Airgas has reported strong growth in sales and earnings, for its fourth quarter ended 31 March.

Quarterly income from continuing operations grew 51 per cent to $36m, or $0.45 per diluted share, compared to $24m or $0.31 per diluted share, a year ago. Quarterly results a year ago included expenses of $0.02 per diluted share related to acquisition integration and employee separation costs.

Current quarter net income grew 39 per cent to $33m, or $0.42 per share, including a non-cash, after-tax charge of $3m, or $.03 per share, to reflect the adoption of an accounting change.

Fourth quarter sales increased 16 per cent to $747m reflecting strong same-store sales growth, as well as acquisitions. Total same-store sales were up 12 per cent compared to the same quarter a year ago, with gas and rent up 10 per cent and hard goods up 13 per cent. Sales results reflect broad demand from industrial, energy, and non-residential construction market segments.

\\$quot;Our business momentum continues to be very strong. Our emphasis on profitable growth is showing results, as evidenced by a 180 basis point improvement in operating margins, to 9.9 per cent in the fourth quarter,\\$quot; said Airgas chairman, Peter McCausland.

\\$quot;This quarter, we saw particularly strong performance from our gas operations units and from our distribution companies along the Gulf Coast and in the Western half of the US.\\$quot;

Sales in fiscal 2006 increased 20 per cent to $2.8 billion. Earnings from continuing operations for the year ended 31 March were $1.62 per diluted share compared to prior year results of $1.19 per diluted share. Current year results from continuing operations include charges of $0.02 per diluted share from asset losses related to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Prior year results from continuing operations included expenses of $0.05 per diluted share related to acquisition integration and employee separation costs. Current year results from discontinued operations include a $0.02 per diluted share loss on the divestiture of Rutland Tool. The discontinued operations of Rutland Tool contributed earnings of $0.01 per diluted share in the prior year. For the full fiscal year 2006, net income was $124m, or $1.57 per diluted share, including the $0.03 charge for the adoption of the accounting change.