WestAir Gases & Equipment

Chasing new opportunities with new ideas and old-fashioned standards

In 33 years, WestAir Gases & Equipment has grown to one of the largest regional independently owned and operated welding, industrial, specialty and medical gases distributors in the Southwestern United States. Currently, WestAir has nine locations: six in San Diego, one in Yuma, Arizona, and new locations in El Centro and Santa Ana, California.

COMPANY SNAPSHOT
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WestAir Gases & Equipment
Chairman/CEO: Andy Castiglione
President: Steve Castiglione
Founded:
1970
Headquarters:
San Diego, California
Store Locations:
9
Employees:
150
Web site:
www.westairgases.com
2002 Sales: $24 million

The company has grown over the years by a rather simple philosophy. Steve Castiglione, second-generation owner and current president, explains it: “Total dedication to exceeding customers’ service expectations, with quality and integrity in everything we do.” Castiglione says that this high customer service standard is ingrained within every WestAir team member throughout the organization. “Our Customer First service commitment, coupled with retaining the most talented personnel and quality products, are the primary reasons WestAir continues to be one of the industry’s most successful, leading-edge companies.”

Roots of a Family Business
Andy Castiglione and his wife Sue founded the company as San Diego Welders Supply in 1970. Infused with a commitment and dedication to customer service, both believed that taking care of the customer would be the foundation of their company’s growth. With Sue answering the phones, she knew what good customer service was all about. She also did the paperwork and kept track of the many details of running a business. Andy brought his knowledge of the industry and a commitment to making his small company successful.

Son Steve started working for his parents’ company at the age of 12, and like every other second-generation owner, worked his way up from outside weed puller and shop floor sweeper to shipping/receiving clerk, then salesperson. When finished with school, Steve expected to join the company full-time. His father, however, had other plans. Andy asked Steve to learn how to weld and to get a job as a welder at a local shipyard. After that experience, Steve came back to the company and fulfilled various roles, such as pumping, making deliveries, shipping/receiving, truck driver, inside sales, branch store sales, and finally outside sales. Four years later, at the age of 25, he became sales manager, eventually becoming the company’s vice president. He continued to practice his craft, becoming president when his father became chairman in 2000.

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WestAir Founder and Chairman Andy Castiglione

Andy Castiglione did not have a formal succession plan for his son to take over the family business. He did, however, have a strategy. His son would work in every department of the company. And he wanted him to be a welder in a shipyard, their largest customer’s shipyard. Son Steve explains, “Dad figured that if anything ever happened to the business and I knew how to weld, I could always get a job. Because that particular shipyard was and still is our largest customer, he knew it would be an advantage for me to understand how it operated from a welder’s standpoint. I understood various shipyard operations and the shipyard language.”

Steve says his time as a welder in the shipyard gave him credibility with customers when he was a salesperson, an experience he would reference often. “They knew I actually could weld, and could understand their challenges.” He still talks about his years as an employee at the shipyard when he visits there. “It brings a closeness to our partnering relationship with that customer.”

Perhaps the best thing about that experience, he says now, is that he truly understands the needs of his customers and the challenges they face.

Industry Veterans Find Home with WestAir
Castiglione is insistent that solutions to customers’ challenges first come from employees, not products, and WestAir’s 150 employees are dedicated and trained to provide the highest quality of customer service. “We look for people who want to grow professionally and who enjoy what they do when they wake up in the morning,” says Castiglione. Many of the company’s key management personnel have been in the business for many years, and as their companies were downsized or acquired, sought employment with WestAir. Castiglione recognized the opportunity in their experience. One of those employees, General Manager Ron Savage, has been with the company for over three years. His industry experience of 34 years includes being vice president of G.S. Parsons Co. and subsequently president of Parsons Airgas in San Diego.

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WestAir President Steve Castiglione

Prospects are put through rigorous testing prior to hire, including personnel profiling to make sure they fit with the company culture. Two firms are contracted to do aptitude and screening tests, along with background checks.

“We go to great lengths to select quality employees,” says Savage, “because they are the first point of contact with our customers and essentially what makes us successful.” While WestAir hires what it terms quality people, the company leaves no stone unturned. Customer service training begins on the first day of employment. Fifty percent of new-employee orientation is devoted to viewing films on customer service and safety. During the four-week training period, new employees have a pre-arranged training schedule and are immersed in the company’s mission and values philosophy.

Twice a month, Castiglione and Savage take ten employees from a cross-section of departments to a restaurant for lunch. Says Castiglione, “We take them out to thank them for their efforts, and we listen.” What do they hear? “Suggestions that will make the company better,” he says. At a recent lunch, a CO2 driver expressed concern about replacing a picture of a large cup of soda on his truck with a larger WestAir logo. The driver explained to the president and general manager that he receives a lot of inquiries about WestAir and its beverage service from people who see the truck. “He pointed out the increased visibility we receive from the cup of soda on the beverage trucks.” Castiglione and Savage listen intently to employees and let them know how important their ideas are to the company.

Customer Service Is No Accident
All customers want two things: competitive prices and exceptional service. Economies of scale are not a hindrance for WestAir, even though the company competes with much larger distributors. Says Castiglione, “We know what the products sell for in our market. We shop our competition, and we get feedback from our customers.”

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WestAir pumping facility

Customer service expectations are structured and well-communicated. Customer Service Standards are posted in every store within full view of customers. Those standards include the rule that no phone will ring more than three times; a live person will always answer the phone; no one will be kept on hold for more than 20 seconds; customers will be greeted immediately on the display floor; and true same-day deliveries with no qualifications are the norm. “If a customer calls at 4:55 pm and needs a same-day delivery, we will deliver that day,” states Savage.

Savage says exceptional customer service is the result of a combination of many little things, like an ice machine in the Yuma store where customers stop by to fill up their coolers, for free, on their way to job sites; electric doors to make it easier to bring equipment in and out; an indoor cylinder dock—no small thing in the heat of Arizona and the Imperial Valley; and complimentary refreshments, including fresh coffee made every hour in every store. Savage emphasizes the words “every hour” and indicates that store managers are held accountable to this standard. “It sounds like a small detail,” he says, “but customers notice these things.”

Steve Castiglione is driven to utilize efficiencies that keep the company cutting-edge and customer-focused. He belongs to a national group of independent distributors who meet twice a year to look at industry trends and share ideas. WestAir has an efficiency committee that meets monthly to develop ways to improve sales, service and value to customers, and to review the latest technologies in transportation, cylinder filling, maintenance and cost improvements. Most recently, the company invested in an ultrasonic cylinder tester as a result of this committee’s recommendation. Another recent recommendation was the redesign of the company’s Web site, which now includes a virtual tour of a company store.

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Same-day delivery, no matter what time the order, is no problem for WestAir's team of professional delivery drivers.

The ability to provide great service is taught not only at new-employee orientation, but throughout each employee’s tenure with the company. Once a year, every employee, from the president to the phone operator, attends a day-long customer service training program. Held off-site, the training is led by WestAir’s Founder and Chairman Andy Castiglione, the company’s first and foremost proponent of exceeding customer’s expectations. “It sends a strong message to employees,” says Savage. “When the chairman is leading the training with the management staff participating, employees know customer service are not “just words” at WestAir.

Products and Services
WestAir’s brand of exceptional customer service, paired with top quality welding and industrial supplies and gases, make for a winning combination. Sales are split right down the middle between gases and hardgoods. Several years ago, the company decided to diversify its offerings. “We didn’t want to have all of our eggs in one basket,” says Castiglione, “and there were opportunities for us in the gas market where the profitability margins were very attractive. We could not resist these opportunities.”

A fleet in excess of 35 vehicles deliver industrial, medical and specialty gases, and hardgoods. In addition to standard cylinder gases and liquid dewars, WestAir delivers bulk gases from its fleet of tankers and tube trailers. In 1998, the company purchased two micro-bulk delivery systems, one for nitrogen and one for argon.

WestAir has three gas filling facilities. One in El Cajon, California, pumps liquid and gaseous argon, nitrogen, CO2, oxygen, propane, hydrogen and helium. WestAir has had its own acetylene manufacturing plant in Escondido, California, since 1996. This plant enables WestAir to be independent of vendor sourcing requirements. The WestAir plant’s turnaround on acetylene cylinders is only three to four days versus longer turnarounds, when previously outsourced.

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Galvanized steel columns on the front of the specially designed Yuma store combine an industrial look with a welcoming feel.

WestAir purchased its third pumping facility from Air Liquide in October 2001. This facility, located in Miramar, is dedicated to pumping medical and specialty gases. This facility is FDA-certified and ISO 9001-2000 compliant, with final certification in process. General Manager Ron Savage notes that this certification enables WestAir to remain competitive with the majors, and acknowledges that the certification is an asset when working with medical, biotech and pharmaceutical customers. “Most of them are already ISO-certified, and they like to know that their suppliers are too.” Additionally in 2002, WestAir instituted a formal Best Practices/Quality System.

WestAir provides 24-hour delivery service of all gases and offers customers liquid containers in place of high-pressure cylinders, which carry more product. The specially designed bulk delivery vehicles connect to an outside fill-box to remotely fill stationary tanks located inside the customers’ premises, thus avoiding the inefficiencies of switching smaller cylinders.

New Name Supports Future Growth
Since its founding in 1970, the company was known as “San Diego Welders Supply,” but as it expanded and grew outside of the local market, a name more reflective of an expanded product offering and a regional market was needed. A branch employee suggested the perfect name in 2001, “WestAir Gases & Equipment.”

It was not difficult for customers to get used to the name change, due mostly to Ron Savage and a team of employees whose experience and knowledge of acquisitions from their former employers helped make the transition smooth. One of their recommendations was not to try to do everything right away and confuse customers. A transition plan was developed, and for the first twelve months, phones were answered with the San Diego Welders Supply-WestAir names combined, along with other specially designed announcements.

“We went to great lengths,” says Savage, “to explain to our customer base that we have not been acquired, that we are still the strong, family-owned, independent organization they’ve known for 33 years.”

Aggressive Growth Strategy
Castiglione uses the word “opportunity” a lot. “I see us as opportunists,” he says. We are still a small, family-owned company and we are able to respond quickly to opportunities that reveal themselves.”

Some opportunities that revealed themselves recently were the acquisitions of two Air Liquide companies and the opening of stores in locations where there is only one competing distributor. Castiglione describes this as “taking advantage of the downsizing of majors.” The first WestAir acquisitions were two Air Liquide locations in San Diego, which provided much-needed expansion space.

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WestAir's Management Team (from left): Industrial Sales Manager Joe Barney, Branch Stores Manager Dan Fairchild, Operations Manager Pat Dalton, Human Resources Manager Kathleen Johnson, General Manager Ron Savage, Specialty Gases Manager Dave Ehrlick, Controller Bob Long, Purchasing Manager Brian Macomber

But acquisitions don’t stop at buildings. When Air Products sold the cylinder gas portion of its business, WestAir attracted several key individuals who had worked for Air Products and are now team members in WestAir’s Specialty Gas Division.

WestAir opened its store in Yuma after Air Liquide sold all of its locations in Arizona. “There was only one supplier, and thus,” says Castiglione, “an opportunity for WestAir. We bought some property, built a brand new store, and looked opportunity in the eye.” Two new store openings—in El Centro and Santa Ana, California—became a reality this past summer, and Castiglione sees more acquisitions in the future.

But what he really sees are the opportunities. Castiglione thinks in broad terms, measured by the abilities of his people, the excellence of his products, and the commitment of the entire WestAir organization to giving welding and industrial, medical and specialty gases customers what they want: competitive prices and exceptional service.

The opportunities are there for the taking.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association