General Mills ( GIS) reported a sharp increase in fourth-quarter earnings, helped in part by strong retail sales. The company said it expects full-year 2004 earnings to rise by up to 19%.

The company earned $225 million, or 59 cents a share, compared with $57 million, or 15 cents a share, in the previous-year quarter. Excluding restructuring and merger-related charges, the company earned $244 million, or 64 cents a share, compared with $93 million, or 25 cents a share, in the year-ago period. Fourth-quarter restructuring and merger-related costs totaled $19 million after taxes in 2003, down from $36 million in 2002.

Analysts were expecting the company to earn 63 cents a share. Results met or exceeded the company's major performance objectives for the year, General Mills said.

Total sales increased 10% to $2.55 billion, from last year's $2.32 billion. The company said U.S. retail net sales rose 13% to exceed $1.7 billion in the quarter. But total sales for General Mills' bakeries and foodservice unit were $459 million, down 2%, and operating profit totaled $23 million compared with $53 million in last year's fourth quarter. The company cited volume and supply chain cost factors.

Looking ahead, the company expects a 5% to 6% compound growth in net sales and at least 11% compound growth in earnings per share over the next three years. In 2004, specifically, the company expects sales to increase 6%, at the top end of its range. Earnings are expected to beat its range of $2.85 to $2.90 a share, including restructuring and other charges.

The company expects profit growth to benefit from an additional $125 million of acquisition-related synergies in 2004, as well as productivity savings. Analysts expect the company to earn $3.01 a share in 2004. The company earned $2.43 a share in 2003.

Shares of the Minneapolis-based company were up 7 cents in Wednesday morning trading at $47.70.

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