By Silke Koltrowitz
ZURICH (Reuters) - Luxury goods group Richemont has decided not to sell underperforming businesses such as leather goods maker Lancel in part because it couldn't get a good enough price, disappointing analysts' hopes for a quick solution.
Instead, the maker of Cartier jewelry and IWC watches said on Friday it hoped to turn around lagging businesses, which also include menswear brand Dunhill and Montblanc writing instruments, within two to three years.
The group also reported sales growth of 9 percent in the six months to September, in line with forecasts, and a pick-up to 12 percent growth in October, helped by some one-off sales of very expensive jewelry items.
At 0950 GMT, Richemont shares were down 1.8 percent at 91.3 Swiss francs, underperforming a 0.6 percent decline in Europe's blue-chip stocks index.
"Surprising, and likely to be taken negatively," said Citi analyst Thomas Chauvet of Richemont's decision to retain its weaker brands, which are mostly in fashion and accessories.
A string of consumer goods companies have struck deals recently to shed underperforming businesses in a bid to cope with a faltering global economy. Food group Nestle, for example, agreed on Thursday to sell the bulk of its struggling Jenny Craig weight-loss business.
Richemont's core jewelry and watch businesses, which account for 80 percent of sales, generated higher operating results in the half-year to September and boasted operating margins of 36.9 and 31.7 percent respectively.
At the same time, operating profit at Montblanc fell 55 percent and the margin halved to 6.7 percent. Its other businesses, including Lancel and Dunhill, had an operating loss of 35 million euros.
Recent comments by former chairman Johann Rupert, currently on a sabbatical, triggered speculation Richemont could offload some of its fashion brands. However, Reuters reported Richemont was struggling to find a buyer for Lancel.
Chief Financial Officer Gary Saage said Richemont had looked at options for Lancel and other brands and decided to keep them.
"Selling for low, I don't know if that's a good thing," he told a conference call, adding Richemont had not actively looked at selling brands other than Lancel.
"The first thing we've done at Dunhill and Montblanc, which are the ones suffering the most, was to change management teams," Saage said, adding they had good people in place now.
He said new Montblanc head Jerome Lambert would turn the writing instruments maker into an "accessible luxury" brand, signaling a move towards more affordable products.
Watchmakers have been grappling with weaker demand from Chinese customers, the biggest buyers of luxury goods worldwide, but recently Swiss watch exports to Greater China have picked up in a sign retailers are restocking on watches.
Richemont said sales trends in October had improved, but that was mainly due to some exceptional jewelry sales in the Asia-Pacific region. Saage said orders from Chinese retailers were still subdued. Across regions, the muted environment called for "increased caution", Richemont said.
"The underlying trend overall in October is pretty much the same that we've seen in September although the mix is changing a bit. The watches and jewelry segment is getting a little better while fashion and accessories and Montblanc are not getting better," Saage said.
Sales in Asia-Pacific, which accounted for about 40 percent of the group first-half total of 5.32 billion euros, rose 4 percent in constant currencies in the half year.
Sales growth in Europe and the Middle East, which represents 38 percent of the total, slowed to 10 percent, from 19 percent a year ago, as tourists spent less on its products.
A weakening of the U.S. dollar and the yen caused operating profit to slip 1 percent, but hedging activities helped net profit rise 10 percent to 1.185 billion euros in the six months to September, just ahead of analysts' average forecast.
Richemont said exchange rates were likely to weigh on results in the second half of the year, but easier comparative figures would help. The weak yen pushed most Richemont brands to hike prices by another 6 percent in Japan in September, on top of the increase taken in spring, Saage said.
Richemont shares, which have gained about 30 percent so far this year, trade at 17.7 times forecast earnings, above Swatch Group at 16.4 times and broadly in line with LVMH.
(Editing by David Cowell and Mark Potter)