* Shares hit record high but then fall back
* CFO says FY 2017/18 profit consensus “ambitious”
* Strong performance of cognac in China
* Q1 group sales up 8 pct l-f-l vs est. 4.7 pct (Recasts with CFO comments, shares)
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS, July 20 (Reuters) - Remy Cointreau struck a cautious note on its profit outlook due to planned investments on Thursday, although the French drinks company exceeded market forecasts with its first-quarter sales.
A strong performance from the maker of Remy Martin cognac and Cointreau liquor, partly driven by a rebound in demand in China, had led some analysts to expect a higher profit forecast.
Remy’s group sales hit 240.2 million euros ($276 million) in the three months to June 30, up 8 percent on a like-for-like basis. This marked a rise from 0.9 percent growth in the fourth quarter, and beat analysts’ forecasts of 4.7 percent growth.
But the company’s chief financial officer Luca Marotta tempered expectations during a call with analysts, saying that while the consensus forecast for a 2017-2018 operating profit of 244-245 million euros was achievable, it was “quite ambitious” given Remy’s plans to invest and spend money on its top brands.
Remy shares, which initially hit a record high of 106.45 euros, then fell back during the call with the analysts.
Remy shares were 2.2 percent lower at 101.45 euros at 1030 GMT, although they are up 25 percent since the start of 2017.
“The stock has lost a bit of ground, after Remy told analysts that they ought not to extrapolate too much from the strong sales figures,” Keren Finance fund manager Benoit de Broissia said.
Cognac sales, which contribute 65 percent to group revenue, jumped 18.7 percent in the quarter, up from 6.2 percent growth in the fourth quarter and also above analysts’ expectations of 11.7 percent growth.
Solid double-digit sales growth in China largely outpaced a softer start in the United States, which is Remy’s top market but which struggled with high year-ago comparables when cognac sales had been boosted by price increases. Marotta predicted U.S. sales would return to growth in the second quarter.
Remy Cointreau, Pernod and British rival Diageo have all faced pressure in the past over sales in China, following a crackdown on luxury gift-giving and personal spending by Chinese civil servants.
As a result, Remy shifted its focus to the United States, which is now its top market for cognac, but demand in China has been picking up again.
Remy Cointreau has been focusing on selling spirits priced at $50 a bottle or more, as part of a strategy that has benefited from a rebound in Chinese demand.
This strategy differs from that of rival Pernod Ricard , which has launched less expensive brands in China.
A fast-growing upper middle-class was driving demand in mainland China, while trends were also improving in Macao and Hong Kong, the company said.
“We are very positive for the rest of the year in China,” Marotta said. ($1 = 0.8696 euros) (Reporting by Dominique Vidalon and Sudip Kar-Gupta; editing by Alexander Smith)