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[United States]
Posted on : Oct 30, 2014

Johnson Controls Inc. said Thursday its earnings tripled in the fourth quarter, amid record income in its automotive seats and interiors business.

Wisconsin's largest company based on sales said net income rose to $309 million, or 46 cents a share, from $105 million, or 15 cents, a year ago. Sales rose 2.6% to $11 billion from $10.7 billion.

Excluding restructuring costs and onetime items, profit from operations was $1.04 a share, 3 cents higher than the average forecast of investment analysts.

The company reported 5% sales growth in its battery business, 3% in its auto seats and interiors business and 1% in its Milwaukee-based building efficiency business.

The battery business was boosted in part by sales of start-stop vehicles, which use Johnson Controls batteries that enable a car's engine to stop when idling. Production of those batteries rose 23% year over year, the company said.

The company's improved profit was linked to record income in the automotive seats and interiors business, which is seeing strong demand in China and strong demand for metal components for car seats.

The company also is seeing greater profits from the building efficiency business on improved orders and sales. Growth tied to the acquisition of Air Distribution Technologies Inc. and expansion in Asia helped offset lower sales in North America for the core Johnson Controls building business.

Performance at the building business has been a disappointment to the company for some time. But this quarter represented a turnaround, as markets such as health care and institutional buildings start to see more activity. Sales and orders were both up.

"It's been the one thing that's been a frustration and nagging at us, at least over the last year and really for the last few years, and I haven't been willing to make a whole lot of commitments about when we were seeing the turnaround in the marketplace," said Alex Molinaroli, Johnson Controls chairman and chief executive, on an investor conference call.

"I feel like there is some momentum in the business and, unless something external happens, I think we've hit the bottom," he added.

In trading on Wall Street, Johnson Controls shares closed up 3%, or $1.37, at $45.79.

Analysts said the strong quarter is expected to be followed by more positive results, given expansion in China and a shift in the coming year to focus more on operations than buying and selling business units.

"We think a return to a rising building efficiency backlog heralds future sales and profit growth in the segment," said Efraim Levy, senior analyst at S&P Capital.

Net income for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was $1.22 billion, or $1.80 a share, up from $1.18 billion, or $1.71, in the prior year. Sales were $42.8 million, up 3% from fiscal 2013.

The company didn't disclose an earnings forecast for 2015, saying it will do so at its analyst day on Dec. 2. Earnings for the first quarter of 2015 are forecast to be 74 to 77 cents a share, with analysts forecasting 77 cents.

Johnson Controls is the leading producer of lead-acid batteries and seats for cars and trucks. The company's Milwaukee-based building efficiency business sells heating and cooling products as well as controls that help building owners reduce energy and operating costs.

The company is in the midst of a transformation to wean its reliance on the auto industry and invest in higher growth areas, led by the heating and cooling equipment business. Johnson Controls is seeking to sell its global workplace solutions business, which provides facility management as well as energy consulting for corporate buildings around the world.

"There's a lot of interest" in buying the business, said Bruce McDonald, Johnson Controls' vice chairman.

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