A growing number of super-rich Chinese puffing away on Imperial Tobacco’s luxury Cuban cigars helped the Montecristo maker deliver better than expected sales for the last three months of 2010.
The Bristol- based firm behind Lambert & Butler and Golden Virginia surprised the market with a return to Imperial sales growth following a difficult 12 months in which fewer smokers sparked up in Russia, Spain and the Ukraine.
Demand for value brands and sales of its products in emerging markets boosted cigarette volumes, up 0.5pc, and total stick volumes (cigarette and fine-cut tobacco), up 1.2pc.
The recovery in trading was led by strong growth in eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East while its mature markets in western Europe provided good revenue growth.
This prompted chief executive Alison Cooper to increase the dividend ratio from 47.1pc to 50pc of adjusted earnings for 2011 – a return to levels last seen prior to the £10.7bn purchase of Spain’s Altadis in 2007.
Investors were pleased with the good news, sending the shares up 106p to 1900p. Martin Deboo, an analyst at broker Investec, said: ‘We think the market will be reassured by the improved volume performance and the earnings and dividend upgrade. While we think the company continuesto have structural issues… we view this as a solid statement.’
During last year, volumes fell as smokers switched to both cheaper and counterfeit cigarettes during the downturn.
But Imperial implemented a series of self-help measures, hiking prices and driving sales of its loose, fine-cut tobacco. Hard- up smokers also migrated to cheaper roll-up cigarettes and Imperial cashed in with sales of its Rizla rolling papers.
At the premium end, sales of its cigars, which include Cohiba, enjoyed an ‘excellent first quarter’. The firm saw revenue and volume growth in a number of markets including Russia, Brazil, the Middle East and Asia.
Cooper, a cigar- chomping mother of two, said: ‘We made a good start to the year. We continue to focus on strengthening our position in markets where challenges persist, particularly in Spain and Greece, whilst managing costs.’
However, Spain continues to be a problem area for Cooper. An increase in cigarette duty and a ban on smoking in public places introduced in January have hit volumes.
Imperial saw volumes for cigarette and fine cut tobacco down 10pc at 78.1bn sticks in Spain.