Airgas (NYSE:ARG) sells gas, welding equipment, and safety supplies to manufacturers and end-users of industrial gases, which include chemical processors, the healthcare industry, and other smaller-scale industries requiring gases as raw materials.
Airgas and its competitors buy gas from gas producers such as Air Products and Chemicals (APD), L'aire Liquide or Linde in bulk, and then repackages these industrial gases into high-pressure cylinders as required by end-customer specifications. About 90% of the company's revenues come from the gas delivery business.
Airgas is the only national company in an industry dominated by regional players, largely because it is expensive to package and transport gas over long distances. Airgas has aggressively consolidated regional players throughout its history, acquiring 350 companies since its inception in 1986.
The company reports under two main business units:
Airgas operates in specific geographic regions in the US. It is limited by the expense of transporting gas in new regions, as well as the limitations of its existing infrastructure. Airgas does not have immediate plans for international acquisitions, but the CEO has indiated that, "we are open to the possibility of extending our business beyond North America and are currently evaluating opportunities on a case-by-case basis.
ARG margins are better than its competitors' because it can negotiate better deals when leasing trucks for transportation, produce gas canisters more cheaply at scale, and can negotiate larger distribution deals with clients. The effects are seen in both gross profit as well as operating profit, and ARG can win share by converting customers through lower prices, and buying-out opponents when the opportunity presents itself. This is the advantage of being the only national player in a highly fragmented industry.
Airgas' primary revenue growth comes from acquisitions of existing smaller distributor networks, with operating income efficiencies coming from leveraging Airgas' national structure. Although the company has historically been successful at meeting targets for acquisitions and not overpaying, integration risk exists for any one of Airgas' acquisitions.
The acquisition of Linde's bulk gas production group is a larger integration challenge than most, since it is in a business line different from the distribution side. While its products can be sold internally to ARG's distribution segment, the business will have to earn share from ARG's competitor-suppliers, such as Praxair (PX) and Air Products and Chemicals (APD).
Industrial gases are the main input to ARG's operations, and are typically purchased from a distributor such as Air Products and Chemicals (APD), L'aire Liquide or Praxair (PX). Energy price increases have been passed on to Industrial gas prices, as electricty costs are the main component of industrial gas cost of goods sold. High oil prices are creating the opposite effect - higher input costs - and competitive pricing pressure in this fractured market means ARG might not be able to pass-through cost increases. The dynamic between energy cost and industrial gas pricing will determine Airgas' revenue growth as well as margin expansion.
In light of the recessionary fears caused by the U.S. Housing Market, consumption of manufactured goods may drop, feeding into the economy at large. While slack demand for manufacturing will damage Airgas, as its gas sales come from manufacturer demand, there are alternative customer segments that Airgas participates in which shielded from some of the recessionary woes. For example, with rising energy inflation, alternative renewable energy becomes more attractive, which also demands gases as inputs. Healthcare, food, life sciences have also been identified as shielded from some of these cyclicality concerns.
Concerns over soft demand due to manufacturing are also partially offset by the weakening dollar. Though Airgas is a domestic-only player, many of its customers are international players in their respective markets, leading them to see more demand internationally as the dollar weakens.
International Gas Producers
These major international producers and distributors also happen to be ARG's chief suppliers, with long-term take-or-pay (either take the gas at our rates or pay us a small fee instead) agreements in place to guarantee their own revenues as well as ARG's supply.
These suppliers don't typically elect to compete in Airgas' "last-leg" business, delivering gases in non-bulk quantities to individual customers at a time. They instead prefer a business without the distribution challenges that ARG has embraced. However, they occasionally do choose to compete for select clients and markets.
Regional Gas Distributors
The challenges of distributing packaged gas over more than 50-100 miles are significant and costly - meaning the regional market is highly fragmented in this industry. This has created an opportunity for the acquisition strategy that has propelled Airgas to significant ownership of the market. However, even it does not have majority share in the national market.