The soft drinks bottler Coca-Cola Bottling Co has doubled its earnings in the first quarter of 2004, compared to the same period last year, despite lower sales volumes.

The company said it earned US$2.8m or $.31 per share for the first quarter of 2004. These results compare to net income of US$1.4m or $.16 per share in the first quarter of 2003.

The company's net sales grew by 2.7% in the first quarter of 2004 as a 1% decline in bottle/can volume was more than offset by an increase in average revenue per case of 3.5%.

Income from operations in the first quarter of 2004 increased approximately 21%; however, this improvement included nonrecurring favourable adjustments of approximately $2.0 million, primarily for certain customer-related marketing programmes.
 
J. Frank Harrison, III, chairman and CEO, said: "The company's financial results in the first quarter are encouraging. This is the second consecutive quarter with solid improvement in average revenue per case, which has driven higher operating income despite lower volume.

"Although volume was down modestly, it should be noted that this decline is in the face of a relatively large increase in average revenue per case. Innovation has become increasingly important to the Company's volume growth and the first quarter of 2004 benefited from sales of Sprite Tropical Remix and diet Coke with Lime, which helped support volume during a period of increasing selling prices. In addition, we are actively considering several new brands and packages for introduction during 2004." Mr. Harrison also said the Company continues to focus on reducing its debt through limiting capital spending and working capital management. Debt at the end of the first quarter of 2004 was down by $66 million as compared to the end of the first quarter of 2003.
 
William B. Elmore, President and COO, said, "Although overall volume was down modestly, Dasani volume was up 10% and our strong portfolio of diet brands grew by 8%, led by an excellent initial trial of diet Coke with Lime." Mr. Elmore also said that the Company has several initiatives underway that will help improve productivity and limit the growth of operating expenses through the balance of 2004 and beyond.