French food group Danone keeps goals after weak start to 2021

PARIS, April 20 (Reuters) - Danone on Tuesday kept its goal of returning to profitable growth in the second half of 2021 after posting a 3.3% fall in first quarter sales, as COVID-19 lockdowns continued to dent its bottled water and baby food sales.

The French food group, which is searching for a new chief executive, said it was banking on a gradual reopening of economies from the second half of this year onwards, as COVID vaccination programs are rolled out.

It reiterated it expected its full year 2021 operating margin to be broadly in line with the 14% achieved in 2020.

Former boss Emmanuel Faber was abruptly ousted as chairman and CEO last month, following clashes with some board members over strategy and calls from activist funds for him to resign over the group’s lackluster returns compared with some rivals.

Danone, which is the world’s largest yoghurt maker, said its like-for-like sales fell 3.3% to 5.657 billion euros ($6.82 billion) in the first quarter, compared with expectations for a 3.7% decline in a company-compiled consensus of 19 analysts.

$1 = 0.8293 euros Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta