3M finished a pandemic-addled 2020 on a strong note, posting a fourth-quarter profit surge that handily topped Wall Street's forecast while signaling better times in 2021.

The Maplewood-based manufacturing giant also reinstated its sales and profit outlook Tuesday, which it had dropped last winter amid the economic chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 3M anticipates sales to increase by up to 8% in 2021, after dropping 3.6% last year.

"We expect a return to healthy growth," 3M CEO Mike Roman said in a conference call with analysts.

3M's fourth quarter was again buoyed by strong sales of respirator masks, which have been in particularly high demand in the health care industry as it continues to grapple with COVID-19.

"We still see strong [respirator] demand around the world," Roman told analysts.

3M posted fourth-quarter earnings of $1.39 billion, or $2.38 per share, up 43% over the same time a year ago when the company recorded a notably weak quarter riddled with charges.

Stock analysts on average were forecasting 3M fourth-quarter earnings of $2.15 per share and sales of $8.4 billion. 3M's actual sales tallied $8.6 billion, up 5.8% over a year ago.

Last year was a challenging one for 3M, with several of its key businesses buffeted by COVID-19. In December, the company announced it would cut another 2,900 jobs worldwide.

But the fourth quarter indicates the tide may be turning.

"3M is now firing on all cylinders, in our view, and will see healthy revenue growth and margin expansion in 2021 as vaccines further revive industrial output," said a report Tuesday from Colin Scarola, an analyst at CFRA Research.

3M's stock closed Tuesday at $175.95, up 3%.

Fourth-quarter sales and profits rose in all four of 3M's divisions, led by its safety and industrial business, which posted a 50% year-over-year increase in earnings and a 12.7% increase in revenue to $3.1 billion.

Organic sales growth in that division was boosted by a 10 percentage point increase in demand for 3M's respirators because of the pandemic.

The N-95 respirator, which 3M invented, is considered the gold standard for health care and industrial workers, blocking out 95% of airborne particles. 3M upped its respirator production capacity fourfold in 2020 over 2019.

Last spring, former President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to boost N-95 production and distribution, requiring 3M to prioritize orders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

3M has contracts with the federal government to supply well over 100 million respirators. The Defense Department awarded $202 million in grants to 3M for increasing U.S. respirator manufacturing capacity. 3M also has invested at least $80 million in that effort.

Since Joe Biden became president last week, he has talked of further using the Defense Production Act to boost vaccine development and production, as well as increasing output of personal protection equipment such as respirators.

"We have had productive conversations with the Biden administration," Roman told analysts Tuesday without specifically mentioning the Defense Production Act. "We look forward to working with the Biden administration and congressional leaders."

A particular bright spot during 3M's fourth quarter: Its transportation and electronics business recovered, with profits rising 8% and sales increasing 2.3% to $2.3 billion.

"After a challenging two years, fourth-quarter sales growth turned positive," Monish Patolawala, 3M chief financial officer, told stock analysts.

The company's health care division saw a 22% increase in profits with sales rising 5.4% to $2.3 billion. Sales in 3M's consumer products division were $1.4 billion — up 10.6% — while profits rose 11%.

3M's fourth-quarter sales of products for home improvement and home care remained strong as people cocooned during COVID.

On the flip side, 3M's weakness in office-product markets and medical goods for elective surgeries continued due to COVID.

3M's revenue growth was strongest in the Americas and Europe and the Middle East, with sales adjusted for currency fluctuation up 7.9% in the former and 5.6% in the latter. Currency-adjusted sales in Asia Pacific rose 1.7%.

3M initiated on Tuesday its full-year 2021 guidance with earnings expected to be in the range of $9.20 to $9.70 per share.

3M also expects to resume stock buybacks in 2021, Patolawala told analysts.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003