Soft drink bottler Coca-Cola Bottling Co. saw earnings reach US$3.6m or $0.39 per share for the fourth quarter of 2003. For the full year the company earned US$30.7m or $3.40 per share.

J. Frank Harrison, III, chairman and CEO, said: "The company's financial performance in 2003 was disappointing, driven by weak volume. Unseasonably cool and abnormally wet weather across the company's territories, as well as less aggressive retail pricing by several of the company's customers, contributed to the volume softness."

The results compare to a net loss of US$0.9m or $0.10 per share in the fourth quarter of 2002 and net income of US$22.8m or $2.58 per share for fiscal year 2002.

The company's net sales grew by 5% in the fourth quarter of 2003 and were up 1% for the full year. The fourth quarter growth in net sales reflects flat franchise volume and an increase in average revenue per case of approximately 4%. For the full year franchise volume declined 2% and average revenue per case increased 2.1%.

Harrison said: "Fourth quarter results were encouraging as we were able to maintain our volume despite increases in average revenue per case, which led to significant improvements in operating income."

Harrison also said that, despite lower operating income for 2003, the company was able to report higher net income due to declines in interest expense, minority interest expense and a lower effective income tax rate.

William B. Elmore, president and COO, said: "While our overall sales volume was disappointing, I am encouraged by our success in the diet category, which grew by 7% for 2003 aided by increasing consumer demand and the growth of diet Vanilla Coke and diet Cherry Coke. Our bottled water volume was up 2%, following growth rates of 43% and 57% in 2002 and 2001, respectively. Although volume growth of bottled water has slowed, our gross margins have remained solid."