* Annual current op profit 156 mln euros vs forecast 150 mln
* Aims to grow comparable current operating profit
* Unveils 5-year plan to boost profit margins
* Shares rise as much as 8 pct (Recasts with CEO comments, shares)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, June 17 (Reuters) - Remy Cointreau posted higher than expected annual profit on Wednesday, despite a difficult year in China, and said it would accelerate a drive to sell higher-priced spirits to boost profit margins, sending its shares up to 8 percent higher.
The maker of Remy Martin cognac, Cointreau liqueur and Mount Gay Rum also handed investors a 20 percent dividend increase and predicted further growth in current operating profit in its 2015-16 financial year that began on April 1.
At 1120 GMT, Remy Cointreau shares were up 1.6 percent at 65.15 euros, off a session-high of 70 euros, but outperforming a European blue-chip index down 0.6 percent.
New Chief Executive and luxury sector specialist Valerie Chapoulaud-Floquet told a news conference Remy Cointreau wanted to become the world leader in top-end spirits.
To achieve that goal, it would focus on selling more products priced at $50 a bottle or more, while investing in newer markets such as Africa, South East Asia, and Latin America at a time of slower growth in China.
Remy Cointreau expected the top-end spirits market to contribute 60-65 percent of sales by 2020 compared with 45 percent today and drive the current operating margin to 18-20 percent of sales by 2020 from 16 percent now.
Remy Cointreau said its operating profit for the year ended March 31 rose 13.5 percent to 156 million euros on an organic basis, which excludes foreign exchange moves and any purchases or sales of businesses. That beat the average estimate in an I/B/E/S poll of 150 million.
The result reflected cost control and robust sales of higher-priced spirits in the United States, now the group’s largest market, which offset weak cognac demand in China.
Remy Cointreau, like rivals LVMH, Diageo and Pernod Ricard, has been hit by the Chinese government’s crackdown on ostentatious spending and slowing economic growth in the world’s second-biggest economy.
However, signs emerged in recent months that demand was improving in China, notably during the lunar new year celebrations in February.
Chapoulaud-Floquet cautioned Remy Cointreau was not seeing any significant recovery in Chinese demand and that 2015 there should be pretty much “in line” with 2014.
The Remy Martin cognac division saw its operating profit decline 2.1 percent as reduced cognac shipments to China weighed in the first half. This was offset by a 52 percent jump in the operating profit of the liquors and spirits division, on the back of strong demand in the United States. (Reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Editing by Leila Abboud and Mark Potter)