4 Min Read
* Affirms 2014 outlook for higher revenue, operating profit
* Q1 operating profit 50 mln euros vs poll avg 16.9 mln
* Q1 revenue 2.75 bln euros vs poll avg 2.66 bln
* Favourable weather in Europe boosts sales
* CEO says eyes acquisition opportunities from Lafarge/Holcim merger
* Shares drop 1.96 percent (Releads, changes dateline, adds quotes from CEO and analyst)
By Ilona Wissenbach and Marilyn Gerlach
HEIDELBERG, Germany, May 7 (Reuters) - HeidelbergCement could seize opportunities to snap up assets from rivals Lafarge and Holcim which may be forced into disposals to get the go-ahead from regulators for their planned merger.
Holcim and Lafarge, the world's two leading cement makers in terms of sales, agreed last month to the industry's biggest-ever merger, which should helped reduce overcapacity that has plagued the sector in recent years.
Competition watchdogs are expected to examine the deal, which will create a global cement player with $44 billion in annual sales and a market value close to $60 billion.
To appease the regulators, Lafarge and Holcim expect to sell assets worth 5 billion euros ($6.97 billion) in annual sales, mainly in Western Europe.
"That certainly presents an opportunity for HeidelbergCement to do something," Chief Executive Bernd Scheifele told the firm's annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday.
He added that he could not comment further because the two companies had not yet formally presented their plans to European antitrust authorities.
HeidelbergCement, the global No. 3, is selling non-core assets and slashing costs to trim debt racked up as it expanded before the financial crisis curbed construction in rich countries.
It confirmed its 2014 forecast for higher revenue and operating income and reiterated plans to regain its investment grade rating as it posted a more than five-fold rise in quarterly operating income on Wednesday, helped by favourable weather that offset negative currency swings.
Operating income jumped to 50 million euros from the year-earlier period, beating the average estimate of 16.9 million in a Reuters poll of analysts.
The firm's shares fell 3.2 percent at one point on Wednesday to their lowest level in six weeks, with some analysts saying it should have made more profit from a mild winter in Europe.
The stock was down 1.96 percent at 1252 GMT, underperforming the STOXX 600 Construction and Materials Index which was down 1.2 pct and the Frankfurt blue-chip index GDAXI> which was up 0.51 percent.
Analyst Marc Gabriel of Bankhaus Lampe said the company had benefited from the mild weather, which allowed some construction activity to begin earlier in the year. "But we are seeing this (as) a pull-forward effect. One should not believe that this development continues in the course of the year," he said.
The firm said it would continue to be disciplined in spending this year, having failed to cut debt as of the end of 2013 compared with the end of 2012, due to higher investments, currency losses and the payment of a German cartel fine.
Net debt was 7.958 billion euros as of March 31, down from the year-earlier figure of 7.611 billion.
It also said it would focus "more intensively" on selling its building products business in the UK and North America, while investing to expand cement capacities in emerging markets.
Scheifele told shareholders the sale process would start in the second half of this year but that it was not clear yet if a deal could be struck before the end of the year. "We have a good chance to sell the business for a good price," he said.
The business, which has about 1 billion euros in annual sales, makes bricks, concrete pipes, precast concrete parts, and roof tiles.
U.S. and British residential and construction markets are forecast to continue a recovery that allowed cement makers to increase prices in the first quarter.
$1 = 0.7177 euros Editing by Pravin Char