The Canadian soft drinks company, Cott Corp., the world's largest supplier of own brand soft drinks, reported fourth quarter results ahead of analysts' forecasts and signalled its intention to expand in 2003.

The company reported earnings of US$11.7m, or 17 cents per diluted share, for the quarter to December 28, 2002, representing a 27% increase from the US$9.2m, or 13 cents per diluted share, in the corresponding period the year before. Sales in the fourth quarter rose by 11% from US$253m to an all-time high of US$280m.

Sales and earnings for the fourth quarter were ahead of analysts' forecasts which averaged around 16 cents per share on revenues of US$279.8m.

For the fiscal 2002 as a whole, net income was down from US$39.9m to US$3.9m but Cott said the 2002 figures included a US$54.4m extraordinary charge in respect of the early redemption of debt and a change in accounting principles. Sales, however, rose by 10% to a record high of US$1.2 billion.

Cott said it was looking to grow its business in North America and to a degree its international activities, in Mexico and the UK. "We want to grow the business in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom and Mexico," said Cott's chairman, president and CEO, Frank Weise. He added that the company was looking for acquisitions in North America but did not anticipate expanding its international operations beyond the US, UK and Mexico at this stage.

"In 2002, both our US and Canada units grew, while our UK business returned to profitability and we entered Mexico via a strategic investment. Our growth strategy is on track," said Weise. "We are now well positioned for ongoing growth in the year ahead and look forward to posting new records in 2003 and beyond."