* H1 sales 4.91 bln euros, up 3 pct on underlying basis
* H1 operating profit 1.459 bln euros, up 1 pct
* CEO says group could make bolt-on deals in next 2 years
* Shares rise 1.6 pct (Adds CEO comments, share price, analyst comment)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, Feb 14 (Reuters) - French spirits maker Pernod Ricard stuck with a target of full-year profit growth this year, betting that robust Asian demand and strong growth in the United States would offset a sales decline in France and Spain.
The world’s second-biggest spirits group behind Britain’s Diageo is making headway with efforts to cut its debt and said it could make small bolt-on acquisitions in the United States and in emerging countries in the next two years.
Recent updates for other spirits makers including Diageo have confirmed a worsening trading environment in crisis-hit southern Europe.
Emerging markets make up about 40 percent of sales for Pernod and Diageo and both are trying to increase that to 50 percent by 2015 to counter the tough times in Europe.
Pernod, the owner of Mumm champagne, Absolut vodka and Martell cognac, said on Thursday it still expected underlying operating profit growth of close to 6 perecnt in the year to June, slowing from 9 percent in the previous year.
Goldman Sachs analysts said in a note they believed Pernod’s guidance was “conservative”.
“Consensus currently has 7.3 percent and Goldman Sachs is 8.7 percent,” the brokerage said in a note.
Like smaller French peer Remy Cointreau, Pernod suffered in the October-to-December quarter from unfavourable comparisons with the year-earlier period, which was boosted by French buying ahead of an increase in excise duty and an early Chinese New Year.
Paris-based Pernod said those factors were now behind the company and Chief Executive Pierre Pringuet told Reuters that trading was good in January, notably in Spain, where sales had fallen 9 percent in the first half of Pernod’s financial year.
First-half sales reached 4.907 billion euros ($6.59 billion), an underlying rise of 3 percent, while underlying operating profit grew 1 percent to 1.459 billion, Pernod said.
Analyst forecasts compiled by the company were for sales of 4.886 billion euros and operating profit of 1.442 billion.
By 1125 GMT, Pernod shares, which have outperformed the European sector this year, were up 1.6 percent.
Strong cash flow generation helped cut net debt by 215 million euros to 9.148 billion, while net debt to EBITDA ratio was unchanged at 3.8 at end-December. That ratio should further decline by the end of June, Pringuet said.
Since its last large acquisition - the purchase of Swedish group Vin & Sprit, owner of Absolut Vodka, in 2008 for 5.7 billion euros ($7.66 billion) - Pernod Ricard has been focusing on cutting debt.
“We could do tactical acquisitions in the next two years, maybe strategic acquisitions after that,” Pringuet told Reuters.
Pernod’s market share in the U.S is 11-12 percent, which lags its global market share of around 16-17 percent, he added.
“Anything that could beef up our size in the United States is welcome but it must be in line with our strategy to focus on premium brands in the wines and spirits sector,” he said.
In the U.S., market speculation has centered around Diageo buying Beam Inc, maker of Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek bourbons, but Pernod Ricard and privately-held Bacardi are also viewed as potential buyers. (Editing by Mark John and Tom Pfeiffer)