UPDATE 3-Nokia returns $3.1 billion to shareholders, Suri becomes CEO
* Reports higher-than-expected quarterly results
* Network chief Suri to become next CEO on May 1
* Special dividend, share buybacks to total 2.25 bln euros
* Nokia says to focus on three remaining businesses (Adds first quarter results, analyst comments)
By Sakari Suoninen and Jussi Rosendahl
HELSINKI, April 29 (Reuters) - Finnish telecommunication gear maker Nokia on Tuesday reported higher-than-expected quarterly earnings and promoted Rajeev Suri, the head of its biggest division, to lead the company following the sale of its once-dominant phone business.
The company also announced plans to return $3.1 billion to shareholders via buybacks and extra dividends, a move seen by some analysts as an attempt to retain investors as it refocuses is business.
Suri, a 46-year-old Indian national, was widely expected to become the CEO as he helped Nokia's networks business, formerly called NSN, turn profitable with cost-cuts and divestments.
Cost-cutting and profitable software deals helped the networks business report a core operating profit margin of 9.3 percent in the first-quarter, well ahead of the 5.7 percent average forecast by analysts polled by Reuters. The margin is also expected to remain at the higher end of a 5-10 percent target for this year, Nokia added in its earnings statement.
The unit was one of three that remained after Nokia sold its mobile phone business to Microsoft for about 5.6 billion euros in a deal that closed on Friday.
Nokia said it would focus on growing the networks unit, as well as its navigation and patents business, but did not give any specific details.
"The general strategy is not very concrete, sounds like they have just come up with a mega-trend around their three business areas. I'd expect the units to be rather independent in the future," said Mikael Rautanen, analyst with equity researchers Inderes.
The networks business last year accounted for about 90 percent of the group's sales and Nokia has vowed to make a more aggressive push this year to increase its global market share.
Analysts, however, say it may face challenges as higher research and development costs give bigger, deep-pocketed rivals such as industry leader Ericsson and Chinese telecoms firm Huawei, an advantage.
Suri, in a video posted on the company's website, said there was plenty of scope for expansion. "I have been with Nokia for almost 20 years, and the opportunities ahead of us are as great as I have ever seen," he said.
Suri, who has been with Nokia since 1995, successfully turned around the loss-making networks unit in 2012.
"Rajeev is the right person to lead the company forward," Nokia Chairman Risto Siilasmaa said in a statement. "He has a proven ability to create strategic clarity, drive innovation and growth, ensure disciplined execution, and deliver results."
Nokia's mobile phones were its most renowned product. In a bid to retain shareholders, the company said it would pay an extra 1 billion euros in dividends for last year and start a 1.25 billion euros share buyback programme.
The extra dividend of 0.26 euros per share is on top of the annual dividend of 0.11 euros for last year. The ordinary dividend will cost the company another 400 million, or about half of Nokia's earnings for last year.
The company has also said it would cut debt by 2 billion, which would save it around 100 million euros in interest annually.
"The dividend proposal is slightly smaller than expected, but the buy-back program is quite extensive. It reflects the management's view that the stock is valued below its sum-of-parts," said analyst Rautanen.
Nokia said its net cash position at the end of March was 2.1 billion euros, down from 2.3 billion at the end of last year. Had the phone-unit sale closed in the first quarter, the net cash position would have been 7.1 billion, Nokia added. ($1= 0.7223 Euros) (Editing by Miral Fahmy)
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