Not so long ago the foundations of Carrefour's empire were looking shaky. French consumers were abandoning its hypermarkets in favour of discount chains and things weren't going so well overseas either. Like Wal-Mart, the French retailing giant had expanded too quickly abroad and, somewhat ironically given its name, reached a crossroads.

It's certainly back on track now. It has just been named this year's International Retailer of the Year by Food from Britain and last week unveiled what analysts described as "reassuring" figures in its third-quarter trading statement (see boxout). The double achievement is testimony to a radical overhaul of its international strategy under José Luis Duran, president of the management board since 2005. Speed remains important, he says, but these days it's coupled with ruthless focus.

Historically, Carrefour's approach was too scattergun, he admits frankly. "We were over-proud of our flag planting strategy," he says. "What we've decided to do is focus on fewer countries but be more focused within these. We've exited several countries in the past three years, but at the same time we've focused on our priorities in our main markets and have appointed more and more top local management."

Duran is under no illusions about where Carrefour's future growth prospects lie. "We work on two engines and one can't work without the other," he says. "The first is the mature European backbone of the business built by France, Spain, Italy and Belgium and the second is what we define as our prime markets, which are delivering spectacular profitability. The second will assume more importance in the long term."

Like Wal-Mart, Carrefour is recalibrating its portfolio so it's less dependent on domestic markets and more on emerging markets such as South America and Asia. "Growth countries two years ago accounted for 20% of sales," says Duran. "In the most recent quarter that's grown to 27%. Within five years that can get to 40%."

The retailer has already increased the rate of store openings from 50 to 110 hypermarkets a year, 80-85% of which are in growth markets. It has also diversified beyond its hypermarket roots and now has hard discounters in eight countries, supermarkets in nine and c-stores in four.

The ability to adapt to local markets is key, says Duran, boasting that of the 500,000 people working for Carrefour around the globe, 99% are local. But so is making the most of any first mover advantage.

"In Mexico, the Czech Republic and Portugal, we were the pioneers in terms of international retailing but we were not fast enough in terms of store openings. The key drivers of growth are brand awareness, leadership and speed. We lacked speed."

He doesn't just mean in relation to new markets. "I'm talking about speed in terms of growth and innovation of new products. We have to be quicker in innovating and upgrading our range," he says. "Ten years ago it was more about volume and pricing. Pricing remains important but it's not enough. Time to market is key."

Carrefour is now trying to raise its own label game. Between 2002 and 2004 the number of new own label SKUs launched was "close to zero", says Duran. Since 2005, it's shot up to 1,000 new SKUs a year and he is confident it can maintain this rate of NPD .

"Forty per cent of our volumes are own label. Over the next three, four, five years, we will add 1.5% extra a year. I think that from a volume point of view we could get to 50% in the next five years. We are driving innovation by better using own brand. It's a race for speed."

He is equally bullish about the group's prospects with non food, which currently accounts for 20% of sales. "It's important to be seen as more of a specialist. You can't be a generalist any more," he says bluntly.

It is this new level of focus that impressed Food From Britain France. "This year Carrefour has continued to drive growth in international markets. Its accelerated growth strategy should give it

the momentum to withstand

rising global food prices," says Dominique Mine, FFB France's MD "This is a group with the world firmly in its sights."

And France? Duran, insists, the domestic market remains an important part of the mix. "I've never been in favour of extreme positions. It's true the French market in terms of growth is flatter, but don't forget it's France that generates the main cashflow for expansion. We're doing a pretty good job in a tough market."global ambitions

Carrefour's third-quarter statement underscored the importance of emerging markets to its growth. Group sales were up 5.5% to €23.1bn reflecting strong growth in Latin America and Asia in particular

South America: strong organic (+37%) and like-for-like (+12.3%) sales growth, boosted by the consolidation of Atacadão in Brazil in May. Argentina reported particularly strong like-for-like growth of 36.8%.

Asia: sales increased 16.6% with expansion contributing growth of 13%. China achieved sales of €723m (up 9.6% like-for-like) and expansion continued, contributing 16.7% to overall growth of 25.9%

Europe: sales were particularly strong in Poland, where they grew 54% following the integration of Ahold Polska. Spanish operations produced solid results with like-for-like sales growth of 1.2%. But Italy and Belgium remain weak and Carrefour confirmed it could divest loss-making stores

France: Carrefour blamed a 2% fall in sales over the quarter on poor weather, which hit clothes and seasonal items in particular. Customer traffic was down 3.2% and like-for-like sales fell 2.4%. However, the 22 stores converted to its new non-food format outperformed the average by 4-5%.

Sources: IGD Retail Analysis and Carrefour