* 2018 operating profit 1.209 bln euros, up 18 pct organic
* Targets at least 2.5 bln euros asset disposals by Q1 2020
* Eyes 10 pct annual growth in French retail profit
* Shares end up falling on some cash-flow concerns (Adds share reversal, fund manager)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, March 14 (Reuters) - French retailer Casino , battling investor concerns over its high debt, vowed to boost profits and cash flow in its core French market and sell off more assets under a three-year strategy plan.
Investors initially welcomed the plan before some concerns over Casino’s cash flow weighed on Casino’s shares.
Along with domestic peers such as Carrefour and Auchan, Casino faces intense price competition in its home market as well as challenges from online players such as Amazon.
The company, which had its credit rating cut to junk by Standard & Poor’s in March 2016, has embarked upon asset sales to reduce its debt and ease concerns over the financial position of both Casino and its parent holding company Rallye.
It has been selling off real estate and loss-making stores.
Group consolidated net debt was 3.4 billion euros ($3.8 billion) at the end of last year, down from 4.1 billion euros a year earlier.
The latest plan focuses on profit growth by monetising client data, savings from purchasing deals and a greater focus on e-commerce, organic food, convenience stores and energy services.
Casino targets 10 percent growth per year in trading profit for its French retail business between 2019 and 2021, and the generation of 500 million euros in free cash flow per year.
In 2018, Casino generated 229 million euros in free cash flow before taking into account its disposal plans.
Casino shares were down 2.2 percent in mid-session trading, although the stock remains up by around 22 percent so far in 2019, having fallen 28 percent last year.
“Overall the publication is rather positive but cash generation slightly disappointed the market,” said fund manager Gregoire Laverne at Roche Brune Asset Management.
Casino, which also controls Brazil’s top retailer Grupo Pao de Acucar, reported 2018 group operating profit of 1.209 billion euros, a rise of 18 percent on an organic basis - excluding tax credits - that beat the company’s own guidance for 10 percent growth.
French retail operations alone achieved operating profit of 518 million euros, an organic increase of 15.7 percent.
Casino raised its goal for the disposal of non-strategic assets to at least 2.5 billion euros, to be achieved by the first quarter of 2020.
Casino has a joint purchasing alliance with Auchan, German retailer Metro and France’s Schiever.
It is also expanding its online offering through a deal to use UK online retailer Ocado’s platform, while its Monoprix supermarket arm has also become the first French retailer to agree to sell groceries via Amazon.
Those two partnerships are expected to help generate revenue of 1 billion euros from the sale of groceries online, up from 300 million at present.
It has also been looking to diversify revenue sources away from its core retail business in recent years.
Casino is already making money from data it holds through its ‘relevanC’ and ‘3WRegie’ units and handles power and energy sales via its GreenYellow and Cdiscount Energie units.
Casino aims to further reduce its exposure to the hypermarket retail format in France to 15 percent of gross sales by 2021 from 21 percent in 2018, while in turn opening 300 premium and convenience stores. ($1 = 0.8836 euros) (Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Keith Weir)