Results for the first nine months of 2018 were net earnings attributable to the corporation of $303 million, or 86 cents per diluted share, on sales of $8.8 billion compared to $215 million, or 60 cents per diluted share, on sales of $8.2 billion for the first nine months of 2017.
Results reflect the sale of the company’s US steel food and steel aerosol business effective July 31, 2018, and the two-for-one stock split effective May 16, 2017.
“Improved third quarter results were driven by strong operational performance in every one of our businesses, as well as lower corporate costs, and were partially offset by a higher effective tax rate and incrementally higher transportation costs and other start-up costs during the completion of the complex, multi-plant network optimization program,” said John A. Hayes, chairman, president and CEO.
“The growing global demand for environmentally favored aluminum beverage and aerosol cans, as well as continued growth in our aerospace backlog, positions the company for sustainable long-term growth. Our global team continues to execute on value-creating investments and commercial initiatives. We remain on track to return in excess of $800 million to our shareholders in 2018 via share repurchases and dividends, and continue to reaffirm our financial goals of $2 billion of comparable EBITDA and in excess of $1 billion of free cash flow in 2019.”
Beverage Packaging, North and Central America, comparable segment operating earnings in the third quarter of 2018 were $153 million on sales of $1.2 billion, compared to $121 million on sales of $1.1 billion in the third quarter of 2017. For the first nine months, comparable segment operating earnings were $423 million on sales of $3.5 billion compared to $400 million on sales of $3.2 billion during the same period in 2017.
Year-over-year results improved due to the absence of hurricane-related disruptions and costs incurred in the prior year, coupled with 2% volume growth driven by continued favorable packaging mix shift to cans in the sparkling water, import beer, craft beer, wine and energy categories, and were partially offset by start-up costs related to our new Goodyear, Arizona, facility and higher freight costs.
Beverage Packaging, South America, comparable segment operating earnings in the third quarter of 2018 were $71 million on sales of $391 million, compared to $78 million on sales of $425 million in the third quarter of 2017. For the first nine months, comparable segment operating earnings were $235 million on sales of $1.2 billion compared to $205 million on sales of $1.1 billion during the same period in 2017.
Third quarter results reflect the previously disclosed conclusion of the third-party end sales agreement as part of the Rexam acquisition and overall segment volumes being down 3% in the quarter due to the loss of certain business in Brazil. Announced can line expansions in Argentina and Paraguay and the relocation of equipment from previously closed facilities will serve the growing demand for aluminum beverage packaging across our South American customer base.
Beverage Packaging, Europe, comparable segment operating earnings in the third quarter of 2018 were $84 million on sales of $683 million, compared to $74 million on sales of $651 million in the third quarter of 2017. For the first nine months, comparable segment operating earnings were $219 million on sales of $2 billion compared to $184 million on sales of $1.8 billion during the same period in 2017.
Comparable third quarter segment earnings reflect strong can demand across Europe and Russia. Segment volume was up 10% in the quarter driven by favorable weather conditions and packaging mix shift to cans in the water, carbonated soft drink and beer categories. The company’s new aluminum beverage can facility near Madrid, Spain, continued to ramp up both new production lines during the quarter.
“The company is well positioned for long-term growth as capital spending deployed over the last 18 months begins to add to segment earnings in 2019 and beyond. With net debt to comparable EBITDA ratios in the range of 3.0 to 3.5 times and absent any additional growth capital expenditures or bolt-on M&A, every available dollar of free cash flow will be returned to shareholders. In 2018, we expect to return in excess of $800 million to shareholders and in 2019 and beyond, we expect the return of value to shareholders will be approximately $1 billion annually,” said Scott C. Morrison, SVP and CFO.