(Reuters) – Bouygues should grow its sales and core profit further in 2022, the French conglomerate said on Thursday, as it posted annual earnings that surpassed expectations to land ahead of their pre-pandemic levels.

The construction, telecoms and media group posted a current operating profit of 1.69 billion euros ($1.90 billion), just beating its 2019 figure and analysts’ 1.65 billion euro forecast, while its core profit margin rose to 4.5% exceeding its pre-pandemic figure by one percentage point.

Though sales and net profit saw a strong progression from 2020, when pandemic lockdowns put construction works on hold and restricted travel ate into telecom firms’ lucrative roaming fees, they did not return to prior levels.

“Bouygues is well-positioned for 2022,” Chief Executive Olivier Roussat said in a statement, adding that plans to buy energy services unit Equans and merge its TV arm with M6 should make the group more resilient and further expand its reach.

Bouygues aims to seal its acquisition of Equans – its largest ever – in the second half of 2022, while its subsidiary TF1, already France’s top private TV operator, is planning to buy its next-biggest rival by the end of the year.

It said the 7 billion-euro Equans acquisition should make the group the world’s No. 2 player in multi-technical services, poised to benefit from the transition to digital services and green energy.

Nevertheless, the firm said it had whittled down its net debt to a historically low level of 941 million euros, from 1.98 billion at the end of 2020, helped by a sale of shares it held in leading trainmaker Alstom.

The group proposed a dividend of 1.80 euros per share.

The company had given guidance for 2021 sales and core earnings to be “very close” to their 2019 levels.

($1 = 0.8891 euros)

(Reporting by Sarah Morland; editing by David Evans)