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Corning profit rises in 4Q on TV glass sales

Specialty glass maker Corning Inc. said Tuesday its profit surged 41 percent in the fourth quarter, lifted by stronger sales of glass for flat-panel televisions and ultra-strong Gorilla cover glass for cell phones and tablet devices.

Although adjusted earnings narrowly missed Wall Street expectations, Corning’s stock jumped almost 5 percent in early trading.

The world’s largest maker of liquid-crystal-display glass said its net income rose to $1.04 billion, or 66 cents per share, in the October-December period. That’s up from $740 million, or 47 cents, a year earlier.

Excluding unusual items, its earnings came to 46 cents a share, a penny short of Wall Street expectations measured by FactSet.

Revenue rose 15 percent to $1.77 billion from $1.53 billion, topping analysts’ estimates of $1.6 billion.

Its stock rose 92 cents, or 4.7 percent, to $20.56 in morning trading. It has traded in a 52-week range of $15.45 to $21.10.

Revenue in Corning’s display technologies segment rose 5 percent to $750 million. The business, its biggest by far, recouped $324 million in a settlement related to insurance claims from a 2009 earthquake that disrupted two plants in Japan and Taiwan.

Propelled by Gorilla glass, specialty materials revenue surged 79 percent to $197 million in the quarter.

The scratch-resistant glass generated around $250 million in revenue in 2010 but soaring demand could boost revenue to $1 billion this year as it begins to migrate to high-end TVs with frameless screens. Sony Corp. said this month it will incorporate Gorilla in a new line of Bravia TVs.

Environmental technologies revenue rose 28 percent to $232 million, driven by gains for auto-pollution filters for diesel engines.

Revenue in Corning’s telecommunications unit rose 9 percent to $443 million, helped by a milder than usual seasonal downturn.

Life-sciences revenue rose 20 percent to $140 million, reflecting Corning’s acquisition of Axygen BioScience Inc. as it shifts beyond a heavy focus on display glass. It bought the maker of plastic labware and liquid handling products for research labs for about $400 million in September 2009.

Based in the western New York town of the same name, Corning employs 24,500 people.

For all of 2010, its net income jumped 77 percent to $3.56 billion, or $2.25 per share, from $2 billion, or $1.28 per share, in 2009. Sales rose 23 percent to $6.63 billion from $5.4 billion.

With four of Corning’s five business units posting record annual sales, “2010 represented one of the most successful periods in the company’s 159-year history,” Jim Flaws, Corning’s chief financial officer, said in a conference call with analysts.

“We ended the year with $6.3 billion in cash, which provides us with the financial flexibility to not only continue to fund our R&D and capital expansion needs but also supplement our organic growth.”

Annual sales of LCD glass climbed 24 percent to $3.01 billion in 2010. The company commands more than 60 percent of the global market.

Research firm DisplaySearch estimates 37.4 million LCD-TVs were shipped in North America in 2010, up only fractionally from 37.3 million in 2009 after annual hikes of 24 percent in both 2008 and 2009. In contrast, global shipments surged an estimated 31 percent to 190 million, analyst Paul Gagnon said.

Among factors he cited for flat U.S. sales were: The economy remained listless last year, retail price declines were not as steep as usual and two-thirds of American households already own flat-screen TVs.

But Gagnon anticipates renewed demand in North America this year, with shipments climbing 8 percent to 40.5 million units. Key factors spurring growth would be sharper price declines for LCD-TVs and “an improvement in consumer spending power as economic conditions continue to improve,” he said.