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Profits at Amherst-based Columbus McKinnon Corp. fell 50 percent during the final three months of last year as sales dropped and margins tightened in its industrial markets.

The maker of hoists and chains reiterated its plans for a strategic overhaul, possibly including the sale of the company. Columbus McKinnon announced Jan. 11 that it had hired investment company Bear Stearns to study ways to boost its stock value.

"Given that Bear Stearns is very familiar with Columbus McKinnon -- they helped us go public in '96 -- we're proceeding expeditiously," said Timothy T. Tevens, the company's president and chief executive officer.

Columbus McKinnon's profits fell to $3.3 million, or 23 cents per share, down from $6.4 million, or 46 cents per share. Sales fell 7 percent to $174.2 million from $187 million.

The results, which were in line with analysts' estimates, got a cool reception on Wall Street. Columbus McKinnon stock fell 37 1/2 cents to $14.12 1/2 .

"Results were still pretty weak," said Joanna Shatney, an industry analyst at Goldman Sachs. Nothing in the financial performance weighs against looking at strategic alternatives, she said.

That most likely means a sale. Asked if the company's strategic options include acquisitions, Tevens called the possibility "remote."

Columbus McKinnon is also looking at the potential sale of its Automatic Solutions Inc. business, which provides equipment for auto assembly plants. The business has been a drag on earnings since it was acquired two years ago.

"ASI has had a troublesome quarter as it still grapples with the lower volume of business available," chief financial officer Robert L. Montgomery Jr. said.

The automotive solutions business had sales of $35.2 million, down from $48.2 million a year ago. The business has been hit by carmakers' shift away from plans for a new generation of assembly plants.

The third-quarter results were better than Shatney expected. She had forecast that the auto unit would lose money.

"It's like they stopped the bleeding," she said.

Shatney predicts a per-share profit of $1.18 for the current fiscal year and $1.70 for fiscal 2001, below the consensus estimate of $1.90.

The company's core business was bolstered by a 4 percent price increase in its products segment.

And despite softness in major markets such as the oil and paper industries, operating margins grew in the Products and Solutions -- Industrial segments.

For the nine months ended Jan. 2, the company had profits of $10.2 million and sales of $537.8 million, compared to profits of $18.7 million and sales of $557 million a year earlier.

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