A North Carolina gases and welding equipment and supplies distributorship grows strong with third generation of leadership.
Andy Oxy Co., Inc. started its life as welding and radiator repair shop in Hendersonville, North Carolina, before becoming a medical gas, industrial gas and welding equipment distributor – a decision that cemented the fledgling company’s success and established the diversification strategy that would carry Andy Oxy through more than six decades as an independent distributorship. Over the years, the company has changed its initial focus, its name and its headquarters location, but among the things that have never changed are the company’s dedication to customer service and its passion for creating a work environment that makes employees feel like part of the family that has owned Andy Oxy since day one.
That family legacy includes President Bill Anderson and his brother Jim Anderson, who retired as secretary and treasurer in 2006, as well as the next generation of leadership: Vice President of Finance Jeff Anderson, Hendersonville Branch Manager Doug Anderson, and Vice President and General Manager N. Britt Lovin, who will serve as GAWDA’s 2008 President-Elect. The spirit of inter-generational cooperation that guides Andy Oxy today also will guide Lovin as he joins GAWDA’s Executive Committee, bringing to the association the same passion and drive for improvement he brings to Andy Oxy Company.
From Welding Shop to Welding Supplies
Andy Oxy was founded in 1946 by W. S. Anderson as Hendersonville Welding Co., a welding and radiator repair shop in Hendersonville, North Carolina. In 1948, the local National Cylinder Gas Company (NCG) distributorship became available, and Anderson was quick to seize the opportunity.
Initially, the sale of welding supplies served only to supplement the company’s welding and radiator repair business. However, by 1960, demand for welding supplies far outstripped that for the company’s other services, so Anderson shut down the welding and radiator repair side of the business to devote all of his efforts to selling welding supplies. As part of this shift in focus, he changed the company’s name to Andy Oxy Co., derived from “Anderson Oxygen.”
“NCG had a full line of equipment—a medical line, along with welding equipment and torches,” says Andy Oxy President Bill Anderson, son of founder W. S. Anderson. “We were an NCG distributor for many years, and that full line pretty well covers what we still do now. We were very lucky in those early years to have a supplier that was medical-oriented as well as in the welding and industrial gas business.”
Bill Anderson says he has worked at Andy Oxy just about all his life; he joined the company full time in the mid-1960s. In 1970 he oversaw the opening of Andy Oxy’s first branch location in Asheville, North Carolina, which quickly outpaced the company’s Hendersonville headquarters in sales. Four years later, the Asheville branch moved to its current location and became Andy Oxy’s corporate headquarters, complete with a high-pressure fill plant. In 1977, Andy Oxy added an acetylene plant in Asheville to complement the high-pressure filling facility. That same year, Bill Anderson became president.
Today, Andy Oxy comprises 48 employees and six locations: its corporate headquarters in Asheville and branches in Hendersonville, Andrews and Franklin, North Carolina; Jonesborough, Tennessee, serving the Tri-Cities of eastern Tennessee, which include Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol; and Taylors, South Carolina, serving the Greenville metro area. In addition to President Bill Anderson, the company’s core management team includes son-in-law N. Britt Lovin, who joined the company in 1995 and serves as vice president and general manager, and son Jeff Anderson, who joined Andy Oxy full time in 1998 and serves as vice president of finance.
All in the Family
The fact that Andy Oxy remains a family-owned and operated company is an important aspect of its culture and a major selling point for Andy Oxy employees. “This is a family-owned business, and we like to make our employees feel like a part of that family,” says Jeff Anderson.
Christi Bowick, a three-year Andy Oxy veteran who handles dispatch and billing for the company, describes the work environment as one of teamwork. “I love working here,” she says. “It’s very much a family situation, and the owners really care about their employees and will bend over backward to help.”
Lovin stresses that Andy Oxy’s management adheres to an open door policy. “Employees can come to any of the three of us at any time and talk about anything, whether it relates to work or it’s something going on at home that they just need someone to listen to,” he says. “One of the great things about being a small company is that no one has a rigid mindset about what constitutes their job. It takes a team effort to serve our customers, and we’re all able to pull together to get product down the line. There’s a lot of camaraderie here.”
With the third generation of the Anderson family now involved in managing Andy Oxy, duties are divided according to each family member’s skills and interests. “We each bring our strong points to the company,” says Jeff Anderson. “Britt is in operations because that is a strength of his, while I’ve taken on the finance side. We work together, but our responsibilities are separate enough that we’re not stepping on each other’s toes all day.”
Notes Lovin, “As the third generation in the business, we have the advantage of being able to draw on Bill’s expertise. He was around when his dad started the business, and he has more experience in this company than anyone else. We continually bounce ideas off him to get his perspective and find out how he’s confronted different issues in the past. But Jeff and I have brought in ideas for new technology or new ways of doing things that Bill wasn’t aware of. So it all balances out, and it’s a win-win situation.”
All three family members believe that their close relationship is instrumental in keeping Andy Oxy strong. “Our ability to react to things that are happening within the company or within the industry is much quicker because of the relationship we have with each other,” says Lovin.
Adds Jeff Anderson, “There are not many days that go by without all three of us together having lunch or an informal meeting in one of our offices, just to talk about what’s going on that day. If a decision needs to be made, we go ahead and resolve it right then.”
Since its earliest days as a welding supply distributorship, Andy Oxy has offered its customers a full line of medical and industrial gas and welding supplies. The company’s sales tend to be heavier on the gas side than in hardgoods, but those sales are divided fairly equally between the industrial (primarily steel fabrication) market and the medical market.
“We’re in such a diversified region, we have to cover many different areas,” says Lovin. “In a way, that diversification is good for the company, because if one of our markets has a downturn, usually the other will stay steady or pick up.”
From its headquarters in western North Carolina, Andy Oxy’s territory stretches across three states. “Asheville, North Carolina, is a very small city,” says Bill Anderson. “In our geographic area, we have to go a long way and work hard to make a profit.”
Adds Lovin, “We can’t just draw a circle 10 or 15 miles around our store and hit 20 industrial fabrication accounts, 15 medical accounts and 10 safety accounts. We have to get out and really work the streets. It’s not uncommon for our salespeople to put a lot of miles on a car in a single day, just getting out to where our customers are.”
Because Andy Oxy is a relatively small company with a diversified customer base, the company’s salespeople must be well-versed in both the industrial and medical markets. “We don’t have dedicated salespeople for specific areas, like medical or spec gas,” says Lovin. “We expect our employees to be knowledgeable in all areas, although obviously they won’t be experts in everything. The salespeople pool their resources—if one is more knowledgeable in the medical field, another salesperson may ask for him to come along to call on a medical account to contribute technical expertise.” The company also makes a practice of investing in regular training for employees, including manufacturer training programs that range from two-day refresher courses to week-long, in-depth training.
Lovin doesn’t characterize Andy Oxy as a “one-stop shop,” but, he observes, “As a small company, we take the attitude that if a customer wants to buy something from us, we can probably find it and sell it to them. We may not be the cheapest in the market, but we’re going to provide the service that goes along with the product.” Offering the gamut of industrial and medical gases and supplies provides value to Andy Oxy’s customers, he notes. “A big company might install a bulk tank for a customer, but we’ll do that as well as service that customer’s safety supplies. A big company might not want to deal with small, time-consuming things like that, but it’s no problem for us to throw a dozen safety glasses on the truck when we’re delivering a cylinder of gas.”
Just as Andy Oxy has expanded its geographic reach into Tennessee and South Carolina, so too has it continued to broaden its product and service offerings to meet the needs of its expanding customer base. In the last decade, the company has seen growing success with its expansion into third-party bulk accounts and the beverage CO2 business. Andy Oxy also makes an effort to partner with manufacturers and suppliers that are on the cutting edge of technology, from robotics and plasma cutting to tank readings via telemetry. “Being able to offer telemetry tank readings is a tremendous value-add for our customers,” notes Lovin. “There’s peace of mind for them in knowing someone is monitoring their tank levels 24 hours a day and is ready to respond if there’s an issue.”
Building long-term partnerships with manufacturers and suppliers is part of the bedrock of Andy Oxy’s success. “Communication is the real key,” says Lovin. “We talk to our top vendors weekly, if not more often, and I trust that if I call them with an issue—good or bad—we’re going to sit down and talk about it, and they’re going to give me honest answers. It takes time to build those kinds of relationships, but we don’t jump from vendor to vendor. We’ve been with our major vendors for many years; we build relationships and stick with them.”
As Andy Oxy enters its seventh decade in the welding supply business, the Anderson family foresees that there is still plenty of room to grow. “We want to do more business with our present customers,” says Bill Anderson. “There may be products we carry that they currently buy from other suppliers, and we are doing more to make them aware that we carry those products.”
Beginning in early 2007, Andy Oxy’s salespeople have made a concerted effort to do just that. “It’s one of the things we challenged ourselves to do,” says Lovin. “If we have the gas business at Customer X, why don’t we also have their hardgoods business, whether it’s safety supplies or welding rods? It allows us to better penetrate the market, and it allows that customer to decrease their P.O. numbers.”
Andy Oxy continues to see its medical market expand with no signs of slowing, and looks to further expand its successful bulk gases program. The company also is looking into ultrasonic hydrotesting equipment to allow for faster, more efficient testing of cylinders.
Lovin anticipates that Andy Oxy will continue to grow into additional geographic markets, including east of Asheville, toward the Charlotte and Statesville, North Carolina, markets, as well as into northern Georgia and farther into eastern Tennessee. Part of that growth may come by way of acquisition. “I think the acquisition of small, medium and large-sized companies in this industry will continue to grow,” he says, “and there is a definite avenue for smaller companies like Andy Oxy to acquire other companies that may not be looking to sell out to the big guys.”
That growing trend toward acquisition presents other opportunities for Andy Oxy as well. “It puts us in the position of being able to foster new business relationships,” says Lovin. “A lot of the time, large companies are looking to do business with major national companies, whereas right at their back door is a smaller regional company that’s doing a good business, but they don’t even know it’s there. Because we continue to focus on regional issues, we’re able to attack and retain that business much better than they are.”
Adds Jeff Anderson, “In a way, all those acquisitions just means less competition for us in those areas where companies are consolidated and acquired.”
It all adds up to a sentiment upon which all the members of Andy Oxy’s management team agree: There will always be a need for the independent distributor. “That’s one of the many reasons Jeff and I would never encourage Bill to sell the company,” says Lovin. “We want to continue to grow it over the next generation. We’re very excited about what the future holds for Andy Oxy.”
Lovin’s years at Andy Oxy and as a GAWDA member have given him perspective on the challenges facing the association now and in the future. As GAWDA’s future President for 2008-2009, he looks forward to continuing the efforts begun by his predecessors and confronting any emerging issues.
“A couple of the issues GAWDA has been looking at recently are membership and meeting attendance,” says Lovin. “With the growing number of industry acquisitions, declining membership continues to be a concern. We’re looking at ways to bring even more value to our members, and one focus is meetings. For example, this year we made a big push for Regional Meetings. The Executive Committee realizes that these are important venues for the membership and that we need to show support on a regional level, so there’s been a concerted effort this year to have at least one person from the Executive Committee attend each and every Regional Meeting, which I don’t think has ever been done before. We’re also making sure that meetings are inclusive—that they’re not just sales- or operations-oriented, but that they include elements of FDA, DOT, safety, etc., plus some fun time so people can relax.”
Among the other areas of concern Lovin cites are fume litigation, FDA regulations, the difficulty of finding CDL drivers, and the aging population of welders. “I read in an article that the average age of a welder is 54,” he says. “What can we, as an industry, do to address that? Are we going into our tech schools, community colleges and universities to raise awareness?”
Lovin is the first to admit that he doesn’t know everything there is to know about the industry, but, he says, “I’m smart enough to know I need to ask questions of people who are smarter than I am, or who have been around longer.” In his time at Andy Oxy, he’s learned the importance of being open-minded and looking at issues from every angle, a trait he will rely on as a member of the Executive Committee. “I gather every fact that I can before making a decision,” he says.
Although in his younger years Lovin never would have predicted he’d wind up in the gases and welding supply business, it’s an industry he’s come to love. He earned a degree in business from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, then joined Andy Oxy after four years of service in the U.S. Army, including time in Somalia during the conflict in the early 1990s. Lovin notes that the hardest part about leaving the military was the loss of camaraderie with his fellow servicemen. “In the military, I had friends who were in foxholes with me whom I could turn to for anything,” he recalls. “When I initially came into this industry, I didn’t have that. But after a while, I began building relationships and making great friends, and GAWDA was an important part of that.”
The strong sense of camaraderie among distributors is one of the elements Lovin feels makes this industry unique. “We distributors may compete with one another, and we may have our differences over certain issues,” he says, “but at the end of the day we all have one common goal, and that’s to advance our industry.”
With Lovin’s passion for the welding and industrial, medical and specialty gases industry and drive to succeed, it’s clear that both GAWDA and Andy Oxy Company can look forward to great things in the years ahead.