Airgas Inc. has reported strong growth in sales, operating income, and earnings for its fourth quarter ended 31st March 2008, with the company continuing to 'grow profitably' despite the renowned economic slowdown that has been so evident in recent months.

The company declared quarterly net earnings rising 47% to $64.2m, compared to $43.7m in the prior year and a fourth quarter sales leap of 27% to $1.1bn, with acquisitions contributing to 19% of the growth. Total same-store sales increased 8% in the quarter, with hardgoods up 4% and gas and rent up 11%.

Airgas made 18 acquisitions in fiscal 2008, adding more than $500m in annualised revenue. In addition to the 30th June 2007 acquisition of Linde's US packaged gas business, which added $346m in annualised revenue, there were 17 others that added more than $160m and Chairman and CEO Peter McCausland explained, $quot;These transactions helped us enhance our core business and extend our product lines, with acquisitions in packaged gases and welding products, safety products, ammonia, and refrigerants. We have taken time to integrate them in a manner that effectively creates long-term value for our customers and our shareholders.$quot;

Commenting on the overall positive performance displayed in the results, McCausland said, $quot;Despite a slowing economy, our strategic product categories, which focus on the healthcare, research, environmental, and food and beverage markets, posted 11% organic growth in the quarter. Our energy and infrastructure construction customers remain strong. Rising export activity and strength in US infrastructure projects are also helping many of our core industrial customers, offsetting the economic slowdown.$quot;

$quot;We continue to grow profitably, as the operating margin in the quarter expanded to 12.1%, an improvement of 120 basis points over last year.$quot;

Sales in fiscal 2008 increased 25% to $4bn, with same-store sales growth of 7%. Earnings for the year were $2.66 per diluted share compared to $1.92 per diluted share in the prior year, including a $0.03 one-time non-cash charge from the National Welders transaction and a $0.01 one-time tax benefit related to a change in state tax law. The company generated strong free cash flow of $225m for the year, compared to $107m last year.

Looking ahead, McCausland concluded, $quot;We expect earnings per diluted share of $3.24 to $3.40 in fiscal 2009. First-quarter expectations are $0.79 to $0.81 per diluted share. We are mindful of the state of the US economy, but we believe Airgas is well-positioned to deliver strong earnings growth this year.$quot;