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Leighton returns to profit

Leighton Holdings has returned to profit and driven down debt after least year's heavy losses, and forecast further growth in the year ahead.

The construction giant posted a net profit of $450.1 million in the 12 months to December 31, after recording a $285.5 million loss for calendar 2011.

It was able to swing back to the profit after completing the Brisbane AirportLink and Victorian desalination plant projects, which suffered massive cost blowouts.

Leighton's underlying net profit, which excludes one-off financial items, was $448 million, up from a loss of $229 million in 2011.

The company has forecast an underlying net profit of $520 million to $600 million for calendar year 2013.

Total annual revenue increased by three per cent to $18.95 billion.

A half-franked final dividend of 60 cents will be paid, in line with last year's payment.

While net debt increased in 2012 to $914 million, from $641 million, its gearing level was reduced to 35 per cent, from 46 per cent six months ago.

The company would aim to reduce that to 25 to 35 per cent this year, chief executive Hamish Tyrwhitt said.

Last year's result included more than $200 million in write-downs on the airport link (APL) and desalination plant (VDP) projects.

"In 2012, we returned to profitability while making progress on our stabilise, rebase and grow strategy and putting APL and VDP behind us," Mr Tyrwhitt said.

"In financial year 2013, subject to market conditions and unforeseen circumstances, we expect to deliver improved UNPAT (underlying net profit) in the range of $520 million to $600 million."

The group's troubled loss making Middle East-based Habtoor Leighton group (HLG) - in which it has a 45 per cent stake - would be a priority in 2013.

It is owed $800 million, most of it late payments for finished projects.

It is working on an "IPO-ready" target that would make the group self-sufficient.

"While the operating environment in the near term continues to be a challenge, through our investment in HLG we have a platform in the Middle East which presents us with medium- to long-term opportunities," Mr Tyrwhitt said.

The carrying value of Leighton's investment in HLG decreased from $379.4 million to $297.7 million during the year.

Leighton's shares opened more than four per cent stronger, up 87 cents to $21.68 by 1040 AEDT.