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I for one am a little tired hearing the lubricants business in the United States is flat to declining. It seems you hear these words uttered by at least one speaker at every industry meeting you go to these days. Sometimes you even have to chuckle, because when there is controversy about growth rates, the arguments are often about plus or minus 0.5 percent from no growth. Considering the forecasts do not have this precision, one has to wonder why it even matters.

An argument that does matter, and a reason for optimism about the health of our industry, becomes evident when you take the time to look beyond the big-picture numbers and the broad-brush comments about growth.

First, consider that when people speak about the U.S. lubricants business being flat to declining, they are typically talking about changes in the aggregate volume of lubricant sold from year to year. This means if you put all the lubricants into a giant pool each year, you would be looking at roughly the same volume of oil in the pool each year moving forward.

In reality though, the oil doesnt all go into one big pool. Instead it goes into hundreds of thousand of little pools in the cars, shops, mines, factories, fleets and farms across America. And whereas the volume in the big imaginary pool might be flat to declining, some of the little pools are growing.

One such pool is the Do-It-For-Me segment of the consumer automotive lubricants business. This segment managed to wrestle a 10 percent market share, or about 75 million gallons, away from the Do-It-Yourself segment in a little over six years. It is expected to continue to grow at a similar rate for at least the next three.

But before you dive in, better consider that this pool doesnt really exist either. It too comprises many smaller pools – fast-lube operations, new-car dealers, big-box stores and others – and lubricant demand in each is growing at a different rate. As an example, demand from new-car dealers is forecast to grow at an average annual rate of close to 2 percent over the next five years, while demand at fast lubes will arguably plod along at something closer to 1 percent a year.

The private-label lubricants pool within the consumer and commercial automotive classes of trade is another that is rapidly getting deeper. In fact, if you poured all private-label passenger car engine oil into one pool, youd see that its depth increased by close to 15 percent a year over the past five years. Moreover, its expected to continue growing at nearly double-digit rates over the next few. This might help to explain why Citgo recently introduced its Milemaster line, and why other majors are jumping into the private-label pool.

Then there is the industrial pool of lubricants, roughly 50 percent of total U.S. demand. Although most prognosticators agree that this volume will remain the same (relatively flat) over the next five years, this virtual pool is likewise made up of many smaller pools of end-use industries and product types. While some of the smaller ones are indeed leaking, others are getting deeper.

Demand for lubricants for utilities, electrical equipment and pipeline transportation, for example, will grow at an average annual rate of 4 percent over the next five years. The primary products filling this pool are process oils (i.e. transformer oil, cable lubricant) and industrial engine oil (turbines, natural gas engines). In addition, robust growth in this segment is expected for high-end gear oil, grease and other lubes going to wind turbines/wind farms.

The textile industry is an example of a pool with a leak, its liner cut by low-priced textiles coming into the United States from Asia. Larger, more efficient textile machines are also driving down demand. Because of these issues, U.S. demand for process oils such as spin finish and coning oils, along with hydraulic fluids, compressor oils and other general industrial oils for textile manufacturing, will slip an average 5 percent a year over the next five years.

These are just a few examples of products and industries that dance to the beat of a different drummer than the one playing the flat-to-declining tune. Others can be found by testing the waters in the smaller pools of product types and grades, channels, end-use industries and regions.

At the end of the day, its not about the volume of oil in the big pool or the smaller ones. Its about the value. When you look at changes in the value of lubricants in some of the pools, it becomes clear that there is still plenty of room for growth – especially for the smart ones who know to swim to the islands of opportunity.

And if you want to know who they are, just look for the ones nodding their heads with false approval or with cunning smiles when someone says, The lubricants business is flat to declining.

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