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Joining Pierre, Kim and Mark for the Q&A session will be Milton Steele, President Agricultural Products; and Michael Wilson, President Specialty Chemicals Group.Our discussion today will focus on adjusted earnings for all income statement and EPS references on our website available at fmc.com You will find the definition of adjusted earnings and certain other non-GAAP financial terms that we may refer to during today's conference call under the heading entitled Glossary of Financial Terms, as well as we provided a reconciliation to GAAP of the non-GAAP figures we will use today. Also posted on our website, I'd like to call your attention to the current 2012 outlook statement, which provides our guidance for the full year and first quarter 2012. It's now my pleasure to turn the call over to Pierre Brondeau. Pierre? Pierre R. Brondeau Thank you, Brennen. And good morning, everyone. Our fourth quarter results provided a strong finish to a year of remarkable accomplishments for FMC. We achieved record financial performance in 2011 and made great progress implementing our Vision 2015 strategy plan. Here is a brief summary of our accomplishments in 2011. Sales and EBIT both increased 13%, excluding the prior year impact of exited businesses. Earnings per diluted share grew by 21%. Free cash flow of $180 million was generated. Return on invested capital increased to 23.9%. Agricultural Products delivered eighth year of record earnings. Specialty Chemicals achieved sixth consecutive years of record earnings led by the seventh consecutive year of record earnings on BioPolymer. Industrial Chemicals realized robust earnings growth, the highest profit growth among our segments on the strength of our soda ash business and continued shift towards Specialty Peroxygens. Across our businesses, we completed 4 company or product line acquisition, formed 2 joint ventures and established 2 product development and distribution agreements, all designed to strategically broaden our capacity to serve customers and enable us to capitalize on organic market growth opportunities. And alongside these external growth initiatives, we returned $206 million to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock repurchase.
2011 indeed was a very good year for us and we are confident that we'll deliver another record year in 2012.Moving to our fourth quarter 2011 results. Sales of $909 million increased by 17% last year excluding the prior year impact of exited businesses. Adjusted earnings of $1.58 per diluted share increased 44% versus the year quarter ago. This stable adjusted earnings is well above the $1.30 to $1.40 range in the guidance we issued last quarter as we benefited from lower tax rate than projected in our previous guidance. We do expect this lower tax rate to be a sustaining contributor to our highest earnings profile going forward. Kim will review the details of this lower tax rate later in our call. Our gross margin of $294 million increased by 11% versus last year, while on a percent basis our percent gross margin essentially equaled that of last year. SG&A spend of $115 million was leveled to a year ago despite the significant sales gain. Adjusted earnings before interest and taxes of $145 million increased 24% versus last year. On a regional basis looking at the result, excluding the prior year impact of exited business, we have clearly demonstrated our continued success in penetrating rapidly developing economies. Asia has the highest sales growth, up 15%, as Specialty Chemicals nearly doubled. Latin America, grew 30%, driven by robust growth in ag product and soda ash while EMEA increased 11%. Let's take a more detailed look at the performance of operating segments in the quarter. First in Agricultural Products. First quarter sales of $409 million increased 22% versus the year ago quarter led by robust sales growth in Latin America. The sales gain in Latin America were driven by strong demand in key Brazilian market segments, such as cotton and sugar cane, as well as the new product in production and sales from a new venture in Argentina. Sales in EMEA increased significantly based on the strength of insecticide and herbicide sales in France and Italy. In North America, sales were lower than a year ago due to a shift into turning of fall application sales, where we recorded in the third quarter of this year versus the fourth quarter of last year. In Asia, sales were essentially leveled to a year ago as higher insecticide volumes in China, Indonesia and Korea were offset by lower lower herbicide volumes due to less favorable weather conditions in China, Pakistan and India, which impacted the regions with crops. Read the rest of this transcript for free on seekingalpha.com