Marlboro maker Altria's profit more than doubles

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Marlboro maker Altria's profit more than doubled in the fourth quarter on higher cigarette prices and lower costs for paying down debt.

The owner of the nation's biggest cigarette maker, Philip Morris USA, said Friday the number of cigarettes it shipped fell nearly 2 percent to more than 31 billion cigarettes, but its share of the U.S. retail market rose 0.1 percentage points to 50.9 percent. Volumes of its premium Marlboro brand fell nearly 2 percent and its share of the retail U.S. market remained flat at 43.8 percent.

Higher prices and gains in its financial services division helped drive Altria's revenue up about 5 percent to $4.61 billion, excluding excise taxes. Analysts polled by Zacks Investment Research expected $4.51 billion.

Altria, based in Richmond, Virginia, posted earnings of $1.24 billion, or 63 cents per share, for the period ended Dec. 31, up from $488 million, or 24 cents a share, a year earlier.

Excluding one-time items, earnings were 66 cents per share, missing Wall Street expectations by a penny, according to Zacks.

Its shares fell 10 cents to $54.29 in morning trading Friday.

The company also said Friday that Dave Beran, its president and chief operating officer, plans to retire in March after 38 years with the company. CEO Marty Barrington's responsibilities will be expanded to include the role of president. Chief Financial Officer Howard Williard will become COO and William Gifford, an executive in strategy and business development, will become CFO.

The Marlboro brand has been under pressure from competitors and lower-priced cigarette brands. That's on top of the tax hikes, smoking bans and a social stigma that have made the cigarette business tougher. The brand sold for an average of $6.02 per pack during the fourth quarter, compared with an average of $4.55 per pack for the cheapest brand.

"We've been cautious for the last several years as you know, as we went through this difficult recession," Barrington said in a conference call with investors. "Our view is that the adult tobacco consumer is feeling better about their economic situation and their economic future and we expect some modest improvement in that over 2015."

Altria and others are focusing on cigarette alternatives — such as electronic cigarettes, cigars, snuff and chewing tobacco — for future sales growth because the decline in cigarette smoking is expected to continue.

Shipments of its smokeless tobacco brands such as Copenhagen and Skoal rose 1 percent and its market share grew to 55.3 percent. Volumes for its Black & Mild cigars increased 4 percent.

During the fourth quarter, Altria said it completed its national expansion of its MarkTen e-cigarette to more than 130,000 retail stores and was ranked among the top brands based on retail market share.

For the full year, Altria said it earned $5.07 billion, or $2.56 per share, compared with a profit of $4.53 billion, or $1.64 per share, a year ago. Revenue, excluding excise taxes, rose nearly 2 percent to $17.9 billion. Cigarette volumes fell 3 percent to about 125.4 billion cigarettes. Its full-year U.S. retail share increased 0.2 percentage points to 50.9 percent of the market.

The company expects full-year adjusted earnings in the range of $2.75 to $2.80 per share.

Altria also owns a wine business and holds a voting stake in brewer SABMiller.