Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Kroger labor dispute drags earnings down



By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The almost 2-month-old labor dispute between Kroger Co. and striking workers in Southern California, West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio cost the Cincinnati-based supermarket giant between $135 million and $145 million in sales and dragged earnings down 12 cents a share in the third quarter, the company said Tuesday.

The impact of the disputes also led Kroger to withdraw its previous forecast for fiscal 2003 profit of at least $1.45 a share and to stop offering earnings guidance for the rest of the year.

"Kroger is not able to determine when the ongoing labor disputes will be resolved or estimate the investment that will be required to rebuild our markets," Kroger CEO Dave Dillon told investors in a conference call.

Overall, profits fell 57 percent in the third quarter to $110.2 million, or 15 cents a share, compared with earnings of $254.6 million, or 33 cents a share a year ago, Kroger said.

Wall Street had expected earnings of 29 cents a share, based on the average estimate of analysts polled by Thomas First Call. Shares of Kroger fell 58 cents Tuesday to $17.31.

Thousands of workers remained on strike or locked out of their jobs in the two disputes.

• In California, workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union walked off the job in mid-October after Kroger sought health-care concessions.

• Kroger and union officials representing about 3,300 workers from 44 stores in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio met in Cincinnati Sunday and Monday at the request of a federal mediator.

The two sides said Tuesday they had reached a tentative agreement that the local union is expected to vote Thursday.

Kroger stores in Cincinnati have been unaffected by strikes because their contract with local union workers doesn't expire until October 2004.

Even if the negotiations bring an end to the work stoppage in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, Kroger still faces major hurdles in its negotiations with workers in Southern California.

Talks have been called off after negotiations hit an impasse over the weekend.

Striking workers at Kroger's Ralphs stores, primarily in Southern California, accounted for about 90 percent of the loss in the third quarter attributed to the labor disputes, Kroger officials said.

But Kroger's results weren't all bad.

Dillon said 15 of Kroger's 17 grocery store divisions - which include Kroger, Ralphs, Fred Meyer and Food 4 Less - saw sales trend upward in the third quarter, in which total sales rose 3.8 percent to $12.1 billion.

Sales at stores open at least a year, or same-stores sales, saw revenues increase 0.2 percent, not including fuel sales. And same-store sales at stores unaffected by the strike rose 1.3 percent, without gas.

E-mail rtucker@enquirer.com



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