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Indiana Oxygen Company: A 21st Century Regional Gas and Welding Innovator

Over a hundred years ago, two entrepreneurial brothers, Walter and John Brant, recognized the need for a gas supplier to serve the state of Indiana and neighboring communities. Together they founded Indiana Oxygen Company (IOC) in 1915, which initially supplied products to the local automotive industry including the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. According to Wally Brant, chief executive officer and grandson of founder Walter Brant, Indiana Oxygen was not only the first oxygen manufacturer (through electrolysis) and distributor in Indiana, it remains the oldest surviving gas and welding supply distributor in the nation. Being the first in the state, Indiana Oxygen had no direct competitors, only blacksmiths who had to be won over to welding as a new innovation. Working on the principles of compassion, integrity and quality, the Brant family has developed the business into a 21st century regional gas and welding innovator.

Expanding beyond its headquarters in Indianapolis, IOC now has 10 locations throughout Indiana, two in Ohio and customers in neighboring Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky. The company’s growth has been carefully planned and executed, always with the customer in mind.  IOC’s mission is to serve its customers so well, and with such a high level of product and service, that they have no interest in the competition. Given its current geographic reach and the diversity of its markets, this approach seems to be working well for IOC.

Leadership

Family owned and led, Indiana Oxygen takes great pride in its success and in continuing the legacy of its founders to provide quality products and unparalleled customer service. In addition to Wally Brant as CEO, Wally’s son Jay Brant currently serves as vice president/chief information officer and his daughter Anne Hayes is the company’s vice president/chief financial officer.

Gary Halter has served as president for four years and is the first person outside of the Brant family to hold that office. “It is an honor to be part of the leadership of this family-owned business. I take responsibility for continuing to build the company in the tradition of the Brants,” said Halter, who has been part of the company for over 10 years.

Working as a team is at the heart of IOC’s business approach. “I recently completed my Executive MBA degree a mere 47 years after earning my undergrad degree,” said Wally Brant, “which required considerable time out of the office. I also regularly attend meetings, which are often halfway around the globe. Because we are a team at Indiana Oxygen, I am 100 percent confident when I am away that the company is in safe hands.”

Halter focuses on team building as well: “We stress the need to use the resources of each department, each team member, and our strategic partners whenever we can, to bring the best service to our customers and to earn the business of our valued clientele.”

Serving Diverse Markets

IOC services the full range of industrial gases and welding markets including fabrication, manufacturing, food and beverage, healthcare, life sciences, pharmaceuticals, universities and labs, and government and municipalities. Halter related that big or small, supplying each market is important to the company’s full-service approach to the gases and welding business.

Fabrication markets are the lifeblood of Indiana Oxygen, and it provides a complete array of gases as well as welding products, from plasma cutting machines to consumables. “For over 100 years, we’ve worked with thousands of manufacturing clients,” reported Halter, “and today fabrication markets represent more than 50 percent of our gas sales.”

IOC has been supplying the automotive industry since cars became accessible to the public. It provides industrial gases, equipment, welding goods, EPA protocol gases and bulk gas systems to Tier I, II and III automotive suppliers. To insure its success in this competitive segment, IOC provides best-in-class service with state-of-the-art technology, like its automated gas-filling facility, the only one of its kind in Indiana.

Within IOC’s region is Elkhart, Indiana, the recreational vehicle (RV) manufacturing capital of the world. In 2012, Indiana Oxygen had the opportunity to buy a Matheson branch in Elkhart, and by focusing its sales efforts on RV manufacturers was able to quadruple sales at that location.

Supplying power plants with EPA protocol gases and with help during shutdowns is another major market for IOC. “We serve the majority of the power plants in Indiana and Ohio in one way or another,” Halter said.

After 104 years, IOC still works with one of its original customers, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Halter explained, “We supply a large portion of the teams with nitrogen for inflating tires and pneumatic tools and supplies for welding. While business at the speedway is a now a small part of our total spend, it’s a big part of our company’s legacy.”

Expanding Horizons

Halter reported that since 2010, IOC’s business has more than doubled, with the company’s gross margins and profit now at an all-time high. “Market consolidation has helped us, and we have a great sales team who has led us in setting new business records every year,” Halter said. “We are good at prospecting and we are strategic in our planning. We’ve also invested heavily in automated filling for both industrial and specialty gases and in assets for bulk supply.”

Part of IOC’s steady march forward has been the opening of three new branches in the past six years. As noted, the Elkhart branch has generated new business for IOC, particularly in the RV fabrication market.

IOC believes that customers who have been serviced well by an independent distributor tend to want to remain with one. So when a local independent in Fort Wayne, Indiana, was acquired by one of the majors in 2016, IOC scratch-started a branch there. According to Halter, the move is paying off: “We did a tremendous amount of business in our first year there.” 

This past August, IOC opened a branch in Dayton, Ohio. The company had been developing its marketing plan for that area for some time. When fellow independent Weiler Welding was sold to a major, IOC saw another opportunity. Jerry Yarger, area manager for IOC’s Ohio business, explained: “We get calls every day from people looking for a more personalized type of service and easier transaction processes. As an independent distributor, we are able to provide those things.”

Distribution Capabilities

IOC is a full-service independent gases and welding distributor with the capabilities to support its diverse customer base. With 12 facilities, the company is able to service customers ranging from small businesses to multimillion-dollar corporations.

With its roots in fabrication markets, IOC has been supplying acetylene to both end users and other independent distributors since 1925 from its Indianapolis plant. It is one of the few independent gas distributors in North America that manufactures acetylene.

Bulk gas is another very important segment for IOC. The company has two bulk trucks for nitrogen and argon supply, as well as a large transport unit and three bobtails for propane. This type of capacity allows IOC to capture the small and mid-sized bulk business in its region.

Recently, IOC got serious about the propane business. “When circumstances led us to believe that having our own propane supply was a value proposition, we decided to make a big investment in it,” Halter said. This included investing in everything, including cylinders, transport, bulk tanks and staff training. 

Automated filling and specialty gas production enable IOC to blend gases to the precision levels demanded by its important customers. To that end, it recently made two large investments. It built a new and fully upgraded Weldcoa automated specialty gas lab in Indianapolis. Production began in June and the company can now supply everything from spec gas lecture bottles to 6,000 psi cylinders. With big pharma like Eli Lily and Pfizer in its backyard, as well as many R&D labs and power plants, the specialty gas business is important to IOC from a growth perspective.

IOC also installed a fully automated Weldcoa production and fill plant at its Cincinnati location. This, together with IOC’s fill plant in Indianapolis, which was upgraded five years ago, enables the company to provide excellent service to its customer base and keep up with growing demand. Yarger reported that the Cincinnati plant has been a big boost to the company’s Ohio business. Customers appreciate the quicker turnaround time enabled by the new facility and, given Ohio’s weather, also like the assurance of local filling. “The Cincinnati fill plant is a great sales tool,” said Yarger, “and has really helped us respond to the new business being generated by the Dayton branch.”

IOC’s distribution capabilities extend beyond brick-and-mortar facilities. Led by IOC’s Chief Digital Officer, Justin Yoder, its ecommerce site,
www.weldingsuppliesfromioc.com, has been live since 2000 and has created enough business to require its own warehouse for stocking the inventory. Halter attributes the company’s strong hardgoods business, which represents about 60 percent of its total revenue, in large part to the success of its ecommerce program.

Efficiency and Quality

IOC places a lot of emphasis on efficiency. Mike Gunnels, vice president and chief operating officer, has overseen the company’s continuous improvement process, known as War on Waste (WOW), for seven years.The WOW program has definitely made us more efficient and improved profitability,” Gunnels said.

For safety and compliance matters, IOC relies on the expertise of B&R Compliance and is a member of the Compressed Gas Association. GAWDA consultants also play a role in maintaining the highest level of operations. GAWDA’s Tom Badstubner is consulted on specialty and medical gas questions, Mike Dodd for DOT-related issues and Rick Schweitzer for government and HR legal matters. IOC is a member of B.I.G., a best-practices information sharing forum, and is also a member of the Independent Welding Distributors Cooperative and is working toward becoming an approved supplier of its PurityPlus brand of gases this year.

Keeping current on its computer systems is also important to IOC. The company has recently installed a new ERP software operating system, NetSuite, and is adopting TrackAbout as its cylinder tracking software. Gunnels sees the new cylinder tracking system as a huge benefit to the company. While it just went live for the entire cylinder population six months ago, Gunnels is confident that knowing where the company’s cylinders are will lead to better quality of service and increased revenues.

Culture of Communication

IOC consistently places among the Top 100 best companies to work for in the state of Indiana, according to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Jamie Freije, IOC’s human resources manager who has been with the company for 24 years, attributes much of this to the culture the Brants have created.

“Having a ‘family-owned’ business means we strive to treat our entire team as such,” said Wally Brant. “We have bonus programs for managers and salespeople, and we share the company’s financial success by passing along a determined percent of our net profits to our employees. We encourage advancement and each person’s potential and strive to provide the means for all IOC associates to own a home, educate their children and invest in their retirement.”

In addition to offering these benefits, the company has created a culture of open communication. Quarterly meetings keep management up-to-date, and annual Town Hall style meetings at each branch help unite the team. Held at each location in a relaxed setting and after regular business hours, Town Hall meetings enable branch employees to meet with the executive team for open discussion. “Branches can feel like islands,” said Freije. “These events bring us together as one strong company.”

Training for both old and new employees is also important at IOC. The company uses its vendors, such as Linde (now the Messer Group), Matheson, Miller, Lincoln, ESAB and Hypertherm, to keep staff up to date on product training and enlists consultants and other outside programs for further sales education as needed.

GAWDA’s online training programs are used extensively for general education on the gas distribution business. With over 35 course offerings, IOC employees can take a GAWDA class on gases, proper safety procedures, loading and off-loading techniques and even proper ergonomics for the office worker. IOC requires that its employees take the GAWDA courses appropriate to their position every three years.

Future Forward

In the rapidly changing and consolidating world of industrial gases and welding, IOC’s overall strategy for success going forward is to become more independent.

The development of IOC’s propane business is a great example of that approach. When its propane supplier was acquired by a large national conglomerate, prices went up and customer care went down. IOC determined they could do better and its investment in propane paid off.  The company quadrupled that business in five years.

“Our short- and long-term vision is to continue to remain the No. 1 company in our marketplace,” explained Halter. “We will keep living this vision by taking great care of our customers and our people in the belief that the customer doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. We continue to provide superior service by keeping communication channels open and flowing, and by building relationships internally and externally with our vendors and strategic partners. By bringing on the best talent we can find, people with highly developed customer service skills, and retaining these employees over the long term, we also strengthen our ability to service our customers. As we strive to execute the above, we will continue to grow as a company and support all of the communities in which we have a presence.”

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