EuroBusiness Media (EBM): Air Liquide, the world leader in gases for industry, health and the environment, reports full-year results for 2012. Benoît Potier, welcome. What are your comments on the results for 2012?
Benoît Potier: Well, the environment was certainly more contrasted than anticipated. That said, we delivered a solid performance. Growth first: in sales and profit, we had a good and sound activity level overall compared with the previous three years. We also had investments in the most dynamic markets, and overall a robust balance sheet. If we look at the fourth quarter, the fourth quarter shows improvement in growth across all zones and sectors. So the Group continued its growth momentum, notably in developing economies, which now represent 23% of sales compared to 15% in 2008. This is also supported by widespread geographic presence, initiatives in new markets and targeted acquisitions.
EBM: What are your key figures of your 2012 results?
Benoît Potier: Well first, to start with revenues. The Group revenue grew by 6% whereas the Gas and Service revenue, which today represents more than 90% of our sales, grew by 6.5%. If I look at the P&L, we had a positive leverage effect on operating income and continued efficiency gains at €284 million in 2012. So the operating margin overall was maintained at 16.7% and the net profit grew by 4.9%. Maybe more importantly, the cash flow grew by 11.7%. This is cash flow after change in working capital requirements, which demonstrates the quality of our results. We can then propose further growth of dividends to the shareholders. In terms of workforce, we today have nearly 50,000 employees worldwide. So the performance delivered is demonstrating the Group’s ability to generate steady growth over the long-term.
EBM: What about the growth levels in the different geographies?
Benoît Potier: We had growth in all geographies in a contrasted environment. Let me start with advanced economies: The global growth was 1% in 2012, with a 4%-5% in North America, more like 0% in Europe and -4% in Japan. As far as developing economies are concerned, we delivered double-digit growth at 11% and I would like to take a few examples. South America grew by 12%, Middle East and Africa 16% and Central and Eastern Europe 25%. We also continued our expansion in large zones or countries, first being China, of course, with more investments. The second block is Russia, Poland and Ukraine, where we started up new plants. Middle East and Africa, with further developments in Qatar and South Africa. I don’t forget the United States and Mexico, where we started new plants, and also France and Spain, in the Healthcare sector. Overall, we continued our geographic development, and in Europe, Home Healthcare acquisitions are gaining momentum with today 1 million patients cared for globally.
EBM: What about your growth levels across your various businesses?
Benoît Potier: Our four major Gas and Services business lines grew with the exception of Electronics in 2012. I’ll start with the Large Industries. We enjoyed sustained growth thanks to the increase of hydrogen volumes, in particular in Asia and in the United States for refineries and chemicals. The growth of Healthcare is supported by organic growth and Home Healthcare acquisitions. We had a moderate growth of Industrial Merchant in a very competitive environment. This covers Light industry. The positive signs in Electronics in Q4 were a favourable change in the year 2012. If I look at Engineering and Construction, we had a high order intake, which is a very good sign for the future. And most of our other activities were also progressing. Overall, Large Industries and Healthcare are two resilient businesses and they are now accounting for more than 50% of the Group sales.
EBM: What is your outlook for 2013 given the current environment? Are you confident?
Benoît Potier: Yes, I am confident. Why? There are several reasons: 1) The accelerating momentum in the most dynamic markets with 2012 investment decisions at €2.9 billion, the highest level since 2007; 2) The increase in Engineering & Construction order intake; 3) The high 12-month portfolio of opportunities; and 4) The start-up of 50 new plants in the next two years. That being said, the growth environment is expected to be contrasted once again. So all in all, our objective remains steady growth for the long-term.
EBM: And lastly, what are your priorities for the medium-term?
Benoît Potier: The Group will continue to strengthen its competitiveness and innovation for steady and profitable growth over the long-term. Competitiveness, innovation and growth will be the key priorities. They will be supported by a sustained investment plan in growing markets, an increase of 30% in the 2011-2015 efficiency program, which is a boost from 1 to 1.3 billion euros of efficiencies, and also supported by committed employees everywhere in the world, close to our customers and markets and also simplified internal processes. All these will allow us to seize new sources of growth and continue our development over the long term.
EBM: Benoît Potier, Chairman and CEO of Air Liquide, thank you very much.
Benoît Potier: Thank you.