* Earnings of $1.41/share top Wall Street view of $1.40
* Sales of $4.29 billion vs Street view $4.31 billion
* Venezuela crimps volume, gross margin in Latin America
By Jessica Wohl
Jan 31 (Reuters) - Colgate-Palmolive Co said on Thursday a key measure of sales growth slowed for the second quarter in a row as the company faced increased pressures in Venezuela, including a labor slowdown at its factory there which has since been taken care of.
Shares of the toothpaste maker fell as much as 3.7 percent, even as fourth-quarter profit rose slightly more than expected. The stock is up 6 percent so far this month after rising 13.2 percent in 2012, and some analysts suggested investors use the weakness as a buying opportunity.
The company’s results in Latin America were disappointing, due largely to economic and labor problems in Venezuela, which accounts for about 5 percent of total sales.
Colgate also faces tougher competition in Latin America from Procter & Gamble Co, particularly in toothpaste and toothbrushes, though Colgate said it is still well ahead of its rival in countries such as Brazil and Mexico.
Organic sales, which strip out the effects of foreign exchange fluctuations, acquisitions and divestitures, rose 4 percent in the quarter. Organic sales rose 5 percent in the third quarter and 8 percent in the second quarter.
Excluding Venezuela, organic sales growth would have been almost 1.5 percentage points higher in the latest quarter, Colgate said.
Colgate still executes “very well on a number of fronts, though this seems to be reflected in the shares,” said Oppenheimer analyst Joseph Altobello.
He kept a “perform” rating on the stock, adding that investors should “act opportunistically on pullbacks.”
Colgate shares were down 2.6 percent at $107.92 after falling as low as $106.74.
Meanwhile, Energizer Holdings Inc, which competes with P&G and is also cutting jobs, topped expectations even as sales declined. Its shares fell 1.4 percent to $87.05, recovering from a steeper drop earlier in the day.
Colgate’s sales rose 1.5 percent as volume fell 1.5 percent and prices increased 5 percent in Latin America - Colgate’s biggest market with 29 percent of overall sales.
Organic sales in Latin America rose 4 percent, considerably less than the 9 percent rise posted in the third quarter and 14.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011.
“What was striking to us in the quarter was the significant toll that the tough Venezuelan operating environment had on the firm’s results,” said Morningstar analyst Erin Lash.
An increasingly difficult economic and labor environment in Venezuela hurt both volume and gross profit, Colgate said. The company dealt with a labor slowdown at its Venezuelan factory during the quarter and believes a number of other companies faced labor issues there as well.
Venezuelan business leaders have complained that the uncertainty over President Hugo Chavez’s prolonged absence, saying policy decisions have led to growing economic imbalances.
A devaluation of the bolivar currency would make Venezuelan exports more competitive by lowering local production costs and spur domestic industries by making imports less competitive.
Operations in Venezuela are basically back to historical levels and sales have bounced back to levels seen consistent with Colgate’s plans, Chief Executive Officer Ian Cook said on a conference call.
Colgate, which has said it will cut about 6 percent of its workforce in a restructuring announced in October, spent more on advertising for its toothpaste and other products.
It earned $598 million, or $1.26 per share, in the fourth quarter, up slightly from $590 million, or $1.21 per share, in the quarter a year earlier.
Excluding after tax charges from the restructuring and costs from the sale of land in Mexico, Colgate earned $1.41 per share, topping analysts’ average estimate of $1.40, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Sales rose 2.5 percent to $4.29 billion, missing analysts’ target of $4.31 billion. The volume of goods sold increased 1.5 percent and prices rose 2.5 percent.
Colgate expects 2013 earnings to grow at a double-digit clip, excluding factors such as restructuring charges and potential currency devaluations or macroeconomic changes.
It also still expects organic sales to rise about 6 percent to 7 percent this year.
The 2012 restructuring plan, including a 6 percent reduction in the workforce by the end of 2016, is on track, Colgate said. It plans to take $775 million to $875 million in aftertax restructuring charges and expects to save $275 million to $325 million aftertax annually by the fourth year of the plan.