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November 25, 2019

Family guides gas company into new territory

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It’s a multigeneration family business that’s likely entering its most exciting era yet.

The story of A-OX Welding Supply begins within two companies: Dakota Welding Supply, which was founded in 1944, and A&B Welding Supply, which was started in 1959 by Harold and Bob Elliott in western South Dakota.

Harold was a traveling welder, and after trouble finding a secure source of wire as he worked around the country, he decided to start his own company. He founded A&B from his home garage with his son Bob, and his son Don joined the company in 1961.  In 1964, they bought Dakota Welding Supply, which had locations in Sioux Falls, Watertown and Huron.

In 1994, Dakota Welding changed its name to A-OX Welding Supply Co. Harold’s grandsons Thomas and Michael Elliott are now the majority owners of A&B and A-OX.

A-OX Welding Supply is led by president and CEO Thomas Elliott and his wife, Linda, who oversees collections and event planning. Michael Elliot is president and CEO of A&B Welding Supply.

Then there are Thomas and Linda’s children: Tisha Rodgers joined A-OX in 2016 after a 20-year career in the Navy and serves as a purchasing agent, learning about the business and its products to prepare her for future leadership roles in the company. Tiffany Anderson joined in 2005 and now serves as HR administrator and head of office administration. Dr. Terran Bergdale joined A-OX in 2015 after pursuing her master’s degree in biological and chemical engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. She established the company’s Specialty Lab and earned the credentials needed to take A-OX to the next level of gas sales, with capabilities to create high-end and specialized gases. And Trenton Elliott joined the business in 2005, working in positions from billing and logistics to system installation and IT administration. He’s now chief technology officer and leads business development.

Trenton and Tiffany filled us in on what’s new for their growing family business this year and how they’re planning for the future.

How have you been able to grow and evolve your company into what it is today?

A-OX Welding Supply team

When asked this question, Don Elliott said he always aspired to work with his employees, and through “respecting and caring” about them, he was able to grow the company. With the foundation that Don developed for the family company, Tom and Mike Elliott were able to initiate a period of growth that included buying new equipment, upgrading buildings, expanding and stocking the products offered.

One thing Tom would always say is “you can’t sell out of an empty wagon.” Tom was greatly focused on customer service and integrating technology. A-OX began tracking cylinder serial numbers, and we soon realized our assets were underutilized. This led us to develop a cylinder leasing program that fueled our ability to purchase additional bulk tanks and cylinders. In 2008, we implemented Advanced Cylinder Management, or ACM, to further track assets and continue our journey to grow and evolve.

What’s new in your business this year?

Several years ago, Tom Elliott initiated a plan for what some thought an impossible endeavor as he began discussions to build an Air Separation Plant, or ASP, owned by independent gas companies. Nearly a decade later and after many failed discussions, the dream of building an ASP has come to fruition. A-OX is part of the independent consortia that owns Absolute Air, set to build an ASP in the Midwest, which continues the evolution of A-OX from our patriarch’s garage to a technologically advanced ASP.

Our air separation plant will use atmospheric air and turn it into its primary components: nitrogen, oxygen and argon. These will be in liquid form and will be transferred to fill plants and manufacturing companies to use in their processes as needed, such as oxygen for the hospital to use with patients in their rooms and many other applications, both medical and industrial.

What do you think people might be surprised to learn about your business?

If you have been to a hospital in South Dakota in the last 15 years, you have used our gases. We have been working very hard on our propane division, so you might have seen us at Hy-Vees and Gas Stops. A-OX currently employs 67 people. We have two filling locations, A-OX in Sioux Falls and A&B in Rapid City; and six branches located in Watertown, Huron, Mitchell, Yankton, Sioux City and Fargo. We also have 42 authorized resellers located in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.

a-ox team group photo

What do you find to be the best and the most challenging parts of being a family business?

Working with gases. It’s always a thrill to see that the industrial and food applications for our gases are being used to make things like trailers that hold hogs or some of the biggest display signs in the world all the way down to the beef jerky in the store. Some of the most interesting things happen when we show up to a new lab to consult or install a new system for some leading biotech company most people have never heard from. I would say some of my proudest moments come when I’m driving my kids by a hospital with one of our medical bulk cryogenic tanks standing tall with A-OX on the side.

What strategies have you found helpful as you combine multiple generations of family in the business?

Communication. We aren’t that good at it, but we are working on communication. It is important to identify within a family how do people best communicate and then making a concerted effort to adapt your approach so that your message has the potential to be received. So realize that everyone has a different perspective of things that is based on their wisdom. Keep in mind that as Confucius said, “By three methods may we learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

What made you decide to join the Prairie Family Business Association, and what value have you found in it?

Trenton: I was asked to tag along with my sister Tiffany because she was going to an affinity peer group recruiting meeting. We find the most value in the affinity peer groups and the annual meeting. The diversity of the companies involved adds so much value to a member. It’s hard to quantify the value of the PFBA; I can tell you that after four years of being in it I find myself asking how I could live without it.

Tiffany: Jane Shorma (of Creative Building Corp.) is a good friend, and she felt we could use the association to help us with our family planning and future generation transitions. I am so glad we are involved. It was a great business and family move to join PFBA.

How specifically have the affinity peer groups benefited you?

Trenton: It’s been very eye-opening. I feel that I have grown immensely on both a personal and professional level. APG creates an environment where you’re encouraged to express yourself freely, knowing that your message is understood and people listening have valuable input. Ever since joining the group, I have felt that my mentor and my peer are my Prairie family.

Tiffany: I have found that since joining a group that I have the best resources and peers to help through tough decisions and discussions we all have as a family business. I am always the first to say join a group as soon as possible to any new members. The support is priceless.

What’s next for your business? How are you focusing on your future?

Now that we have the ASP groundbreaking under our belts, we are looking to expand our cryogenic liquid business. This would include industrial application for manufacturers or medical installs for health care. Since 2015, we have been wholesaling specialty gases under the PurityPlus brand nationwide. We have seen tremendous growth and plan to focus on expanding PurityPlus.