* To develop strategy for $8 bln of assets by year-end
* Still learning about UST wine business
* SABMiller stake has tax hit if sold (Adds company comments. Changes dateline from NEW YORK)
By Brad Dorfman and Martinne Geller
BOCA RATON, Fla./NEW YORK, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Tobacco company Altria Group Inc (MO.N) on Wednesday said it hopes to have a strategy in place for $8 billion in alcohol assets by the end of the year, and stuck by its 2009 profit forecast.
The company is looking at what to do with a wine business it bought along with smokeless tobacco maker UST Inc, as well as its stake in SABMiller Plc SAB.L. Altria acquired the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates business when it bought UST in January.
The purpose of the acquisition was to get UST’s smokeless tobacco brands like Copenhagen and Skoal to expand in that segment, which is growing while the U.S. cigarette market continues to shrink.
With the wine business, along with its 28.6 percent stake in SABMiller, Altria has about $8 billion in alcohol assets that it has to develop a strategy for, Altria CEO Michael Szymanczyk said on Wednesday.
“I’d like us to frame a strategy by the end of the year,” Szymanczyk said in comments to reporters and analysts during the Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference in Florida.
He also cautioned against anyone making assumptions about what the company would do. Some analysts expect the company to sell the wine business because it does not fit in with Altria’s core tobacco business.
“I wouldn’t start with any preconceived notions with what we are going to do and what we aren’t going to do, because I’ll tell you, we haven’t decided that,” he said.
He also noted that the SABMiller stake has a low tax basis, which would mean the company could take a large tax hit if it is sold.
Altria also stuck by its forecast for 2009 earnings and said it sees its total number of jobs being nearly the same as a year earlier by the end of the year.
Altria, the parent of Marlboro cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, reaffirmed its view of adjusted earnings per share from continuing operations of $1.70 to $1.75, up 3 percent to 6 percent from comparable earnings in 2008.
Analysts had forecast full-year earnings per share of $1.71, according to Reuters Estimates.
The company said its forecast includes expectations of higher tobacco excise taxes, investments on its U.S. smokeless tobacco brands, cost cuts and no plans for buying back shares. Company executives said they would reevaluate the buyback program in 2010.
Altria shares closed down 4 cents at $15.53 on the New York Stock Exchange. (Reporting by Michele Gershberg, Brad Dorfman and Martinne Geller, editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Bernard Orr)