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New technology, ageing population help Danish hearing aid makers

By Mette Fraende and Stine Jacobsen

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Danish hearing aid makers William Demant Holding and GN Store Nord reported rising profits as the global population ages, but cuts in Europe and stiff competition mean both will need to launch new products.

With the global ageing trend "without parallel in human history", according to the United Nations, the market for hearing aids has become more competitive, with companies trying to lure consumers with newer, sophisticated devices.

GN Store Nord reported the strongest organic sales growth in more than seven years, spurred by the launch of new products, including the ReSound Verso hearing aid line. It saw second quarter underlying operating profit jump nearly 60 percent

William Demant reported a more modest operating profit increase of just under 2 percent in the first half but said it aimed for a comeback in the mid-price segment in the second half of the year. Both companies kept their outlooks unchanged.

Shares in GN rose to their highest level since 2001, according to Reuters data, while Demant shares traded down 3.3 percent by 1030 GMT against a 0.2 percent fall in the Copenhagen stock exchange's benchmark index.

GN and rival Sonova have won over many customers with their more technologically advanced and broadly priced hearing aids, leaving William Demant struggling to market its primarily high-end, more expensive, products in 2012.

It said it had lost revenue of more than 100 million crowns in countries such as Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, where governments, struggling with slowing economic growth, have cut subsidies for more expensive product ranges.

The company said it would launch its biggest ever range of new products in the second half of the year, including a number of mid-priced devices.

"Our main focus in the second half of the year is to succeed with product launches and regain our leading position in the mid-price segment," said William Demant chief executive officer Niels Jacobsen.

GN's product range has higher, mid- and lower priced products, shielding it from European subsidy cuts, and has more sales exposure in the growing markets like the United States and Asia than rival William Demant.

"We are in the unique situation that we have hearing aid technology that we believe is unique and will take advantage of that technological lead as much as we can in the coming years," said GN's chief financial officer Anders Boyer.

TECHNOLOGY RACE

GN has several products which beat the competition on measures such as integrating 2.4 gigahertz technology into hearing aids rather than having to carry it in a separate device, for instance around the neck.

"GN is more about revolution in terms of products, whereas William Demant is more about evolution of a strong product portfolio," said Sydbank analyst Morten Imsgard.

"Two years ago, I think many people would have laughed if someone had said that GN ... would be a more profitable company than William Demant," Imsgard said.

In the second quarter, GN ReSound reported an EBITA margin, excluding restructuring costs of 19.2 percent compared with a first half EBIT margin of 19.3 percent for William Demant.

ReSound was well on its way to meet its target for an EBITA margin of around 20 percent for the year, the company said.

GN in February last year launched a cost cutting program, including consolidating its U.S. manufacturing sites, and has developed new devices, including some compatible with Apple's iPhone.

Sonova is the world's biggest hearing aid maker with a market share by volume of around 24 percent, closely followed by William Demant with a 23 percent share. The third biggest is Siemens, holding a 17 percent share and fourth ranks GN Resound with a 16 percent share.

GN said underlying earnings before interest, tax and amortization (EBITA) rose to 291 million Danish crowns ($51.64 million), roughly matching an average forecast of 295 million in a Reuters poll.

William Demant's first half operating profit rose 1.8 percent to 880 million Danish crowns ($156.16 million) compared with the same period a year ago, also roughly in line with forecasts.

(Reporting by Mette Fraende and Stine Jacobsen; Editing by Louise Heavens and Elizabeth Piper)

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