By Christian Annesley on Feb 01, 2024
For industrial gas distributors across the US, the customer is king. It is the essential point of differentiation for most companies that are active in the space – and for each distributor it comes down to knowing just what their myriad customers need (sometimes even before the customer does) and ensuring it is delivered in spades.
This truth about customers lies at the heart of the trajectory that Alabama’s Atlas Welding Supply Co has been on for the past decade and a half, though the terms on which the company can now go about things has changed in recent years – of which more later.
Atlas has been around since the 1940s, but its reinvention came about with the link-up of James Cain and Bill Visintainer as business partners in 2008.
How did it unfold? Well, James Cain’s father, J. M. Cain, had run the company with business partner Jack Englebert since the late 1970s. But when he passed away and subsequently Englebert started to eye retirement in 2007, it looked for a time like Visintainer would step in and take over on his own. But then things took a different turn.
“I grew up with the business in the background, filling compressed gas cylinders and propane cylinders once I was old enough,” says Cain. “So I knew the basics and had some profile with the long-standing staff, having always been around the business. I didn’t initially have the intention of following my father into the industry, but I had been working in financial services since completing my education and by 2007 I was starting to feel unsure about staying in the sector long-term.”
With the sale of the business to Visintainer looking imminent, and with Cain holding a slice of the business in trust through his father’s will, the two men got talking.
“I knew Bill had wide industry experience, and I knew my background in financial statements and business strategy was a useful complementary skillset. Once we started to work it through we could see how well the blend of our backgrounds could work – and we hit it off, too.”
So, in a flash, the deal was on. The pair agreed joint ownership and a new kind of operation soon took shape.
Visintainer and Cain inherited a business with a single location – it is still the main site today – and hundreds of loyal customers in a growing city. But there was a bigger opportunity waiting to be unlocked.
“In 2008, Atlas was a mature business with superb customer relationships,” says Cain. “It was essentially a boutique welding supply operation, with two-thirds hardgoods sales and a third industrial gases, with a small and committed workforce, including one person working in sales. The model for selling on the gases side needed an overhaul, and there was a clear need to invest in assets and in people.”
In particular, the pair could immediately see lots of opportunities to engage with customers better, understand their needs more clearly, and do more business. It was good for the customer and it was good for Atlas.
“We knew if we offered better value with excellent service, there was a lot of new business just waiting to be picked up,” says Cain.
To realize the opportunity, the pair needed to invest and spend heavily on assets – on inventory like cylinders and microbulk storage systems, to offer up a wider array of delivery options.
“But this was immediately after the financial crash, and it ushered in a new era of low interest rates that were readily available to a strong business like ours. It was a good moment to borrow and to invest, and to turn that investment into improved revenues and profits.”
Part of the shift in mindset that Cain and Visintair brought was to be laser-focused on growing the gases side of the business.
“It has paid off, too,” says Cain. “In the past 15 years, we have grown the proportion of gases business from about a third to 65% today – and we are a much bigger business, too, which gives you an idea of how far gas sales have come. We moved away from just taking orders and being a reliable partner to providing wider solutions and being proactive in our support for our customers’ growth aspirations.”
How did that work in practice? It was about bringing ideas to the table and encouraging customers to go after opportunities by showing how they could work.
“If you sit down with a customer and say: ‘here are some ideas that will save you time and money’ then you will get a good hearing, naturally. If you can back it up, things very soon start to happen.”
Who are the customers today? Metal fabrication is the largest sector, reflecting how mining and metals are strong in the region. But where Atlas has really grown its base is in other applications. These applications need oxygen, nitrogen, CO2, and nitrous oxide, and they need it with high levels of customer service. Cain says this varied market has proved a fertile space for Atlas.
“We have also moved into non-industrial uses, like supplying CO2 to restaurants, and propane to the hospitality sector for outdoor heaters – particularly after Covid grew that need for outdoor dining space. Alabama is hot until it is not, as they say! In the cooler months, outdoor heating is very much needed.”
The company’s geography was expanded, too. Atlas bought a small helium distributor in Birmingham, Alabama, and very quickly turned it into a full-line operation, in sync with the rest of the business.
“With that branch now established, now we cover the entire state, which is a great position for us,” notes Cain.
In 2021, Atlas became a founding business in Meritus Gas Partners, which is a growing network of industrial gas and welding suppliers in the US. What was the impetus for that big call?
“It is nearly three years ago now that we joined,” notes Cain. “What prompted it was the different trajectories for myself and Bill as co-owners. Bill had the chance to join the Meritus board and move away from the business , whereas I am still heavily involved with the day to day. Joining Meritus was a way of balancing our different priorities and is also a means of more easily taking advantage of growth opportunities. It looked like the perfect formula for our needs when we signed up, and so it has proved.”
“The community of businesses that are part of Meritus is a unique thing.”
Cain says being part of Meritus gives the business ready access to capital, as well as access to some of the best minds in the industry.
“We have this shared pool of assets now, which is very valuable, and it is growing all the time. The community of businesses that are part of Meritus is a unique thing, really. We are still autonomous and independent, but we can lean on each other for support and tap the wider expertise. We are talking about some real titans of industry who are involved now, so it is no small thing. Really it’s outstanding – as well as providing the peace of mind that comes from being part of something bigger.”
What’s next for Atlas? With Meritus in it for the long haul, Cain says that new opportunities are now firmly in his sights – and he knows he can act quickly when something materializes.
“The other thing that is coming into focus is the digital side of things,” he adds. “Right now we are still quite an analog business, but with Meritus behind us we can start to embrace digital transformation opportunities in a strategic way. We don’t want to lose what we have, but there are opportunities to do more with digital asset tracking and e-commerce that will give Atlas an extra dimension in the years ahead. With the strength of Meritus behind that push, it’s an exciting prospect.”
The company was originally founded as Temerson & Son in 1944. The Temerson family had a scrap business and found that many of their suppliers needed gases and cutting materials to cut the scrap. Temerson became an Airco distributor and this planted the seeds for what would eventually become Atlas Welding Supply Co.
The company changed its name in 1978 when the Temersons sold the business to an employee, Jack Englebert. Englebert quickly approached his largest customer, Cain Steel, run by J. M. Cain, to partner in the transaction. The pair renamed the business Atlas Welding Supply Co and Englebert ran the day-to-day operations right up until 2008, when he retired.
When J.M. Cain passed away, his equity of the business went into a trust managed by his sons. When Englebert decided to retire and sell up, J.M.’s son, James Cain, began negotiating a deal with Bill Visintainer to jointly purchase Atlas.
Once installed as co-owners, Cain and Visintainer soon began to implement a growth strategy for Atlas, which until then had been sustained by a core group of loyal customers and been run as more of a lifestyle operation.