Maine Oxy: Employees Think Like Owners

An ESOP helps Maine Oxy serve its customers better.

ISO/IEC 17025: 2005 AccreditedThe state motto of Maine is “Dirigo,” which in Latin means “I lead.” The management at Maine Oxy-Acetylene Company, commonly known as Maine Oxy, has been living that credo for more than 80 years.

The Auburn, Maine-based company was founded under the name Maine Gas Service in 1929 by Joseph W. Albiston. At the start, its primary business was providing sales and service to home propane customers. In 1935, the company was incorporated as Maine Oxy-Acetylene Company and began providing welding supplies and industrial gases for customers in Auburn and Lewiston, Maine, and the surrounding communities. Joseph’s son, James H. Albiston, joined his father in 1948 and ran the company until his own son, Bruce W. Albiston, took over in 1982.

Under Bruce’s leadership, Maine Oxy remains a vibrant, growing company. In 2010, Maine Oxy made two acquisitions: Chicopee Welding Supply in Chicopee, Massachusetts, and Twin State Welding in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

These recent acquisitions bring the total number of Maine Oxy employees to 140 over its 11 stores—five in Maine, four in New Hampshire and two in Massachusetts. “Each branch is an independent profit center,” says Business Development Manager Carl Paine, a 30-year company veteran. “We have centralized purchasing, and each branch understands what it needs to do in its particular market to create a profit.”

Each branch has a manager and varying numbers of inside and outside salespeople and drivers, but that’s about the extent of the tiered structure present in most companies the size of Maine Oxy. “We have no vice presidents,” Paine says. “We have a president, a management team and everybody else. We all work together to get things done.”

COMPANY SNAPSHOT

Maine Oxy & Spec-air Specialty Gases

CEO: Bruce W. Albiston
President: Dan Guerin
Year Founded: 1929
Year Joined GAWDA: 1945
Headquarters: Auburn, Maine
Branches: Chicopee and Southborough, Massachusetts; Belmont, Hooksett, Hudson and Lebanon, New Hampshire; Auburn, Brewer, Rockland, South Portland and Waterville, Maine
Employees: 140
Website: www.maineoxy.com

Not Just Welding Equipment
Besides adding two new locations in 2010, Maine Oxy expanded in another way by opening Atlantic Safety and Supply, a new division created to sell safety-related products to welding equipment customers. “We looked at the market to determine where we could diversify and grow,” explains Paine. “Safety made sense as an area where we could gain more market share with existing customers.” Atlantic Safety and Supply offers a variety of products and services, including safety seminars, welding training, forklift training, safety audits, respiratory fit tests and more. “We are trying to differentiate ourselves from what a typical safety house does,” Paine adds. “It’s in the preliminary stages, and we’re happy with where it’s going and looking forward to seeing future growth and expansion.”

Growing Atlantic Safety and Supply is one of Maine Oxy’s primary goals. Along with growth will come expansion and hiring additional permanent staff—Maine Oxy employees always wear multiple hats to staff the many company divisions. This strategy follows the model Maine Oxy set up when creating and growing its three other divisions, SpecAir Specialty Gases in 1993, Dirigo Technologies in 1997 and the New England School of Metalwork in 2000.

The New England School of Metalwork has a mobile welding training center so customers can receive training at their convenience.

SpecAir manufactures and distributes calibration gases, rare gases, specialty gas equipment, industrial gases and medical gases from its ISO 17025-certified facility in Auburn. Dirigo Technologies is an acetylene production and cylinder maintenance facility for both retail and wholesale customers. The New England School of Metalwork offers welding, blacksmithing and ornamental art work training for both customers and employees.

Learning the Trade
Training is a lengthy process at Maine Oxy because of the breadth of products and services offered. The overall product mix is 55 percent gas and 45 percent hardgoods and equipment, a combination that takes time to learn. “If we bring somebody in who isn’t familiar with this market, particularly in sales or purchasing, it’s probably a five-year window to get them up to a level where they comfortably understand our market. It requires ongoing training,” Paine says.

CEO Bruce Albiston

CEO Bruce Albiston

That’s where its New England School of Metalwork plays a vital part. “All employees, no matter what role they will play in the organization, go through welding training at our school,” Paine says. “That training is absolutely critical so they understand the needs of our customers.” With a client base that comprises everything from fabricators to boat builders to medical laboratories to small shops, a broad base of knowledge is required.

It isn’t only employees to whom the school caters. “The School of Metalwork has certified weld educators who can write a procedure or protocol for a customer’s application. We sell customers the materials to do their jobs and then provide training along with procedures to work safely and cost effectively ” Paine explains.

Such attention to detail allows Maine Oxy to provide a high level of customer service. “There are a lot of companies out there that will undercut us on price, but nobody will beat us on service,” says George Lyon, operations manager. “We take it hard if we fail on the service level because that’s something at which we work very hard. We are available 24/7, and the employees back this up at all levels.”

A lot of companies say they are customer-focused, but Maine Oxy actually practices what it preaches. “Desire to take care of the customer can be a tough thing to instill in an individual,” Paine says. “We look for people who have that mentality already and try to enhance it.” The customer-centric philosophy is explicit on the company’s website, which says, “At Maine Oxy, customers are our reason for being.”

A Simple Way To Market

Maine Oxy CalendarFor each of the last three years, Maine Oxy has produced a calendar for customers. Maine Oxy store managers and staff contribute photos depicting the various aspects of the company. The final version is put together by a marketing expert and sent to a printer. About 1,500 copies are printed and given to salespeople for distribution to customers. All told, it’s an expense of only a few hundred dollars for a year-round marketing tool. “It works as an informational piece that speaks to the various services we provide and the community service we perform,” says Director of Business Development Carl Paine. “It’s good bang for the marketing buck.”

Becoming an ESOP
A customer-oriented approach is only one element of what Lyon describes as a unique corporate culture. Among the examples he cites is the company’s open book management. “We require that everyone be familiar with the company financial sheets on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis,” Lyon says. “People need to know how those numbers affect their department and how they can contribute to the bottom line and improve performance.”

Maine Oxy Management

Maine Oxy’s management team: (back, l-r) Business Development Manager Carl Paine, Fleet Manager Larry Bates, New England School of Metalwork Director Dereck Glaser, Retail Sales Manager James Richards, Operations Manager George Lyon, Marketing Manager Robert Smith, Inventory Control Manager Brian Painchaud, Safety Director Clark Phinney, SpecAir Sales Manager Ernest Glynn, President Dan Guerin; (front, l-r) Office Manager Kathy-jo Parent, Human Resources Manager Korin McGuigan

Such an open philosophy is what attracted Lyon to the company 16 years ago. “I didn’t know such a company existed before coming here,” he admits. “Over the years, we have found that our people are better representatives of the company because they know how to make sound decisions that benefit both the customer and Maine Oxy.”

It wasn’t a stretch, then, in January 2004 for the company to implement an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), an employee benefit plan that turns a company’s employees into owners of its stock. All full-time employees are members of the ESOP. Employees are fully vested in their shares after five years of employment. Currently, just under 50 percent of the company is owned by the employees, with plans to get to 75 percent in coming years. “It was Bruce Albiston’s vision to let everybody have a piece of the company, which contributes to making a cohesive group with common goals,” says Lyon. “Employees have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the customer. We feel that point of contact provides much better service than going through a chain of command to get an answer.”

Dereck Glaser

Dereck Glaser, the director of the New England School of Metalwork, helps train customers and Maine Oxy employees on the basics of the trade.

Perhaps most important, the ESOP forces a culture of understanding. All employees behave like owners and consider how the decisions they make impact the company’s bottom line. “It took a few years for everyone to buy in, but now everybody understands the benefits of the ESOP,” Paine says. “Fostering that kind of understanding and a mentality of ownership is hugely important as we continue to grow at the rate we’re growing.”

Empowered employees have been major catalysts in helping Maine Oxy become a market leader. They also tend to stay longer, and consistency is another key to the company’s success. “Generally, we look to fill job openings from within. We really train our employees so that they can be the future of the company,” Paine says. That training includes “Commitment to Excellence” seminars each year that help employees map out their futures in the organization.

A high percentage of employees have more than 15 years of service, a rarity in today’s business world. “Generally, once people start here, they are lifers,” Paine says. “They understand our direction and buy into our mission of customer service. We really are a team here, and people like that.”

customer service and inside sales staff

Full-time company employees are owners, including the customer service and inside sales staff pictured here.

Maine Oxy is a big believer in collaboration outside its own walls, too. The company was one of the founding members of GAWDA and attended the association’s first Annual Convention in 1945. “The networking within the GAWDA membership has been instrumental in allowing us to grow and understand the market,” says Paine.

The tenets of openness and togetherness have propelled Maine Oxy through 80-plus years of success, and there are strong reasons to believe it will continue. A member of the fourth generation, Joe Albiston, is currently working in the specialty gas division and learning the ins and outs of the company. With a solid family background and management assistance from fellow employee-owners, the leadership is in place for Maine Oxy to continue to thrive.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association