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UPDATE 4-Facing activist pressure, Danone warns of tough start to year

* 2020 recurring operating margin 14% vs 15.2% in 2019

* Sales down 1.5% last year on like-for-like basis

* Danone cuts 2020 dividend by 8% to 1.94 euros/shr

* Chairman and CEO Faber under pressure from activists (Adds details, Faber comments, updates shares)

PARIS, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Danone on Friday said it would return to profitable growth in the second half of 2021 after a tough first quarter, as the Activia yoghurt maker doubled down on a turnaround plan criticised as too slow by some investors.

Chairman and Chief Executive Emmanuel Faber has come under growing pressure as activist shareholders push for management changes to lift returns, which have lagged those of some rivals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Faber acknowledged on Friday that Danone’s share price - which is at seven-year lows - “is not where we would like it to be”. There was no word on governance changes however, and the group said it would provide more details on strategy at an investor day on March 25.

Asked whether he would be open to splitting the chairman and CEO roles, which some shareholders have urged, Faber said he was “not dogmatic” on the issue.

“It might be a topic for the future, but you can’t expect any more comment on that today,” Faber told an analyst conference call, adding that there was huge employee support for the firm’s strategy.

Faber also said that in 2021 some 30% of the long-term incentives of Danone’s executive committee would be based on total shareholder returns, and that Danone “may have a conversation” about implementing share buybacks.

U.S. investment firm Artisan Partners, which said it has a stake of over 3% in the Activia yoghurt maker, has urged the company to sell underperforming brands like Asia water label Mizone, and shake up its governance.

Activist investor Bluebell, which has not disclosed its holding, has called on Faber to step down.

In recent months Faber had intensified actions to ward off activist investors, announcing in November a plan to cut 2,000 jobs, trim product ranges and sell some assets, including the group’s business in Argentina and the Vega plant-based brand.

Faber, in his seventh year as chief executive, has pursued a strategy centred on diversifying into fast-growing products featuring probiotics, protein and plant-based ingredients to mitigate slower growth in dairy.

Danone on Friday said it had agreed to buy U.S. plant-based foods specialist Earth Island in a deal that would help the group reach a target of generating 5 billion euros ($6.1 billion) of plant-based sales worldwide by 2025.

The group’s like-for-like sales fell 1.5% in 2020.

SALES GROWTH TO RETURN

It warned the first quarter would remain tough due to unfavourable comparables, but said its 2021 recurring operating margin would be similar to the 14% of sales achieved in 2020 and that sales growth would return in the second quarter.

The world’s largest yoghurt maker also said it would slash its 2020 dividend by 8% to reflect weaker earnings. Danone shares were up 3.5% at 57.52 euros at 1032 GMT.

The 2020 operating margin fell 150 basis points on a like-for-like basis to 14% of sales, reflecting costs linked to the pandemic and a lower contribution from Specialized Nutrition, Danone’s most profitable business, due to a slowdown in China.

In contrast, Swiss rival Nestle on Thursday posted organic sales growth of 3.6% and an operating margin of 17.7% for 2020.

Danone reiterated on Friday its mid-term ambition to grow sales by between 3% and 5% like-for-like and to have recurring operating margins in the mid-to-high teens, with a margin above 15% of sales by 2022. (Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Edmund Blair, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Jan Harvey)

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