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Brian J. Lipke still isn't sure when the economy will pick up, but he's confident that, when it does, Gibraltar Steel Corp. will be in a good position to cash in.

Lipke, Gibraltar's chairman and chief executive officer, said Tuesday he believes the company's push into the metal building products and steel heat treating businesses have broadened its business and moved it into more profitable operations. The moves also have made Gibraltar less prone to the wider ups and downs that typically hit the steel industry.

That shift paid off during the latest recession, when Gibraltar's sales growth slowed and its profits fell, but not as much as many of its competitors in the steel industry.

"The company is in very good shape," Lipke told shareholders at the company's annual meeting. "We have more growth opportunities available to us today than we've had at any time."

In fact, Gibraltar, coming off first-quarter earnings that weren't as strong as initially expected, now predicts that its profits during the current quarter will be its strongest ever, ranging between between 50 cents and 55 cents per share, up from 49 cents a year ago. The company also increased its quarterly dividend by 13 percent to 4.5 cents per share.

But that doesn't mean Lipke believes the economy is on the rebound. "It's flat and uncertain," he said.

While the big home improvement chains that sell many of Gibraltar's metal building products had difficult first quarters because of bad weather and the uncertainty among consumers caused by the war in Iraq, Lipke said he's hearing "guardedly optimistic" reports from them about the current quarter.

And while auto sales -- the source of about 29 percent of Gibraltar's revenues -- still are on pace for about 16 million units, inventory levels are high and auto makers have been cutting back on their production schedules.

One reason for Lipke's optimism is the company's string of 18 acquisitions since Gibraltar went public 10 years ago, including its purchase of a pair of building products companies -- Construction Metals and Air Vent -- since the beginning of April. Those deals will add about $100 million to the company's annual sales and are expected to increase its earnings per share throughout the rest of this year by 15 cents to 20 cents per share, Gibraltar officials have said.

The $115 million acquisition of Air Vent, which was the highest-priced purchase ever by Gibraltar, will increase the company's sales by about $62 million and solidify its position as one of the leading manufacturers of ventilation products in North America.

The $27 million Construction Metals deal gives Gibraltar a much wider physical presence in the western United States. "We have covered the areas where population growth in this country is accelerating," along the West Coast, the Southwest and the Southeast, Lipke said.

The deals also expanded Gibraltar's push into more profitable manufactured products, which tend to have more stable markets than its processed steel business and now account for nearly 60 percent of the company's total sales, up from 14 percent a decade ago.

When the economy does pick up, Lipke believes Gibraltar will be able to handle additional growth in its markets without having to make costly investments in its facilities, many of which can increase their output by adding second or third shifts.

Gibraltar employs about 400 workers at its facilities in the Buffalo Niagara region and about 3,800 throughout North America.

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