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AUSTIN-Whole Foods Markets Inc., the Austin-based natural foods retailer, reported higher earnings and sales in its third fiscal quarter. Overall sales increased 21%, same-store sales rose 10.5% and net income rose 36%.

“We believe we are well positioned in these uncertain times,” John Mackey, the company’s chairman, CEO and president, said in releasing the figures. “Not only have we shown consistent sales growth of over 20% for the past 11 quarters, but we are producing significant cash flow resulting in our balance sheet being stronger today than it has ever been.”

Third-quarter revenue was $648.7 million, up from $535.6 million in the 2002 third quarter. Net income was $22 million or 39 cents per share in the 2002 third quarter, rising from $16.1 million or 30 cents a share a year ago.

Whole Foods has paid off $86 million in debt during the current fiscal year, freeing up cash. That had stock analysts asking in a conference call if the company would use some of that cash to accelerate the pace at which it opens stores. Mackey replied that Whole Foods would “continue our disciplined approach to real estate. We wait until we find the right locations that we think are going to be very successful.”

Mackey says Whole Foods won’t grow to meet artificial targets set by Wall Street. “What we’re convinced of is that the market for what we’re doing is very large and getting larger,” he said. “We’re going to grow as rapidly as we can and maintain the things that make Whole Foods special and unique.” The company operates 133 stores and has 22 in development, averaging 38,000 sf each.

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