For the full year, sales growth in local currency was strongest in Asia, the Middle East & Africa and Europe. Sales in Asia rose by 12%, lifted by a sales development in China, Southeast Asia and Japan. Sales growth in the Middle East & Africa was 15% and 7% in Europe. Sales in North America also increased by 11% mainly driven by acquisitions. Latin American sales were flat, however, showing signs of improvement in the second half of the year in an ongoing challenging macroeconomic environment.
The improved sales performance for the full year resulted from growth in all Business Areas. Both Care Chemicals and Catalysis reported particularly strong expansion. Sales in Care Chemicals rose by 8% in local currency supported by vigorous Consumer Care and Industrial Applications businesses. Catalysis sales improved by an excellent 13% with positive contributions from all business lines.
Natural Resources sales accelerated by 14%, mainly lifted by the Kel-Tech and X-Chem acquisitions in North America. Organic sales in Natural Resources grew by 3% driven by the solid growth in Functional Minerals and the beginning recovery of the Oil & Mining Services business. In Plastics & Coatings, sales rose by 5% with sales expansion in all three business units and particular strength in China.
EBITDA before exceptional items rose by 10% in Swiss francs and reached CHF 974 million, compared to CHF 887 million in the previous year. The absolute profitability improvement was attributable to the positive developments in all business areas.
The corresponding EBITDA margin before exceptional items advanced to 15.3%.
Net income climbed by 15% in Swiss francs to CHF 302 million from CHF 263 million in the previous year. This increase was supported by the improvement in absolute EBITDA before exceptional items as well as lower finance costs which could offset the one-off costs and higher tax expenses.
Operating cash flow declined to CHF 428 million due to temporarily higher cash out for one-off costs and higher net working capital as a result of brisk demand late in the fourth quarter of 2017 and the anticipated strong demand in the first quarter of 2018, especially in Catalysis.
Net debt remained stable at CHF 1.539 billion versus CHF 1.540 billion recorded at year-end 2016.
The continued improvement in performance allows the Board of Directors to propose a dividend of CHF 0.50 per share to the Annual General Meeting. This sum reflects an increase of 11% compared to the previous year. This distribution is proposed to be made from the capital contribution reserve which is exempt from Swiss withholding tax.
Fourth Quarter 2017 – Further expansion in sales and profitability
In the fourth quarter of 2017, sales rose by 6% in local currency to CHF 1.679 billion. This expansion resulted from sales improvements in all Business Areas. Organic sales growth was 5% in local currency.
Almost all regions contributed to the growth. In Asia, sales in local currency grew by 10% with a continuous strong development in China. Sales in Europe increased by 6% in local currency and in the Middle East & Africa by 11% in local currency. In the Americas, the picture was mixed. Though North America was slightly negative, Latin America showed a notable recovery and rose by 7% in local currency.
Sales in Care Chemicals climbed by 7% in local currency mainly as a result of higher volumes which were supported by some pricing improvements. Catalysis sales moved up by 1% due to forward product shifts from the fourth to the third quarter. Natural Resources sales increased by 5% in local currency with positive contributions from both Functional Minerals and the Oil & Mining Services businesses. Plastics & Coatings sales accelerated by 8% with all three business units contributing to the growth.
EBITDA before exceptional items climbed by 9% in Swiss francs to CHF 257 million from CHF 235 million in the previous year driven by the improvement in Care Chemicals and Natural Resources as well as by a continuing solid contribution from Plastics & Coatings. As a result, the EBITDA margin before exceptional items on Group level increased from 15.2% to 15.3%.
Outlook – Continued progression in growth, profitability improvement and operating cash flow generation
Clariant expects the good economic environment in mature markets, which represent a high comparable base, to continue. Emerging markets are expected to be supportive with Latin America showing signs of a recovery.
For 2018, Clariant is confident to be able to achieve growth in local currency, as well as progression in operating cash flow, absolute EBITDA and EBITDA margin before exceptional items.
Clariant confirms its mid-term target of reaching a position in the top tier of the specialty chemicals industry. This corresponds to an EBITDA margin before exceptional items in the range of 16-19% and a return on invested capital (ROIC) above the peer group average.