Airgas, Inc. today reported sales and earnings results which reflected the impact of continued economic uncertainty and sluggish business conditions on its diversified customer base.

This is in addition to the greater than expected negative impact on its refrigerants business from the recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruling on R-22 production allowances.

Results for the quarter also reflected the realisation of SAP-related benefits, net of implementation costs incurred, as planned.

“The EPA’s unexpected ruling in late March to allow for an increase in the production of R-22 this year challenged our refrigerants business to a greater extent than we had estimated, with the unusually cool spring weather across much of the country exacerbating its impact on our results. Both volumes and pricing of R-22 were pressured following the EPA ruling, and the year-over-year negative impact on our earnings this quarter was $0.07 per diluted share compared to the estimated year-over-year negative impact of $0.04 per diluted share we had assumed in our guidance,” said Airgas President and Chief Executive Officer Michael L. Molinini.

“Absent the incremental refrigerants impact, our results for the quarter were in-line with the mid-point of our earnings per share guidance range, with Distribution segment organic sales up 1% in what continues to be a very challenging economic environment.”

First quarter sales were $1.28bn, an increase of 2% over the prior year. Organic sales in the quarter were flat compared to the prior year, with gas and rent up 2% and hardgoods down 3%. Acquisitions contributed sales growth of 2% in the quarter.

“Selling, distribution, and administrative expenses increased 4% over the prior year, with operating costs associated with acquired businesses representing more than 1% of the increase. The favorable impact of the reduction in SAP implementation costs compared to prior year was substantially offset by expenses associated with the expansion of our telesales business through Total Access, our strategic pricing initiative, and other strategic growth initiatives,” said Molinini. “We’re focused on effective management of expenses and have already taken additional steps to help alleviate the impact of rising costs in the second quarter. We will evaluate the need for further action on a quarterly basis, cognisant of the balance between the needs for short-term cost-containment and investing to continue to position Airgas for long-term growth.”

Free cash flow for the quarter was $100m, up 31% over the prior year, and adjusted cash from operations* was $178m, up 15% over the prior year. The increase in cash flows was driven by the lower required investment in working capital in the current quarter compared to the prior year quarter.

Updated Guidance

“Airgas is well-positioned for growth. We continue to be optimistic about the long-term prospects for the U.S. manufacturing and energy industries, as well as non-residential construction, and our ability to leverage our unique value proposition and unrivaled platform to capitalize on the opportunities that lie ahead,” said Airgas Executive Chairman Peter McCausland.

“Near-term uncertainty persists for our customers, however, and accordingly the mid-point of our fiscal 2014 guidance assumes only slight sequential improvement in daily sales volumes as the year progresses and low to mid single digit year-over-year organic sales growth rates for the remainder of the year, in part due to easing year-over-year comparisons. Given the challenging and unpredictable nature of the refrigerants market, including its impact on our first quarter results, our guidance also assumes an estimated $0.12 to $0.15 year-over-year negative impact related to R-22 pricing and volume following the EPA’s ruling. Consistent with our long-standing target, we expect to achieve a minimum of $75 million in run-rate operating income benefits related to the SAP initiative by the end of calendar year 2013. Our EPS guidance assumes a contribution from SAP benefits, net of expenses, of approximately $0.47 per diluted share in fiscal 2014.”