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Twentieth-Century Business Archives

Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. - Lehman Brothers Collection

Air Products and Chemicals, Inc.

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Air Products & Chemicals was founded by Leonard Parker Pool in 1940 in Detroit, Michigan. At the time, the oxygen market was dominated by several large companies and oxygen was sold as a highly compressed gas in cylinders that weighed five times more than the gas product. Pool proposed building oxygen gas generating facilities adjacent to the plants of large-volume gas users, thereby reducing distribution costs. Pool, who had only a high school education, quit his job as district manager of Compressed Industrial Gases, sold his insurance policy, and hired a young engineer, Frank Pavlis, to assist him in designing an inexpensive oxygen generator. In 1941 Air Products leased its first oxygen gas generator to a small Detroit steel company. Shortly thereafter, a second order for a gaseous oxygen generator was received from the Norfolk Navy Yard.

During World War II, Air Products thrived as it manufactured mobile oxygen generators for the armed services and heavy industry. At the end of the war, many of the military contracts were cancelled and the company refocused its sights on commercial markets by setting up operations near Allentown, Pennsylvania, close to the industrial markets of the Northeast where they could secure more contracts with steel companies.

The Cold War and the launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 propelled the company's growth when the U.S. Defense Department contracted with the company to supply it with liquid hydrogen. The company entered the overseas market in 1957 through a joint venture with Butterley, a British firm to which it licensed its cryogenic processes and equipment. Air Products went public in 1959 and reincorporated in 1961 as Air Products & Chemicals. Through the remaining 1960s Air Products thrived, and sales rose 400 percent while earnings grew 500 percent. The company acquired Southern Oxygen in 1961 and expanded into the chemical business by merging with Houdry Process Corporation, a producer of organic chemicals and catalysts. In 1964 Air Products formed a subsidiary in Belgium and shortly thereafter established a subsidiary in West Germany and a joint venture in South Africa. The company's position in chemicals further expanded in 1969 with the purchase of Escambia Chemical Corporation in Florida.

Air Products continued to diversify through the 1970s and 1980s as it built large-scale plants, particularly in the chemical business in polymer emulsion and polyvinyl alcohol product lines. The company embarked on a ten-year strategic plan in 1986, adding a third core business in addition to air products and chemicals. The company branched into the environmental and energy-systems business to take advantage of the expanding markets for power generation, air pollution control, and energy recovery from solid waste. Towards this end, it formed partnerships with Browning-Ferris and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and acquired GSF Energy, a company that captured, purified, and sold natural gas produced in landfills.

In 1992 revenues for Air Products & Chemicals reached $3 billion and the company employed 14,600 people and had operations in twenty-nine countries. It continued to expand in the 1990s, especially globally. In 1995 and 1996 Air Products expanded into China and other countries by winning twenty contracts with semiconductor manufacturers. It bought Carburos Metalicos, the largest industrial gas supplier in Spain, in 1996.

After a decade of success in the environmental and energy systems business, Air Products decided in 1996 to shed most of the businesses it acquired in this area and to refocus on its core gas and chemical lines.

Today, in 2002, Air Products & Chemicals continues to expand both domestically and internationally through mergers and joint ventures. In FY 2001 the company reached $5.7 billion in sales and employed 17,800.

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