Ashland posts loss for quarter

Covington-based Ashland Inc. announced quarterly and year-end earnings Tuesday that were dampened by hefty one-time charges.

The specialty chemicals company had sales of $2.06 billion in its fiscal fourth quarter, up 11 percent from $1.85 billion in the same period in 2011. But the company lost $274 million, or $3.49 per share, in the quarter, because of $5.34 in one-time charges related to factors including pensions and debt refinancing. In the same quarter a year earlier, the company lost $263 million, or $3.38 per share, because of $4.51 in one-time charges.

Outside of those issues, CEO James J. O'Brien said in a statement that Ashland saw growth in profit margins "despite economic challenges that tempered sales growth in some of our businesses."

O'Brien attributed the higher profit margins to the company's "better prices" and lower costs for raw materials.

He also spoke highly of the acquisition in the past year of International Specialty Products, which produces chemicals for a number of fields including personal care.

He noted the acquisition completed Ashland's "transformation into a global specialty chemical company."

"We're beginning to see the type of earnings power that we envisioned when we combined Ashland and ISP, with improved margins that better reflect our focus on specialty chemicals," he said.

The company's consumer markets division, which includes Lexington-based Valvoline, garnered $522 million in sales during the quarter, up 1 percent from $517 million a year ago. The division's operating income, though, more than doubled to $74 million from $29 million a year ago because of lower base oil costs.

In a conference call with analysts, Chief Financial Officer Lamar Chambers noted the division also benefited from better performance in the do-it-yourself market.

That segment had been soft throughout the year because of issues including consumers delaying routine vehicle maintenance, but market data now suggests that it's "beginning to stabilize," Chambers said.

For its full fiscal year, Ashland recorded sales of $8.21 billion, up 26 percent from $6.5 billion the year before. Net income was $26 million, or 33 cents a share, down from $414 million, or $5.17 a share.

For the year, the consumer markets division had sales of $2.03 billion, up 3 percent from $1.97 billion. The division's operating income for the year was $236 million, up 11 percent from $213 million.