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Elders improves, but still in the red

About 30 parties have expressed an interest in acquiring the rural services business of Elders, says its managing director Malcolm Jackman.

Agribusiness and automotive interiors supplier Elders put its rural services business up for sale in October, saying it wanted to sell it to accelerate returns to shareholders.

Mr Jackman said on Monday that there had been significant interest in the rural services business even though Elders had not reached out proactively to any potential buyer.

"There was about 30 parties that have rung in (expressing an interest in the rural services business)," he said during a briefing for market analysts and reporters.

"There's a real balance between trade players and what we would call financial sponsors (investment funds or private equity).

"I would say about 50/50 between international and local (parties), and probably a weighting of 60/40 in trade to financial sponsors."

Mr Jackman said Elders was still in the early stages of the sales process, having engaged in some "opening dialogue".

Elders on Monday reported a $60.6 million annual loss but said its underlying performance was improving.

Elders' result in the year to September 30 compares to a $395.4 million loss in the prior year.

The fiscal 2012 loss was caused primarily by $75.3 million in costs, impairments and losses related to the company's exit from its forestry business.

Underlying profit, which excludes one-off items, in the year to September was $13.2 million, up 47 per cent from $9 million in the previous year.

Earnings were higher in the company's agricultural services and automotive interiors business, Futuris.

Mr Jackman said the focus for Elders in the year ahead would be completing the sale of both its rural services and Futuris businesses while maintaining their improving performance.

The company began a sale process for the rural services business in late October, and a similar process for Futuris in August.

Mr Jackman said the sale of Futuris Automotive was now well-advanced.

Mr Jackman said that despite Elders' "headline" loss in 2012, the group's performance showed an overall improvement and debt continued to fall.

Rural services, which is Elder's biggest business, generated an 18 per cent lift in underlying earnings from $24.9 million in fiscal 2011 to $29.5 million in 2012 as its international trading operations lifted cattle exports by 25 per cent.

This more than offset lower earnings from Elders' branch network which sells farm inputs such as chemicals and fertiliser.

Unseasonably dry conditions late in the year across much of Western Australia and southern Australia affected the branch network's earnings from its livestock agency business, and demand for crop inputs was weak.

Futuris Automotive lifted its underlying earnings by 10 per cent from $16.8 million in 2011 to $18.5 million in 2012 due to increased sales in Thailand and the consolidation of the Anhui joint venture in China.

Mr Jackman said Futuris' global manufacturing model and its diversification into non-automotive manufacturing in Australia was positioning that business well for further expansion.

Shares in Elders were 0.5 cents lower at 14.5 cents on Monday.