Compass, the largest caterer in the world, said it would return £1 billion to investors after strong business wins in the US and emerging markets boosted first half profits.

The company, which provides meals for schools, work canteens and major sporting events such as Wimbledon, said the cash would be paid out as a special dividend on July 29 this year.

In the first six months of the financial year to March 31, the business boosted profits by 5.7% to £608 million, beating market forecasts of £604 million. Shares rose nearly 5%, taking it to the top of the FTSE 100 leaderboard.

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Compass said a 6.8% rise in new business wins accounted for the rise, including contracts for L'Oreal, PDI DreamWorks and Nomura.

Chief executive Richard Cousins said the US market, which accounts for almost half of its sales, is the "principal growth engine for the group". The North American market grew sales 6.3% to £4.2 billion in the period helped by new business wins from Yale New Haven Hospital and Trent University.

The firm's emerging markets territories lifted sales 9.4% to £1.6 billion on the back of wins such as HN Hospitals in India and Nike in China.

However, the Europe and Japan saw sales slip 2.1% to £3 billion, although in the UK it won contracts for Addenbrooke's Hospital and another to serve 15,000 Royal Navy staff.

Mr Cousins said the group had a good first half of the year and that "our expectations for the full year remain positive."

Analysts at Investec added: "Compass is ably demonstrating the consistent growth and cash returns which drive our deep admiration for the business."

Compass is already in the middle of a £500 million share buyback programme, and added it will raise its interim dividend 10% to 8.8p a share.

Compass serves more than 4 billion meals a year and employs more than 500,000 people in around 50 countries.