Schneider Electric, the French industrial bellwether, has warned of stalled sales this year as the impact of the eurozone crisis outweighs a nascent US recovery and resilience in Asia.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Jean-Pascal Tricoire, Schneider’s chief executive, added to the chorus of European business leaders calling for more urgent action from the continent’s politicians to solve the debt crisis.
“I think they can do better,” he said. “If you take the macroeconomic figures of Europe and the US, then probably Europe is better. The difference in the US is you have the governance.”
Mr Tricoire was slightly less gloomy than some rivals about growth in China, the company’s biggest market after the US, though he expected it to slow. “China will probably cool down,” he said. “But it is still a very reasonable rate of growth.” He also spoke of a US “revival”.
Schneider, which makes 40 per cent of sales in emerging markets, underlined its Chinese commitment last year when Mr Tricoire moved a third of his executive committee to Hong Kong – a move that caused internal tension. “Any change generates opinions,” Mr Tricoire said. “If you say your company is global you must lead by example.”
Schneider is expanding rapidly, including an aggressive acquisition policy. But the shares suffered last year because of investor fears about large possible bids for US industrial groups such as Cooper or Tyco International. Speaking from his headquarters near Paris, Mr Tricoire sought to calm those fears by saying many targets had become too expensive.
“Over the last three years, we picked the assets at the right moment, when there was a deep crisis. Not many people were moving at the time,” he said. “Now they are moving again but valuations are very different.”
He said his focus, at least in the short term, was on integrating former deals and bolt-on acquisitions. Analysts suspect he would still be tempted if a big opportunity came along such as Tyco – recently spilt into three to entice buyers. But in response, Mr Tricoire said: “A sentence I learnt last year in 26 languages is that ‘I don’t comment on rumours’.”
Despite the downbeat 2012 forecast, Schneider on Wednesday unveiled a three-year plan promising an average yearly increase in sales 3 percentage points higher than global GDP growth, as it expands its energy saving services. Margins on earnings before interest, tax and amortisation (ebita) would be 13-17 per cent in the same period, it added.
Ebita margins fell in 2011 because of soaring raw material costs and a shift to lower-margin services. Sales rose 14 per cent to €22.4bn; net income increased 6 per cent to €1.82bn.
It reported record free cash flow in the second half of €1.6bn, as it responded to investor worries by reducing working capital costs. The three-year plan promises 100 per cent of net profit will be converted to free cash flow.
Mr Tricoire said the company had also got to grips with raw materials prices, which added €463m to costs last year, by renegotiating terms with customers and suppliers.
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