In four consecutive quarters, we have achieved growth, reaching a 3.0% increase in sales and 6.2% excluding paper in the fourth quarter. This is primarily due to the ramp-up of strategic investments in Beihai, Varkaus and Murów, and favourable prices. Higher volumes, higher sales prices and a better product mix enabled us to reach operational EBIT margin of 11.2% and ROCE of 13.5%, above our long-term financial targets. Strong cash flow strengthened the balance sheet and net debt to operational EBITDA improved to 1.4. Our innovation strategy is paying off. In 2017, 7% of our products and services were new which is a considerable increase compared to 2016.
After finalising our strategic investments, our balance sheet and cash flow are strengthening. This enables us to reward our shareholders. The Board of Directors proposes to the Annual General Meeting a dividend of 0.41 euros per share, which is the third year in a row with an increase.
We continue to deliver on our promises related to the transformation. The ramp-up of Beihai Mill is ahead of schedule and its consumer board machine reached its designed capacity level and operational EBITDA break-even as planned. Also, Varkaus kraftliner mill reached its designed capacity level and exceeded its profitability target.
Securing raw material long term is crucial in the bioeconomy. As a consequence, we have signed a letter of intent aiming at structural changes in Bergvik Skog.
Stora Enso has made two important announcements during the first quarter this year that I’d like to highlight. We have signed a global framework agreement with three global unions to uphold fundamental labour rights. This is in line with our continuous efforts to provide a safe and rewarding workplace for our employees and contractors, and to be an attractive employer.
I am also very proud that we are the first forestry company to commit to a science based target to further reduce our CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions. This in line with the 2°C limit set for global warming by the Paris Agreement, and is a natural step for us as the renewable materials company.
As always, I would like to thank our customers for their business, our employees for their dedication, and our investors for their trust.”
Q1/2018 sales are estimated to be similar to or slightly higher than the amount of 2 511 million euros recorded in the fourth quarter 2017, and operational EBIT is expected to be somewhat higher than the 280 million euros recorded in Q4/2017. There are no major scheduled annual maintenance shutdowns during Q1/2018.