Airgas, the largest U.S. distributor of industrial, medical, and specialty gases, and related supplies, today reported strong performance in sales, operating income, and earnings for its fourth quarter ending the 31st of March 2012.

Business trends reflect growth across the company’s diverse customer base with particular strength in large manufacturing, petrochemical, and energy customers.

Fourth quarter adjusted earnings per diluted share were a record $1.11, an increase of 26% from $0.88 in the prior year.

Results included SAP implementation costs and depreciation expense of $0.09 and $0.04 per diluted share for the current and prior year quarters respectively, and the current quarter reflected the benefit of share repurchases which offset the incremental SAP costs.

“Our performance was very strong this quarter across most of our core business, with particular strength in manufacturing, petrochemical and energy customers, and noticeable improvement in our construction customer base, despite a weak new project market,”

said Airgas Chief Executive Officer Peter McCausland.

“Our product line adjacency businesses also performed well relative to our expectations, highlighted by strong pre-season demand in our refrigerants business that contributed nicely to our earnings this quarter.”

Fourth quarter sales were $1.24bn, an increase of 13% over the prior year. Same-store sales grew 11% in the quarter, with hardgoods up 15% and gas and rent up 9%.

Acquisitions contributed sales growth of 2% in the quarter. Sequentially, total sales increased 8% from the third quarter, reflecting the impact of two additional selling days, the falloff of the holiday impact, and continued business growth.

Sales per day increased 4% from the third quarter on a consolidated basis and increased 3% in the distribution business segment.

On the back of the financial success of Airgas, the company announced today that the Board of Directors increased the quarterly cash dividend on the company’s common stock by 25%, from $0.32 per share to $0.40 per share. The dividend will be payable on the 29th of June 2012 to shareholders of record as of the 15th of June 2012.

Elsewhere, the company also announced that effective immediately following the 2012 Annual Meeting of Stockholders scheduled to be held in mid-August, Airgas Founder Peter McCausland will assume the role of Executive Chairman of the Board of Directors, and current Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Michael L. Molinini will succeed him as President and Chief Executive Officer.

“Mike and I have worked together for 15 years. He is a proven leader with an outstanding record of accomplishment both here at Airgas and in his previous roles,” said McCausland. “I am confident that Mike is the right person to serve as Airgas’ next CEO and that he will continue to build on our 30-year track record of operational excellence and shareholder value creation.”

“Mike and I, together with our CFO Bob McLaughlin, will continue to be actively engaged with our shareholders and the rest of the investment community. As Airgas’ founder and largest shareholder, I am committed to making sure that this plan is successful, and I am looking forward to working with Mike and the entire management team in the years ahead. As I always say, the best time at Airgas is now.”

said Airgas Chief Executive Officer Peter McCausland.