* Could spend up to 400 mln Sfr on buying low-cost players
* H1 net profit 54 mln Swiss francs vs 37 mln forecast
* Net sales 355 mln francs vs 350 mln in poll
* Says on track to improve profitability in 2013
* Shares rise 5.7 pct, outperform sector (Recasts, adds CEO comments from interview, analyst, shares)
By Caroline Copley
ZURICH, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Straumann, the world’s largest maker of dental implants, could spend over $400 million on buying cheaper rivals, signalling a desire to grab back market share from low-cost competitors.
Faced with sluggish demand in its main market of Europe, analysts and investors have urged Straumann and fellow premium rival Nobel Biocare to develop cheaper brands to compete in the fast-growing area of the market, which now accounts for roughly 60 percent of volumes.
Chief Executive Marco Gadola, who took the helm in April, said Straumann was looking at acquiring discount players in growing markets, such as China, and could spend up to 400 million Swiss francs ($432.5 million).
Last year, Straumann bought a 49 percent stake in Brazil’s Neodent to tap into the low-cost market which is developing faster than the premium segment.
“With the exception of Neodent in Brazil, we have been limiting ourselves so far to the premium segment. However, we also realise we cannot ignore the value segment and we have to do more to penetrate this part of the market,” Gadola told Reuters in an interview.
Income from its investments in Neodent and Dental Wings, as well as a one-off pension gain helped net profit jump 21 percent in the first-half to 54 million Swiss francs ($58 million), beating the Reuters analyst consensus of 37 million.
Sales slipped 2 percent to 355 million francs, but came in slightly ahead of the average analyst forecast. Straumann said business had started to pick up in the second quarter after a soft start to the year.
But the company expects further declines in Europe - which makes up 55 percent of group sales - to weigh on full-year revenues, which will probably not exceed last year’s level.
“Q2 sales growth, clearly ahead of the market, is most pleasing and contradicts fears about market share losses as a result of the restructuring program,” Credit Suisse analyst Christoph Gretler, who has an ‘outperform’ rating, said in a note.
Shares in Straumann, which have gained more than 30 percent so far this year, were up 5.7 percent at 161.70 francs by 0907 GMT, outperforming a flat European healthcare sector index .
Other analysts said Straumann’s valuation remained demanding given the expectation for no full-year growth and investments needed in the value market.
The stock trades at 21.5 times forward earnings, against a peer average of 19.1 times, Thomson Reuters data shows.
The most popular markets for dental implants - Spain, Portugal and Italy - were among the hardest hit in the financial crisis and consumers have cut back on cosmetic dentistry.
Sales in Europe fell 3 percent in the first half, but increased 1.8 percent in the second-quarter, boosted by two extra trading days.
Gadola was optimistic that Spain and Italy may be reaching a turning point and said the company did not anticipate significant negative economic growth in these markets in 2014.
The Swiss company has reduced costs and cut jobs as it seeks to grow profit despite sluggish demand and said it would shed a further 8 percent of its workforce in April.
It booked a 13-million-franc restructuring charge in the first half and said it expects a further charge of between 3 and 5 million in the second.
Straumann said it was confident cost savings would bear fruit in the third quarter and help it to improve full-year profit. It also confirmed its medium-term outlook for a return to solid growth and a significantly higher operating margin. ($1 = 0.9250 Swiss francs) (Editing by David Goodman and Elizabeth Piper)