($1 = 0.8980 Swiss Francs) (Additional reporting by Alice Baghdjian; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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