UPDATE 1-Air Liquide expects earnings growth in 2021 after full-year beat

(Adds additional details, CEO comment)

Feb 10 (Reuters) - French industrial gases company Air Liquide aims to increase its operating margin and deliver recurring net profit in 2021, after reporting better-than-expected full-year sales on Wednesday.

The supplier of gases such as oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen to factories and hospitals, said its full-year sales were 20.49 billion euros ($24.84 billion). That is above the average analyst estimate of 20.44 billion euros in a company-provided poll.

“This performance. . . perfectly positions the group for future growth and enables it to already benefit from the acceleration seen in healthcare, energy transition, and the increasing presence of technologies, in particular digital, in all sectors,” Chief Executive Officer Benoit Potier said in a statement.

Gas and services activities, which represent 96% of the group’s sales, reached 19.66 billion euros, in line with analysts’ estimates.

The only subsectors under the gas and services division that grew in 2020 were healthcare and electronics, with sales up 8.5% and 3.9% in comparable terms, respectively.

Air Liquide’s growth sectors were boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic, due to both higher demand for hospital oxygen and increasing sales of gases for electronic components in semiconductors used for IT infrastructure as the economy shifts towards remote working.

The operating margin increased to 18.5%, an improvement of 120 basis points, boosted by cost reductions.

The group will propose a dividend of 2.75 euros per share for 2020, which is 1.9% higher than the year before.

$1 = 0.8247 euros Reporting by Bartosz Dabrowski in Gdansk; additional reporting by Kate Entringer; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Amy Caren Daniel