Tesco bosses said 2001 marked Tesco's coming of age as an international business with overseas stores finally making a substantial contribution to group profits. Speaking at the company's annual results presentation, chief executive Sir Terry Leahy said: "These figures mark the arrival of Tesco as a major international group. We are now profitable in eight of our nine overseas markets and market leader in five." Profits at the overseas division soared 60.8% to £119m on sales up 37.4% to £4bn. Deputy chairman David Reid said: "We are now well positioned to be the leading retailer in central Europe and south east Asia." By the end of 2003, half of Tesco's selling space will be outside its home market, and analysts had been looking for evidence that the colossal amount of capex Tesco has been pumping into its overseas operations was starting to filter through to the bottom line. The latest figures prove Tesco's strategy was working, said Reid: "Incredibly, 77% of our hypermarkets are less than three years old yet they are showing real evidence of profit in what is still a very immature business." Tesco is looking to open a "substantial" number of stores in the Irish Republic over the next few years, although just one store at Ashbourne was in the pipeline for this year, he added. "We are now self financing in Ireland, and despite disruption earlier in the year, fourth quarter sales were up 10%." However, the real stars of the international division were Thailand and South Korea, which both delivered profits ahead of plan, offsetting start up losses in Taiwan. While Tesco was watching developments from international rivals Carrefour and Wal-Mart in China and Japan, its own research teams were still trying to find a satisfactory entry route into these markets, said Reid. "We'll probably need a partner in Japan. But everyone is still trying to work out what's going to happen with the economy." Tesco was feeling "reasonably sanguine" when it came to government restrictions on new store openings in Malaysia and Thailand. "There's been zoning in Bangkok for some time," said Reid. "But we've already got planning permission for most of the stores we want to build in these markets for the next couple of years. It's a question of working with the planning authorities ­ as we do in the UK." By the end of the financial year, Tesco should have 77 stores in Ireland, 54 in Hungary, 51 in Thailand, 50 in Poland, 23 in South Korea, 18 in the Czech Republic, 17 in Slovakia, and four each in Malaysia and Taiwan. l Safeway Inc's online shopping service ­ in which Tesco has a stake ­ now operates from 20 stores on the west coast of the US, and trials are progressing in south Korea. Coverage in the Republic of Ireland is up to 70%. {{NEWS }}