Heinz

(HNZ)

, experiencing the most frenetic period in its history, reported a 19% decline in fourth-quarter earnings Thursday while setting ambition growth targets for the next two years. It also set an 8% workforce reduction.

Heinz, the subject of elaborate critiques from activist investor Nelson Peltz, earned $167.9 million, or 50 cents a share, in the quarter ended May 3, down from $206.5 million, or 59 cents a share, a year ago. The latest quarter included writedowns. Excluding them, adjusted earnings of 54 cents a share were a nickel ahead of estimates.

Fourth-quarter sales rose 7.6% from a year ago to $2.40 billion, beating the Thomson First Call consensus estimate of $2.36 billion. Using constant currencies, Heinz said, sales rose 10.7%, reflecting 7.9% sales growth in its top 10 brands.

The company's fourth-quarter volume rose 7.8% from a year ago, including a 10% gain in North American consumer products and a surge in Australia. "Pricing decreased sales slightly, as improvements in North America, Latin America and Indonesia were offset primarily by declines in the U.K. Acquisitions, net of divestitures, increased sales by 3.4%," it said. Foreign exchange translation cut sales by 3.1%.

Looking ahead, Heinz outlined a cost-cutting plan that it says will cut costs by $355 million during the next two years while reducing the amount of promotional incentives it lays out by $145 million. Of that total, $317 million will be plowed back into marketing and advertising next year, up 18.7% from 2006. The company expects to launch more than 100 new products in the current fiscal year.

The steps are expected to produce earnings of $2.35 a share in the current year and $2.54 a share in fiscal 2008. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call were expecting $2.25 a share in 2007 and $2.38 a share in 2008.

On top of the cost initiatives, Heinz raised its annual dividend to $1.40 in 2007 from $1.20 this year. It also authorized $1 billion in share buybacks over the next two years.

Specifically, Heinz plans to close 15 plants and cut 2,700 jobs, or 8% of its workforce. The moves should save at least $165 million in fiscal 2007. Heinz said it is evaluating plans to exit another five plants in 2008.