Source: FMC Technologies.

Over the past several months, the plunge in crude oil prices has caused chaos throughout the energy industry, as exploration and production companies have faced the economic realities of potentially having to give up on costly drilling projects. That's bad news not only for the E&P companies but also for the businesses that serve them. For companies that drill in deep water, FMC Technologies (NYSE:FTI) has been a go-to services specialist to assist oil and gas companies, but coming into Tuesday afternoon's fourth-quarter results, investors weren't sure that FMC would be able to sustain its lofty growth expectations. Let's take a closer look at how FMC did in the fourth quarter and what it sees ahead for the rest of 2015.

FMC's secret to sustainable growth 

For those who've grown used to seeing energy-related companies have terrible fourth-quarter results, FMC Technologies did a spectacular job of living up to expectations. Revenue climbed more than 5% to $2.16 billion, easily topping the $2.09 billion that most investors had expected to see. On the income front, earnings of $0.72 per share were flat from the year-ago period, but after adjusting for a roughly $25 million charge related to FMC's pension, the company matched expectations of $0.79 per share in adjusted earnings.

Looking at FMC's segments, the Surface Technologies business was the clear winner in the quarter, with sales climbing 19% from the year-ago quarter and operating profit soaring more than 70% to $116.4 million. By contrast, the larger Subsea Technologies segment saw more modest revenue growth of 3% that produced only flat operating earnings, and the small Energy Infrastructure unit took the biggest hit, as sales tumbled 20% and hit profits by nearly 40%.

Source: FMC Technologies.

FMC's inbound order activity tells a different story, though. There, the Subsea unit brought in the most orders at more than $1.7 billion, up by two-thirds from last year. The Surface and Energy divisions both suffered declines in orders for the quarter. Those results were a welcome reversal from last quarter's plunging order activity.

CEO John Gremp emphasized the company's accomplishments in 2014, noting that both the Subsea and Surface units had record revenue and operating profits for the full year. Moreover, Gremp believes that the company's backlog will help it get through the coming tough period in 2015. Order backlog fell slightly in 2014, but it still makes up $6.62 billion, a run rate of between nine and 12 months' worth of revenue for FMC Technologies.

What's next for FMC Technologies?

The question many short-term traders are asking about FMC is whether it's being too optimistic about the resiliency of its customer base. As Gremp said, "we remain confident in our subsea and international wellhead businesses in 2015," with the goal of "improving deepwater project returns." Yet throughout the quarter, energy companies have announced cuts to capital expenditures, and in many cases, those cuts have been substantial. Perhaps because of this, FMC didn't provide any full-year guidance for 2015 to investors.

Source: FMC Technologies.

For long-term investors, though, the key is building relationships with customers. FMC has worked with several major oil and gas exploration and production companies to try to standardize subsea equipment, which would make it far easier to streamline design, testing, and replacement-part inventory management. As long as FMC can secure intellectual-property protection for its efforts, it stands to share in the cost savings that its customers will get.

Meanwhile, FMC is also working at making its equipment and technology more productive. Items designed for ultra-deepwater drilling have become increasingly important in the energy industry, and FMC's role as a leading innovator could help its customers turn what might otherwise be economically unsound projects into profitable ones.

What will define the future for FMC Technologies is whether oil-company customers keep their production levels steady. The big threat is if crude prices remain low, companies will pull back on their exploration activity. Nevertheless, if FMC can help make production more efficient, then it could end up supporting its own prospects for years to come.