ICON, the international contract research organisation (CRO) based in Ireland, has entered 2009 on a “positive, though cautious” note.

The qualified assessment came from ICON’s chief executive officer, Peter Gray, as the CRO reported strong growth in revenues and operating income for the fourth quarter of 2008 and the full year. With a backlog of US$1.74, ICON had started this year “in a good position, although the difficult economic climate has put some customers under pressure and has created a degree of uncertainty”, Gray acknowledged.

The CRO turned in net revenues of US$220.1 million for the three months ended 31 December 2008, up by 21.9% over the same period of 2007. Operating income for the quarter was 33.8% higher at US$26.5 million and diluted earnings per share (EPS) rose by 34.6% to US$0.35.

In the full year, net revenues (which exclude reimbursable expenses) increased by 37.2% to US$865.2 million, just topping the revised forecast for net revenues of US$862 million to US$865 million given by ICON in January. Diluted EPS also improved on the adjusted full-year guidance (US$1.27 to US$1.29), climbing 38.3% over 2007 to US$1.30. Operating income for 2008 was US$99.5 million, 43.7% above the previous year.

In January ICON lowered its revenue guidance for 2008, citing “currency factors”, but raised its forecast for diluted earnings per share. The revised guidance for net revenues of US$862 million to US$865 million compared with a forecast of US$870-US$890 million in July 2008, when ICON announced its second-quarter results.

The revised guidance for diluted EPS of US$1.27-US$1.29 was against a second-quarter forecast of US$2.46-US$2.52. However, the CRO completed a bonus issue of ordinary shares equivalent to a 2-for-1 stock split in August, which effectively halved the EPS forecast from July to US$1.23-US$1.26 per share.

In the latest quarter, net new business awards came to US$261 million, giving a book-to-bill ratio of 1.2 to 1. ICON’s net business awards totaled US$1.3 billion in 2008, a 28% increase over the previous year.