By Se Young Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) - Samsung Electronics Co Ltd aims to use its $56 billion cash pile to fund growth including acquisitions, the tech giant's investor relations chief said, even as more shareholders clamor for bigger dividends.
While the South Korean company's profit declined in 2014 for the first time in three years as its lead in smartphones was challenged by Apple Inc, investors were cheered by a 40 percent dividend boost and its first share buyback since 2007.
But Robert Yi, Samsung's head of investor relations, signaled that shareholders should not expect the same in 2015 as the company keeps its focus on growth.
"Dividends and other forms of shareholder returns are responsibilities that the company has for shareholders, so we will make efforts to meet them. But our primary objective is growth and that is what we are communicating to our shareholders," Yi told Reuters in an interview.
Samsung has become an increasingly active shopper, striking 10 deals in two years. Even so, its purchases have been small, prompting calls from some investors for bigger deals to revive growth momentum.
"We are primarily focused on M&A deals for companies that would be good fits to Samsung's current businesses, and we believe that know-how and experience accrued from such transactions will make bigger M&A deals possible going forward," Yi said.
Samsung Electronics held cash of 61.8 trillion won ($56.14 billion) at the end of 2014.
Yi said more value fund managers had bought Samsung shares over the past year as its share price and earnings declined.
"Their main interest is to increase long-term value through shareholder returns policies, so they have been calling for more dividends and share buybacks," he said.
Yi declined to comment specifically on plans for buybacks or dividends. A person familiar with the matter told Reuters on Feb. 10 that Samsung would probably pay out less this year than in 2014.
South Korean companies are notoriously parsimonious when it comes to dividends. Seoul-listed shares tend to trade at discounts to peers.
Yi said Samsung planned to strengthen shareholder outreach, making top management more available to institutional investors and holding more public events.
It also wanted to boost investment by foreign retail investors to help build consumer loyalty. Samsung, which does not have American Depositary Receipts, in 2013 arranged a program with Bank of America Merrill Lynch that allows U.S. retail investors to invest directly in its shares. Samsung declined to comment on how many investors acquired its stock through the program.
Samsung shares fell to multi-year lows in October but have recovered and were up 3.8 percent in 2015 based on Tuesday's closing level.
($1 = 1,100.8700 won)
(Editing by Tony Munroe and Stephen Coates)