7201 Hamilton Boulevard
Allentown, Pennsylvania 18195-1501
Telephone: (610) 481-4911
Fax: (610) 481-5900
Web site: http://www.airproducts.com
Incorporated: 1940 as Industrial Gas Equipment Co.
Sales: $7.41 billion (2004)
Stock Exchanges: New York
Ticker Symbol: APD
NAIC: 325110 Petrochemical Manufacturing; 325120 Industrial Gas Manufacturing; 325211 Plastics Material and Resin Manufacturing
Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., is a leading global producer of industrial, specialty, and medical gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, argon, and hydrogen. Since the late 1990s Air Products has been focused on opportunities in the electronics, energy, and healthcare industries. Another growth platform was the commercialization of nanomaterials. The company also was building filling stations for hydrogen powered vehicles. Air Products has a reputation for both fiscal security and the safety of its workers. Formed around the concept of onsite industrial gases production, the development and growth of Air Products has been characterized by innovation. As former company president Dexter F. Baker noted in Research Management magazine in 1986, the company found success through the employment of four fundamental criteria: "Finding a market that is not being well-satisfied, creating a superior technical solution, commercializing the solution, and acting as an investor in one's own new creative solution."
Air Products founder Leonard Parker Pool began his career as a teenager selling oxygen to industrial customers, and, by the age of 30, he was district manager for Compressed Industrial Gases. In 1938, when Pool began his work, the oxygen market was dominated by large companies such as Linde AG and the Air Reduction Company, which avoided price wars and did not intrude in each other's sales territory. Oxygen was inexpensive to distill, and the raw material from which it is distilled, air, is free, so the chief costs involved shipping oxygen in heavy containers. Pool's idea was to distill oxygen in the customer's plant; however, the cost of this plan would have been prohibitive unless a cheap oxygen generator could be designed.
Pool, the son of a boiler-maker, had only a high school education, so, to design the generator he needed, he hired a young engineer by the name of Frank Pavlis to work with him. Their design was revolutionary because it used a compressor lubricated with liquid oxygen and graphite. At that time, competitor compressors were lubricated with water due to the fear that the compressed oxygen, in contact with a lubricating oil, would ignite when exposed to the smallest spark. When oxygen was compressed using water, several steps were required to then remove the water from the oxygen. The new generator, however, could skip these steps and, as a result, it was less expensive to build, install, and maintain.
By 1940, Pool and Pavlis had a functioning generator. Pool quit his job, sold his insurance policy, and borrowed all the money that his wife—a schoolteacher—had saved. With this capital, he founded Air Products Inc. and opened shop in a former mortuary. In these last years of the Great Depression, the American business climate was dismal, and Pool had a great deal of difficulty selling his generators.
With the onset of World War II, Air Products began to thrive, manufacturing mobile oxygen generators for the armed services and heavy industry. When the war ended, Air Products lost many of its clients and was forced to aggressively pursue new accounts. Although Air Products could provide oxygen at a cost 25 percent lower than its competitors, customers were slow to take advantage of the new system, which was offered through five- to ten-year leasing agreements, under which Air Products would maintain the generator and teach employees how to operate it. While customers found the idea appealing, many were locked into long-term contracts with a company that shipped oxygen to their plants.
In desperation, Pool traveled to Pittsburgh and used a sales technique called "door-stepping" to win a major contract with Weirton Steel. This sales technique involved staying at the customer's plant until the contract was signed. Pool said years later, "God, we just lived at Weirton Steel when we learned they were interested in our proposition." Indeed, Weirton was practically Air Product's only customer at that time.
In need of funds to construct a new plant, Air Products sent out a prospectus to potential investors. Pool acknowledged the company's inexperience, stating that Air Products "has no background in prewar civil business," and that in competing "by a new method of distribution in a well-established field against experienced competitors who have much greater resources" Air Products expected "to operate at a loss following the completion of its government contracts." The company's boldness and candor apparently impressed investors, and the necessary $300,000 was raised. Soon, Air Products had installed generators at several chemical companies and had built a huge generator for Weirton Steel, a generator 100 times larger than any that had been built before.
Pool attributed a large part of his company's success to his "tiger pack," a group of aggressive young engineers serving as sales staff at Air Products. Pool maintained a close watch over operations, and, although he became known for his sense of humor and his commitment to his employees, he was also capable of dealing out a tongue-lashing to anyone who misled a customer or lost a sale.
In the late 1950s, Air Products profited from the launching of the first Soviet Sputnik, which American scientists surmised was powered by liquid hydrogen. When the U.S. defense department wanted liquid hydrogen, Air Products was asked to supply it. As a security precaution, new Air Products Company plants were provided with code names such as "Baby-Bear" and "Project Rover"; one large plant was disguised as the "Apix Fertilizer Company."
In addition to the production of liquid hydrogen, Air Products also branched out into new areas of chemistry, like fluorine chemistry and cryogenics (the science of ultra-low temperatures). The company's oxygen business also continued to grow. The company no longer leased generators but built multimillion dollar operations near major customers, including Ford Motor Co. and U.S. Steel, selling any excess capacity to smaller customers.
Throughout the 1960s, Air Products thrived; sales rose 400 percent, while earnings rose 500 percent. The expansion into merchant gas (gas sold in tanks) proved profitable for the company, although Air Products was a latecomer to the field. Air Products used its late entrance into the field to its advantage by conceding the saturated markets to its well established rivals, Linde and Air Reduction Company, seeking out smaller, more receptive markets instead. In fact, as Air Products saw its fortunes growing, competitors like Linde experienced decreased profits.
During this time, oxygen-fired furnaces became a popular alternative to the hearth-style furnaces used in the steel-making industry, increasing oxygen consumption considerably. Nitrogen, another Air Products specialty, was also in demand as a refrigerant. Air Products also began selling the implements necessary to handling gases, such as welding tools, anesthesia equipment, and cryogenic systems. Gases and gas-related equipment accounted for approximately three-fourths of Air Product's profits during the 1960s; the remainder came from chemicals and engineering services.
The diversification of Air Products into chemicals began in 1962 with the company's purchase of Houdry Chemicals and, later, Air Company, a specialty chemical company. When the Air Company was purchased by Air Products, it was losing money. To achieve a turnaround, Air Products took Air Company's acetylic chemicals and made them into specialty chemicals that fetched a higher price; the plant became profitable almost immediately. In 1969, Air Products purchased Escambia Chemicals, paying a cash price well below its market value. Escambia's attraction lay in a product called DABCO, regarded as the best catalyst for making urethane foam.
Due to the energy crisis and a recession, the 1970s was a difficult period for many chemical companies. Although Air Products could not sustain the phenomenal growth it experienced in the 1960s, its annual sales and profits increased at least 9 percent and sometimes as high as 20 percent. During this time, the company held a strong position in industrial gases both in the United States and abroad, as its gases were used by virtually every major industry. The chemical division performed erratically, however, and, during the recession, its engineering services division, which designed pipelines and plants, yielded disappointing results. Nevertheless, Air Products' industrial gases kept the company afloat.
Air Products touches the lives of consumers around the globe in positive ways every day. We serve customers in healthcare, technology, energy, and industrial markets worldwide with a unique portfolio of products, services and solutions, providing atmospheric gases, process and specialty gases, performance materials and chemical intermediates. The company has built leading positions in key growth markets, such as semiconductor materials, refinery hydrogen, home healthcare services, natural gas liquefaction, and advanced coatings and adhesives.
The energy crisis had both positive and negative effects on Air Products. The industrial gases division, which consumed a large amount of electricity, was sensitive to rising utility rates. As the price of organic fuels rose, however, oxygen became a more popular fuel. The increased production costs of petro-chemicals and plastics were offset by higher demand for cryogenic equipment and gases to liquify natural gas. Like many other successful chemical companies, Air Products was thus able to benefit from the high energy prices in some cases.
During this time, the OPEC oil embargo convinced company management to invest in synthetic fuels. In 1980, Air Products, Wheelbraton Fry Inc., the state of Kentucky, and the U.S. Department of Energy formed a joint venture to produce a high-energy, low-pollution fuel from coal. Air Products invested $45 million in the project, while the bulk of the money, $748 million, came from the federal government. As none of the various synthetic fuel projects were successful, Air Products' only consolation was the high levels of oxygen consumed in the unsuccessful venture. Still, Air Products remained interested in energy development. In 1985, the company bought a methane recovery plant and accelerated development of a plant that converted garbage to steam and electricity.
A 12-year, $281 million contract to supply liquid hydrogen for the space shuttle bolstered earnings, as did the discovery of expanded uses for industrial gases. For instance, the food industry increased its use of hydrogen for hydrogenating vegetable oils, and flash-freezing, a process that required nitrogen, became an increasingly more popular technique.
In the 1970s and the early 1980s, Air Products, like other highly successful chemical companies of the same size, became concerned with having a product that could be used by a myriad of industries, in order to avoid overdependence on staple products linked to cyclical industries. Toward this end, Air Products focused on marketing oxygen and industrial gases to a wide variety of clients, so that dramatic downturns in an industry—such as steel manufacturing—would not be fatal to the company.
Also during this time, Air Products established a reputation for hiring highly competent, professional engineers, chemists, and business staff. Rather than assuming responsibility for such hirings, company president Edward Donley delegated the job to the vice-presidents and line managers, whom, according to Donley, were better judges of an applicant's potential than professional recruiters. The applicants hired by Air Products sometimes spent up to three years working in different departments of their choice, in order to decide where their skills would be best employed. Air Products also believed the exposure of engineers and chemists to management positions would prove vital to future success.
Air Products also demonstrated a commitment to the health and safety of its workers. In the 1970s, when three employees died from PVC-induced cancer, Air Products periodically tested 492 other workers at two plants for possible exposure, and steps were taken to minimize health risks. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the company developed "Responsible Care" objectives to promote safety, environmentalism, and health at its facilities. At the same time, however, the company initiated a legal challenge to industry regulations, claiming that many were unfeasible to implement.
In 1986, Air Products embarked on a ten-year strategic plan that added a third core business, environment-energy, and focused on globalization of the firm. Between 1986 and 1993, the company invested $1 billion in European facilities as part of its strategy to replace older, less efficient plants, add new production capacity, and create new products. Significant investments in Asia resulted in the construction of seven industrial gas plants by 1992. The company also gained access to significant markets by buying mid-sized competitors and entering into joint ventures.
By 1990, investments of $1.2 billion in the environmental-energy systems segment had expanded that division to include: a refuse-fired cogeneration facility; the American REF-FUEL joint venture with Browning-Ferris for building waste-to-energy facilities; a joint venture with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to market flue gas desulfurization systems; and a methane gas reclamation business for landfills. Air Products' tire recycling program, which was undertaken in 1988, came to fruition in the early 1990s, as the rubber recovered from scrap tires promised to reduce the environmental and health hazards presented by scrap tires and offered cost savings for the production of rubberized asphalt, shoe soles, carpet underlay, and other products. Although Air Products faced well-established competition in the environmental arena, the rapid expansion of that market promised significant returns.
During this time, Air Products' earnings per share increased about 20 percent per year, double the rate of Standard & Poor's industrial index. In 1992, Harold A. Wagner, who had been a key proponent of the strategic plan, replaced Dexter Baker as chairperson and chief executive officer, and Air Products launched a two-year program to consolidate and restructure its $1.1 billion chemical business. The reorganization streamlined the chemicals segment from four to three divisions, realigned its management, and reduced its workforce by 7 to 10 percent, or 1,000 to 1,400 jobs. In 1993, Air Products achieved record cash flows, sold record volumes of industrial gases and chemicals, and ranked as the third largest supplier of industrial gases in the world. The company planned to continue expanding its global investment programs throughout the 1990s.
The second half of the 1990s was a period of intense consolidation in the industrial gases industry. To survive as a public company, Air Products had to keep meeting Wall Street's expectations. Air Products sold its share of the American Ref-Fuel business in 1996 for $400 million. The company was focusing on areas where it was a leader or expected significant growth, while maintaining a commitment to its energy and environmental segment. Industrial gases, however, which with sales of $2.5 billion accounted for 60 percent of total revenues, remained its core business, CEO Harold A. Wagner told Chemical Week.
Air Products acquired an intermediates business from Britain's Imperial Chemical Industries in 1997. This was soon supplemented with the purchase of Solkatronic Chemicals and the addition of a methylamines plant in Florida.
Air Products was aiming to grow its business in international markets. Its overseas gases business was built on enduring joint ventures and preferred to deal in higher-value gases such as those used in the electronics industry, which landed a number of key contracts abroad in the mid-1990s. The Asian industrial gas business was up 35 percent in one year, according to Chemical Week, and Air Products was preparing to enter the Indian market. Air Products had invested more than $1 billion in Europe since the mid-1980s and was establishing facilities in former Soviet satellites.
An $11 billion deal to acquire British Oxygen in cooperation with Air Liquide was scuttled by the Federal Trade Commission in 2000. According to Chemical Market Reporter, this failed takeover helped put a damper on consolidation activity across the entire industry. The industrial gases industry was considered highly consolidated, with five producers controlling two-thirds of the market, according to one consultant. Air Products was then reckoned to be the fourth largest global player, with a 9 percent share.
As noted in Forbes, around this time the company's CEO, John P. Jones, steered Air Products' research and development toward the fast-growing areas of energy, electronics, and healthcare, which together accounted for 30 percent of the company's total revenues of $5 billion in 1999. Within five years, these areas would provide half of all revenues.
The company divested slower growing businesses. Air Products exited a large but highly fragmented market in early 2002 when it sold most of its U.S. cylinder gas business to Airgas of Radnor, Pennsylvania for $236 million.
Acquisitions in Europe and America grew the home health-care business rapidly. In 2002, Air Products acquired the home respiratory business of German rival Messer Griesheim. American Homecare Supply (AHS) was acquired in October 2002. AHS, later renamed Air Products Healthcare, was a leading private supplier of home medical equipment. With this entry into the U.S. market, Air Products was supplying homecare services to more than 275,000 patients from more than 200 sites in 14 countries. It would soon buy several smaller healthcare businesses in the United States.
Air Products was able to complete the acquisition of the $200 million electronic chemicals business of Ashland Specialty Chemicals in August 2003. The deal went through despite a legal challenge by Honeywell.
Air Products and its rivals in the industrial gases industry weathered the recession better than their counterparts devoted to the chemicals business, noted Chemical Week. Air Products had a reputation as a strong performer during economic downturns. Most of its contracts were long-term and included provisions for passing on energy costs, noted Chemical Market Reporter.
Air Products fared even better as the recession began to ease. After three years of sliding profits, net income rose 18 percent to $604 million on sales of $7.4 billion for the fiscal year ended September 30, 2004. More good results were expected in the future as the lackluster economy improved.
Air Products was conducting considerable research on performance materials, another growth platform. It was in joint ventures with Nanotechnologies Inc. of Texas and Europe's Nanogate to develop materials with new properties. Air Products was at the forefront of applying other new technologies. By 2005, it had 30 filling stations for hydrogen-fueled vehicles up and running.
Air Products Asia, Inc. (U.S.A.); Air Products Europe, Inc. (U.S.A.); Air Products Japan, Inc. (Japan).
Chemical Intermediates; Performance Materials.
Chemicals; Gases and Equipment.
Air Liquide Group; Linde AG; Praxair, Inc.
Butrica, Andrew J., Out of Thin Air: A History of Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., 1940–1990, New York: Praeger, 1990.
Freedman, William, "Air Products' Second Wind: Setting the Trim for New Growth," Chemical Week, April 24, 1996, pp. 20ff.
Hunter, David, and Natasha Alperowicz, "Industrial Gases: Riding High, Despite Recession," Chemical Week, February 20, 2002, pp. 21ff.
Milmo, Sean, "BOC Gases Deal Collapses and Shakes Industry," Chemical Market Reporter, May 22, 2000, p. 8.
Nelson, Brett, "Suddenly Sexy," Forbes, February 14, 2005, p. 122.
Storck, William J., "Air Products on Course in Ambitious Strategic Plan," Chemical & Engineering News, October 5, 1992, pp. 44–46.
Swaim, Will, "Air to the Throne," World Trade, February 1993, pp. 66–68.
Teresko, John, "From Confusion to Action," Industry Week, September 2005, pp. 56–62.
Tilton, Helga, "In Tough Times, Air Products Plays the Stability Card," Chemical Market Reporter, June 16, 2003, p. 18.
—updates: April Dougal Gasbarre; Frederick C. Ingram