(Adds details from conference call, stock price, background)
By Phil Wahba
Aug 28 (Reuters) - Zale Corp posted higher-than-expected fourth-quarter comparable sales on Wednesday, led by big gains at its flagship chain, and reported its first profitable fiscal year since the financial crisis in 2008.
Shares soared as much as 23.7 percent to $11.08, reaching their highest since November 2008, when the financial crisis decimated sales of mid-priced jewelry. The stock has nearly tripled since April.
For the new fiscal year, the company expects more revenue gains despite the expected closing of about 50 more stores as it continues to pare unprofitable locations. Zale has about 1,076 jewelry stores and operates Zales and Gordon’s Jewelers among other chains.
Zale, which three years suffered a liquidity crunch after sales collapsed, said same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, rose 5.6 percent overall. Sales increased 8.1 percent at its Zales stores, its biggest business by far.
Analysts expected a gain of 4 percent for the whole company, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
That comes on top of an 8.3 percent companywide same-store sales increase in the year-earlier quarter.
Overall revenue rose 2.5 percent to $417.1 million in the quarter.
The company’s turnaround began in 2010, when Zale got a $150 million lifeline from private equity firm Golden Gate Capital, and sales began improving.
Since then, Zale’s business has gotten a lift from adding exclusive lines that offer higher margins. In 2012, Zale introduced Vera Wang Love, and this year it will expand its Celebration Fire collection to 600 stores from 220.
“This is an area for enormous growth in both margin and sales,” Chief Executive Theo Killion told analysts on a conference call.
Last month, it signed a deal for branded credit cards with Alliance Data Systems Corp that Zale said will offer it better terms than one with Citi. The program will begin no later than October 2015.
Zale has also been paying down debt, helping to lower interest expenses. Long-term debt fell to $410.1 million in the quarter from $452.9 million a year earlier.
The quarterly net loss narrowed to $8 million, or 25 cents per share, for the quarter ended July 31, from $19.7 million, or 61 cents per share, a year earlier. But Zale was still able to post a full-year profit.
In Canada, where Zale operates Peoples Jewellers and Mappins Jewellers, same-store sales rose 3.3 percent.
The stock was up $1.79, or 20 percent, to $10.75 in mid-morning trade. (Reporting by Phil Wahba in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)