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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
Dove soap helps Unilever clean up
Unilever chief executive Niall Fitzgerald
Niall Fitzgerald: "We have made a sound start to the year"
Strong sales of the Dove soap brand have helped Anglo-Dutch household products giant Unilever to report profits up by more than one third.

The brand, boosted by the launch of Dove shampoos, was credited for boosting the firm's performance in Japan, North America and Mexico.

And in Europe sales of Dove products surged by 60%, Unilever said, reporting underlying net profits of 927m euros ($832m; 572m) for the first three months of the year.

The figure was 35% up on the 685m euros reported for the same period last year, and was way ahead of analysts' estimates.

Strategy shift

The strong figures will be seen as supporting a strategy followed under boss Niall Fitzgerald of focusing on core brands, which are now expected to account for 90% of sales by the end of the year, compared with 84% now.

Unilever has also sought to increase margins on its products, allowing it to achieve the profits rise on the back of underlying sales up by only 2%.

Analyst Ton van Ooijen of SNS Securities in the Netherlands said: "Results are much better than expected as the operating margin was much better than expected."

Even Turkish operations, which reported sales down 10% amid overall economic malaise, achieved "significantly improved profitability", Unilever's results statement said.

"We have made a sound start to the year," Mr Fitzgerald said.

"Continuing expansion in underlying operating margin reflects our determination to grow our business profitably."

Argentine black spot

Other top performing brands over the quarter included Ben & Jerry's, which helped Unilever's ice cream sales in North America "grow very strongly".

In the UK, Hellmann's mayonnaise and Knorr soup brands made "strong contributions".

But Unilever has failed to avoid fallout from the crisis in Argentina, which the firm said had "severely reduced consumer demand".

The firm said it was relying on the "deep local experience" of managers in its Argentine unit to "preserve the long term value of the business".

In the City, Unilever shares stood 14p higher at 592p in morning trade on Friday.

The BBC's Richard Scott
"Its brands are so universal, there is not much room to expand"
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