Now entering its 81st year in the market, nexAir combines a long history of working with atmospheric gases with a modern and innovative approach to business
Standing in 2021 as one of the largest privately-controlled companies in its industry sector, Memphis, Tennessee-based nexAir is an expert in the packaging and distribution of atmospheric gases, including medical, specialty and industrial gases. It also sells related products, including welding equipment, welding supplies, safety supplies and dry ice.
As you look back down the years of its history, the business can trace its roots back to the former Standard Welders Supply Company, but it has operated as nexAir since 1996. Thanks to continual and successful expansion, nexAir works from 73 branch locations that serve as cylinder distribution points as well as retail locations for customers, and these branch locations are supported by four production facilities. These locations provide a full portfolio of gases including industrial, medical, specialty and flammables; ten medical only gas production facilities and two dry ice plants.
Clearly a highly sophisticated and complex operation, nexAir prides itself on understanding customers’ pain points and objectives and working as a trusted advisor to help them improve the health of their business. This approach also encompasses a slick supply chain strategy, that ensures that it supplies the correct product to the right customer, as Bill Proctor, the President of nexAir, explained. “We utilize our own Smart Ship program to deploy the appropriate resources to deliver the products our customers need at the lowest overall cost possible. The Smart Ship model focuses on the most efficient and dependable way to deliver each product,” he said. “The distribution of cylinder gases is supported by 225 delivery trucks, while the cryogenic gases are distributed by specialized tankers and trucks throughout the geography we serve. The distribution of all gases is managed with our nexTrack system. nexTrack provides coverage of all gas-related assets, orders and delivery vehicles, which is accomplished through cylinder barcoding, GPS routing of trucks and handheld devices for our drivers. nexTrack provides visibility to our branches, plants, drivers and customer support team for all assets, orders and delivery times.
“The equipment and supply orders are shipped via third party carrier from one of three distribution centers strategically located throughout our territory. Our model provides next day delivery of these products. Customers and their stock requirements are assigned to the respective distribution center, based on the delivery location to meet this next-day goal.
“Our sales model is an omni-channel approach – in person, digital or phone – based on our customer’s desire. All of the channels are supported by product and segment specialists including welding engineers and gas specialists.”
With over 700 employees across ten US states, nexAir has established itself as a significant player in the gas market, and its stellar reputation has been upheld by the third generation of the same family since 2008. The current leadership team, which is primarily non-family members, is something of which nexAir is very proud.
Nevertheless, while it has a long history and a distinguished ancestry, the business is anything but old-fashioned, and over the past few years, has entered into a number of strategic acquisitions and made significant investments. “These were targeted to grow and strengthen our operating territory as well as to expand our offerings for customers,” explained Bill. The evolutions through which nexAir has been mean that it is now able to support a diverse base of customers all who have gas requirements of some form. “Under the nexAir umbrella are three divisions that focus on the needs and requirements of specific customer segments: Industrial, Healthcare and Carbonic. Through these segments, we serve customers across industries such as metal fabrication, medical, university and research, aerospace, automotive, chemical, food and beverage, foundry and general maintenance. In addition to industrial, medical and specialty gases and welding supplies, we also distribute specialized medical equipment, automation welding equipment and dry ice,” added Bill.
While Bill and his team expect to see growth in all divisions this year, demand for dry ice has increased considerably thanks to the pandemic, and this will be a focus going forward. “Much of this added demand is due to the online shipping of food and we expect this to continue post pandemic,” Bill revealed. “We are evaluating a number of ways to increase capacity in our dry ice plants to meet our customer needs and for future growth, including upgrading equipment, applying automation and developing other technologies.”
Having mentioned the way that Covid-19 had changed demand for certain products, Bill then went on to discuss the company’s response to the challenges it brought to nexAir specifically. “Since last March, the world in which we all operate has been different. Our team knew from the beginning we had to be in front of our response and be ready for what our customers and employees needed. We established a Covid-19 Task Force composed of our top leadership group in mid-March and that group met daily through May and regularly after that. This group was charged with discussing our response to every Covid-related issue and formed separate groups to address issues as they arose, from customer matters to supply issues to alternative work arrangements, etc. Our focus from day one was to keep our customers and employees healthy and safe.
“While we have had some Covid exposure, we feel as if the impact has been reduced as much as possible. We have continued to provide our customers with the service and support they need during this time while keeping our employees and their families protected. Our employees and resources, combined with the nimble way in which we can respond, are really what helped us navigate the unknowns of the Covid-19 pandemic and will position us to continue that as long as needed.”
The carefully thought out and considered approach that nexAir adopted in response to the pandemic goes a long way to illustrate the overall methodology of its management team, and it should really come as no surprise, given that it was recently named as a ‘US Best Managed Company’. Bill explained that this particular honor was ‘truly a milestone in our 80-year history and a recognition that we do not take for granted or rest on our history’.
“The criteria cited with the award were strategy, execution, culture and financials – all of which we focus on,” he said. “The strategic acquisitions and growth which we have successfully undertaken and integrated into nexAir over the last few years are what really set us apart for this award. While the award refers to management, it is really a reflection of all of our people and teams who contribute every day to our success and remain aligned in achieving the very best.”
The praise that Bill had for the staff at nexAir continued as he moved onto discuss the overall culture within the business, which he believes is a differentiator and sets it apart from the competition. “People are important and are the reason that we are still around 80 years after our founding,” he stated. “While many companies say they care about people, we feel as if we really do – we consider each other family and despite having over 700 employees, each person is important and what is going on in their lives outside of work is, too. The main way we achieve this family culture is really at the local level – encouraging managers and leaders to spend time on site and with their employees to really get to know them and to know what matters to them. A particular culture is not something that we dictate from our leadership team; it is something organic that we grow at all levels of our company.”
This focus on acting locally is also reinforced by the corporate social responsibility strategy formulated at nexAir, which has always been part of its DNA, ever since foundation. “We have always been vested in the communities in which we operate,” agreed Bill. “We achieve that support in a number of ways – corporate giving, event and organization sponsorship, in-kind donations and volunteer service days, to name a few. In addition, we encourage our employees to support organizations that are important to them and have a company-wide matching gift program so that we can add our support to that of our employees in whatever community that may be.”
Having created a very solid company and maintained it for the past eight decades, the current team at nexAir is focusing on growing both strategically and smartly. “While there are no specific targets or locations on the horizon, we are always looking for opportunities to grow our business and strengthen our offerings for customers,” said Bill. “We focus our growth in areas and ways which make sense for everyone involved, particularly for the customers we serve.
“We pride ourselves on being partners to our customers and much more than just a seller of products,” he concluded. “In everything we sell, we strive to provide true value and solutions to our customers. While we are also a large business, we are still a family company at heart. We can offer any product, service or solution to our customers that any other large competitor, no matter the size, can offer; however, we remain nimbler than any competitor and can respond and deliver as fast as anyone else in our space. We always strive to match the solution with the objective.”