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Double-digit sales increases in its aerospace and specialty packaging divisions helped Astronics Corp. boost its fourth-quarter profits by 8.5 percent, officials for the Buffalo-based company said Tuesday.

The strong quarter helped Astronics post its 23rd consecutive quarter of rising earnings and extend its string of increased quarterly sales to 22 quarters. And John M. Yessa, vice president of finance, predicted that Astronics will see accelerated growth of sales and earnings in 2000.

The company begins the year with a $40 million backlog in business, due in large part to a lucrative contract to make night-vision modification kits for F-16 fighters. The Air Force contract could be worth up to $50 million for Astronics, a company that has doubled sales since 1994.

"With the F-16 program kicking in, we'll be looking at a nice increase in sales and profits," Yessa said. "We're very optimistic about the year 2000."

Astronics' profits rose to $1.83 million, or 31 cents per share, from $1.69 million, or 29 cents per share, a year ago. Sales in the fourth quarter rose to $15.2 million from $13 million the year before.

Yessa said the company's aerospace and electronics unit posted a 20 percent increase in sales, while its specialty packaging business saw sales increase by 10 percent.

He said Astronics continues to increase its reach into the specialty packaging business, noting that the company is making boxes for Mentholatum Co.'s new migraine ice product and has picked up additional business from Kendall Co., a sister company of Buffalo-based Graphic Controls Corp.

Profits for the year totaled $4.8 million, or 81 cents per share, up 11 percent from 1998. Sales in 1999 increased by 9.9 percent to $50.6 million.

Over the past five years, Astronics has achieved compounded annual earnings growth of 22.1 percent and sales growth of 12.2 percent.

The company is in the final stages of building a new headquarters and manufacturing facility for its Luminescent Systems division in East Aurora. Yessa said construction is about 90 percent completed on the $6 million facility off Route 20A. The project also includes a $1.5 million investment in new equipment.

The 65,000-square-foot facility is expected to employ about 80 new people. Production in the new plant began earlier this month.

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