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Royal Ahold NV, the Dutch parent company of Tops Markets Inc., announced its worldwide fourth-quarter net profits rose 16.7 percent to $73.1 million.

Ahold, which operates more than 600 stores in the United States and another 1,500 stores in the Netherlands, Portugal and the Czech Republic, recorded a 1993 fourth-quarter net profit of $62.5 million.

Operating earnings for the Oct. 1 through Dec. 31 period totaled $133.2 million, a 13.4 percent rise over a total of $117.5 million for the same period in the prior year.

At its U.S. stores, a stable that includes Tops, Finast, Edwards, Bi-Lo, Giant and Red Food stores, operating results totaled $52 million, a 20.9 percent jump from $43 million in the fourth quarter of 1993.

Greatly improved results at the 44-store, Ohio-based Finast chain and at the 74 Edwards Super Foods stores throughout New England are credited with pushing the quarterly totals higher.

Ahold also noted improvements at Tops, Giant and Bi-Lo.

Larry Castellani, Tops president and chief executive officer, declined to provide either fourth-quarter or 1994 revenues and earnings figures for the Tops chain or its Wilson Farms and Vix Deep Discount Drugs division.

However, he did indicate 1994 was a very profitable one.

"Tops had another excellent year with record sales and operating income," Castellani said. "All three of our divisions were very successful and we're very proud of the efforts of our people which made it possible."

Castellani said the chain's superstore concept has "paid off handsomely."

Ahold's fourth-quarter numbers exceeded the expectations of Dutch analyst Gerard Rijk, of CLN Oyens & Van Eeghen.

"In general, these figures are a bit better than what I had expected," Rijk said. "All areas are stronger than expected. Everything is running well and there seem to be no disappointments."

For all of 1994, Ahold reported total net earnings of $262 million, up $2.21 per share. That is a 19.4 percent increase over 1993's $219.5 million.

Ahold raised its dividend 24.2 percent, to 77 cents per Dutch share, while the U.S. share payout is up 30.4 percent, to 30 cents (U.S.). The difference in dividends is related to tax laws.

Consolidated sales for Ahold were up by 7 percent, to $18.5 billion. When excluding sales from the 55-store Red Foods Stores chain the Dutch grocer purchased in May 1994, sales rose by 4.3 percent over 1993 totals.

Sales in the United States jumped 12 percent (6 percent when Red Foods contributions are excluded) to $7.4 billion.

Tops, South Carolina-based Bi-Lo and Pennsylvania-based Giant all were singled out by Ahold executives for their higher 1994 sales figures.

Ahold Chairman Cees van der Hoeven called 1994 "an exciting year."

"In all areas of our business, change processes have been initiated in order to improve quality and efficiency," van der Hoeven said.

He particularly noted the launching of new low-price sales strategies and reduced operating costs at the Finast and Edwards chains in the United States. "Under heavy competition, Finast tackled the market with a completely new marketing strategy which was well received locally," the chairman said. "Edwards has drastically changed its store format and market approach."

Ahold is now the seventh-largest supermarket owner in the United States and is striving to become the biggest operator east of the Mississippi.

In 1994, Ahold added the Red Foods Stores chain to its U.S. holdings, purchasing those 55 stores located in Tennessee and Georgia from French retailer Promodes SA.

Van der Hoeven said he expects to see further increases in 1995's earnings and sales.

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