Airgas 4Q Earnings Reflect Effect Of Severe Weather

The company says that sales figures reflected sluggish business conditions and the negative impact on the company's refrigerants business from the EPA's March 2013 ruling. Results for the fourth quarter also reflected the negative impact of severe weather across much of the U.S. on both sales and expenses.

Id 1437 Airgas 1

Radnor, PA - Airgas, Inc. reported sales and earnings results for its fourth quarter and full year ended March 31, 2014, which reflected the favorable impacts of the realization of SAP-related benefits as planned and share repurchases completed in the second half of fiscal 2013, but also reflected sluggish business conditions and the negative impact on the company's refrigerants business from the EPA's March 2013 ruling. Results for the fourth quarter also reflected the negative impact of severe weather across much of the U.S. on both sales and expenses.

"We delivered record free cash flow* of $441 million and 9% growth in adjusted EPS* for fiscal 2014 in a sluggish economic environment," said Airgas President and Chief Executive Officer Michael L. Molinini. "We remained focused on outstanding customer service, expense management, and execution of strategic initiatives, which included the achievement of our long-standing target of reaching a run-rate of more than $75 million in SAP-enabled operating income benefits by the end of calendar year 2013."

"We estimate that in our fourth quarter the net impact of severe weather conditions across much of the U.S. cost us at least $0.02 per diluted share more than expected, and the negative year-over-year impact on earnings related to our refrigerants business was $0.03 greater than anticipated," Molinini added. "Absent those particular issues, our earnings for the quarter were within our guidance range." The Company's fourth quarter guidance had assumed year-over-year negative impacts of approximately $0.03 per diluted share due to severe weather conditions in January and $0.05 per diluted share related to refrigerants.

Fourth quarter earnings per diluted share were $1.17, up 4% over prior year earnings per diluted share of $1.13. Excluding a $0.02 state income tax benefit, adjusted earnings per diluted share* were $1.15, up 1% over prior year. Results included SAP-related benefits, net of implementation costs and depreciation expense, of $0.16 per diluted share in the current year quarter compared to $0.04 of net benefits in the prior year quarter.

"Though there were bright spots within certain sectors, on balance, underlying business conditions remained choppy throughout the quarter, weather-related challenges notwithstanding," said Molinini. "We remain focused on the things we can control, including leveraging the SAP system, managing expenses, expanding our telesales business, and enhancing our e-Business platform, and are ready to capitalize when sustained growth in the industrial economy resumes."

Fourth quarter sales were $1.27 billion, flat compared to prior year. Organic sales in the quarter were down 1% compared to prior year, with gas and rent down 1% and hardgoods down 2%. Distribution segment organic sales in the quarter were up 1% compared to prior year, with gas and rent up 2% and hardgoods down 2%. Acquisitions contributed sales growth of 1% in the quarter on a consolidated basis and in the Distribution segment.

Selling, distribution, and administrative expenses increased 2% over the prior year. The favorable impact of the reduction in SAP implementation costs compared to the prior year was more than offset by rising healthcare costs and higher operating expenses due to severe weather, as well as by expenses associated with the Company's expansion of its telesales business through Airgas Total Access, strategic pricing initiative, and enhancement of its e-Business platform.

Fourth quarter operating margin was 11.8%, down 30 basis points compared to prior year operating margin of 12.1% and down 40 basis points compared to prior year adjusted operating margin* of 12.2%, which included restructuring and other special charges. Distribution segment operating margin was 12.5% for the quarter, down 30 basis points compared to prior year.

The combination of a reduction in SAP implementation costs and the achievement of SAP-related benefits contributed favorably to operating margin this quarter as compared to the prior year. Low organic sales growth challenged the Company's operating margin in the quarter, as did R-22 pricing in its refrigerants business following the EPA's unexpected ruling in late March 2013 to allow for an increase in the production of R-22 during calendar 2013.

For the full year, earnings per diluted share were $4.68, an increase of 8% over prior year earnings per diluted share of $4.35. Results included a loss of $0.08 per diluted share on the early extinguishment of the Company's 7.125% senior subordinated notes which were originally due to mature in October 2018 but were redeemed in full on October 2, 2013, as well as $0.04 of state income tax benefits. Excluding the loss on the extinguishment of debt and state income tax benefits, adjusted earnings per diluted share* were $4.72, an increase of 9% over prior year adjusted earnings per diluted share* of $4.35. Earnings per diluted share and adjusted earnings per diluted share included SAP-related benefits, net of implementation costs and depreciation expense, of $0.47 per diluted share in the current year compared to $0.18 per diluted share of net expense in the prior year. The favorable year-over-year impact of share repurchases completed in the second half of fiscal 2013 on the Company's earnings growth in fiscal 2014 was more than offset by the negative year-over-year impact related to its refrigerants business, which posted record results in fiscal 2013.

Full year sales were $5.07 billion, an increase of 2% over the prior year. Organic sales were flat compared to the prior year, with gas and rent up 1% and hardgoods down 2%, while acquisitions contributed sales growth of 2% for the year.

Full year free cash flow* was a record $441 million, up 48% over the prior year, and adjusted cash from operations* was a record $776 million, up 29% over the prior year. The increase in cash flows was primarily driven by lower required investment in working capital in the current year compared to the prior year.

Return on capital* was 12.2% for the twelve months ended March 31, 2014, a decrease of 10 basis points from the prior year.

During fiscal year 2014, the Company acquired 11 businesses with aggregate annual sales of approximately $82 million, including The Encompass Gas Group, Inc., one of the largest privately-owned suppliers of industrial, medical, and specialty gases and related hardgoods in the U.S.

Fiscal 2015 Guidance

"We had expected the U.S. industrial economy to be much stronger by now. But areas of strength within certain industries are still being weighed down by weakness in other areas. There are many significant non-residential construction projects just now starting to move forward, which is a good sign; however, given the persistent uncertainty in the U.S. industrial economy over the past two years and with overall sluggishness still apparent, growth in fiscal 2015 is very difficult to predict," said Airgas Executive Chairman Peter McCausland. "The low end of our fiscal 2015 guidance assumes a gradual uptick in growth rates as the year progresses, with average organic sales growth of 4% for the full year. The high end assumes a more robust acceleration in growth rates over the course of the year, with average organic sales growth of 6% for the full year."

"We continue to believe the long-term growth prospects for the U.S. manufacturing and energy industries are strong, as structural drivers like the abundant supply of low-cost energy and higher shipping costs from overseas should favor the U.S. for years to come," McCausland added. "Fiscal 2015 will be a year in which we continue to invest in the business to enhance our long-term growth prospects through strategic initiatives, including the development of our new e-Business platform, and enhancements to our regional management structures, like the reorganizations of our Southwest and North Central distribution regions this past year and other structural changes within all of our regions. We expect these and other initiatives to help drive decision-making as close to our customers as possible, bring additional focus to our sales efforts and increase operating efficiencies enabled by SAP, ultimately strengthening our competitive position and ability to capitalize when sustained improvement in the industrial economy returns."

For the first quarter of fiscal year 2015, the Company expects earnings per diluted share in the range of $1.15 to $1.20, reflecting an increase of 1% to 5% over prior year earnings per diluted share of $1.14. First quarter guidance assumes a year-over-year organic sales growth rate in the low single digits.

For the full fiscal year 2015, the Company expects earnings per diluted share in the range of $5.00 to $5.20, reflecting an increase of 7% to 11% over prior year earnings per diluted share and an increase of 6% to 10% over prior year adjusted earnings per diluted share*. Full year guidance includes a $0.11 to $0.16 per diluted share negative year-over-year impact from variable compensation reset following a below-budget year. The Company currently expects the contribution from its refrigerants business to year-over-year earnings per diluted share growth in fiscal 2015 to be slightly favorable.

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