* Raises dividend for first time since 2008
* Eyes further improvement in group profits for 2018
* CEO rules out new round of telecoms merger talks (Adds CEO comments, Altice shares reaction)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Bouygues surprised investors with its first dividend increase since 2008 as growth in its main construction, media and telecoms businesses helped it to deliver forecast-beating annual profit.
The family-controlled group also predicted another increase in earnings for 2018, helping to push its shares 1 percent higher by 1311 GMT.
The telecoms business, France’s third-biggest mobile operator which Bouygues failed to merge with market leader Orange in 2016, enjoyed profitable growth with a free cash flow target of 300 million euros ($368 million) in 2019.
Bouygues, which also builds roads and owns France’s biggest private TV company, TF1, said 2017 current operating profits rose to 1.420 billion euros from 1.121 billion in 2016.
Sales rose 4 percent to 32.904 billion euros last year, while Bouygues also increased its dividend to 1.70 euros-per-share from 1.60 euros last year.
Analysts polled by Inquiry Financial for Reuters predicted operating profits of 1.405 billion euros on sales of 32.450 billion euros, with a dividend of 1.60 euros.
Analysts at Jefferies said its results showed “positive momentum” and they kept a “buy” rating on the stock.
Bouygues’ construction arm, which makes the bulk of group sales, had a record order book at the end of December of 31.9 billion euros, benefiting from major infrastructure projects in France such as the “Grand Paris” expansion plan for the capital.
The company’s telecoms division also performed well, beating profit margin targets and fuelling speculation that Bouygues might take part in a new round of merger talks — this time targeting Altice’s struggling division SFR.
“This is nonsense,” Bouygues’s chief executive Martin Bouygues told analysts, referring to a new attempt to consolidate the French telecoms market.
“I won’t be leading any consolidation whatsoever. Let us be very clear,” he said.
Shares of Altice accelerated their fall after his comments and were down by 5.6 percent at 1311 GMT.
France’s telecoms sector, hit by a price war following the entrance of low-cost player Iliad in 2012, has been the subject of takeover speculation in recent years.
But Bouygues Telecom has said it can prosper on its own and has responded with a turnaround plan including job cuts and a focus on the rollout of its 4G network and fixed-line broadband, helping it win new customers.
On Wednesday, Orange said growth in annual sales helped to lift its operating earnings and convince management to increase the annual dividend for 2018 by five cents.
Orange boss Stephane Richard has also ruled out leading new talks between French telecom operators, with a view to cutting the number of players from four to three. ($1 = 0.8151 euros) (Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Additional reporting Blandine Henault and Mathieu Rosemain; Editing by Keith Weir and Jon Boyle)