Despite the gradual spread of coronavirus (Covid-19) around the world, Air Liquide has showed modest growth in its first quarter (Q1) 2020 results.

The French industrial gas giant this morning reported group revenue of €5.4bn for the first quarter, up 0.6% on a comparable basis which Air Liquide attributed to a strong business model.

Gas & Services posted robust growth of 1.1%. Engineering & Construction (-44%) has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which notably led to the closure of the Chinese engineering and fabrication centre and the postponement by a few months of several projects.

Global Markets & Technologies maintained excellent momentum and enjoyed dynamic growth of 13.6%.

As the positive currency impact of 0.8% did not offset the major negative energy impact of -2.5% and the significant scope impact of -0.2%, group revenue as published was down -1.3%.

Commenting on the Q1 results, Benoît Potier, Chairman and CEO of Air Liquide, said, “The resilience of sales reflects the solid business model of the group, characterised by the diversity of its markets and its geographies, as well as by the significant proportion of long-term contracts in its business portfolio.”

“Gas & Services and Global Markets & Technologies progressed, while Engineering & Construction sales fell sharply, mainly reflecting the postponement of construction projects for third party clients to a later date.”

Regions

Gas & Services revenue in the Americas stood at €2.1bn and was up 1.3%, driven notably by Healthcare (+10%) and Large Industries (+2.7%), in particular hydrogen sales and cogeneration.

Despite the public health crisis which impacted the region as of the end of March, Electronics sales were up 0.6% and Industrial Merchant sales were stable at -0.2%, with price impacts that remained high.

Revenue in Europe totalled €1.8bn over the quarter, up 2.7%. Large Industries sales were down slightly by 0.6%.

Industrial Merchant, which was down 2.7%, was the most affected by the public health crisis that hit the region in mid-March.

Healthcare, which represented 39% of Gas & Services sales in Europe, has been playing a major role in the fight against Covid-19. Revenue for this business line increased by 10.8%, driven by strong sales of medical gases in March as well as medical hydroalcoholic gel produced by its subsidiary Schülke in Germany.

Revenue in Asia Pacific reached €1.1bn, down 0.9%. Air Liquide said this region suffered the greatest impact of the Covid-19 pandemic during Q1, in particular in China where sales were down 2.5%.

Large Industries (-2.1%) benefited from the resilience of its business model, whereas Industrial Merchant (-5.3%) was hit the hardest.

Electronics momentum remained strong (+4.9%), with several unit start-ups and ramp-ups and despite an unfavourable comparison effect compared with high Equipment & Installation sales in 2019.

Revenue in Middle East and Africa stood at €139m, a decrease of -5.8%, particularly marked by a customer maintenance turnaround at a large hydrogen production unit in Saudi Arabia.

To a lesser extent, Air Liquide said Industrial Merchant also slowed due to lockdown measures taken in Persian Gulf countries and in South Africa, even though sales remained stable overall in Africa and strong in Egypt and India.

The Healthcare activity continued to grow markedly, in particular in Saudi Arabia.

“In Gas & Services, which accounts for 96% of group sales, growth was particularly strong in Healthcare (+10%) and Electronics,” Potier said.

“From a geographic perspective, Europe and the Americas continued to post sales growth, while the Asia-Pacific region was more penalised by the public health situation, particularly in China.”

Covid-19

Healthcare, which has played a major role in the fight against Covid-19, posted the strongest growth for Air Liquide in the first quarter, up 9.9%.

Due to the spread of Covid-19 and based on information available at the end of the first quarter, Air Liquide said around 25% of start-ups initially scheduled for 2020 are very likely to be delayed by two to six months.

As a result, the additional contribution to sales expected for 2020 should range between €150m and €180m, an amount which is lower than the €230m contribution initially forecast.

At the end of the first quarter, Air Liquide said activity is recovering in China whereas Europe, Americas and Africa & Middle East are going through the critical phase of the public health crisis, for which the impact is expected to peak in the second quarter.

“In the context of a global health emergency, the group is mobilised. It is taking an active part in the international support effort, whether this entails supplying healthcare facilities with medical oxygen or ventilators, having committed to producing 10,000 ventilators in 50 days in France,” Potier said.

“In addition, a stepped-up cost containment program has been initiated to surpass the annual target of €400m of efficiencies. In the first quarter of 2020, €91m of efficiencies were generated.”

“The cash flow is high, at more than 22% of sales. The group has also strengthened its position in terms of liquidities with a €1bn bond issue in March that was widely oversubscribed.”

Future

In the second quarter, Air Liquide said demand for air gases in Large Industries should weaken in the Steel sector, and to a lesser extent, in the Chemicals sector.

Industrial Merchant should be the most impacted, in particular cylinder gas volumes, whereas Electronics should keep a steady pace.

Air Liquide’s Healthcare teams will remain highly mobilised, notably to ensure supply of medical gases, ventilators, and hydroalcoholic gel to hospitals and patients.

Once the containment period is over, a progressive recovery is expected, particularly driven by consumption markets, Electronics and Healthcare.

“In terms of the health and economic environment, the most widely held hypothesis today is that the second quarter will be highly impacted by the crisis, followed by gradual relaxation of lockdown measures between the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third quarter, depending on the continent,” Potier said.

“Assuming this hypothesis, and given the company’s solid business model and the additional measures rolled out in 2020, Air Liquide is nonetheless confident in its ability to further increase its operating margin and to deliver net profit close to the 2019 level, at constant exchange rates.”