Like virtually all companies, waste collection and disposal firms see their business shrink during recessions. The construction and demolition (C&D) segment weakens as the construction industry declines. Roll-off business falters, thanks to declining retail sales. The same happens to restaurants — fewer patrons means less food waste.

Still, people and businesses always have trash to get rid of. After the inevitable decline, waste companies usually plateau at survivable levels. Those that have diversified their businesses well beyond the C&D and roll-off sectors and shrewdly manage their finances can be confident of survival.

But, the current recession has plunged deeper and will likely last longer than any downturn since the Great Depression. What does that mean to capital intensive waste companies that, recession or not, must constantly replenish fleets and maintain large complements of heavy equipment? Depending on their size, haulers use a variety of means to finance themselves in an economic downturn.

Investment Grade Strength

Fifteen months into the recession, the performance of Phoenix-based Republic Services illustrates the strength of an investment grade company. Unlike most firms, the $9 billion company doesn't bother with leasing plans or loans that use assets, such as trucks and heavy equipment, as collateral. Instead, Republic uses lines of credit, which for giant financial powerhouses cost less than other forms of financing.

Republic also got lucky. The company put together $2.75 billion in revolving bank lines of credit during the summer of 2008 to prepare for its merger with Allied Waste Industries. “We closed the line of credit in August (2008), and the banking system shut down in mid-September,” says Edward Lang, senior vice president and treasurer for the company.

Republic Services' current line of credit will last until mid-2013, when it must be renewed — hopefully long after the end of the recession. Five years is a typical term for an investment grade line of credit.

Relatively low interest rates also characterize lines of credit. Rates are set as a percentage over the London Inter-Bank Offering Rate (LIBOR), a floating rate that banks charge each other for money. According to Lang, the percentage over LIBOR depends on how Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's rate a company. Republic Services' investment grade rating entitles it to use its credit line for LIBOR plus 1.3 percent.

Suppose that the LIBOR interest rate, which resets every day, is a half of a percent for a one-month term. Republic Services could tap its line of credit at an interest rate of 1.8 percent — and use the money for a month. The three-month LIBOR rate might be 1.4 percent, in which case Republic would pay 2.7 percent for money used over that period of time.

Financing Discipline

Smaller firms have less flexibility than the giants. For example, the $45 million E. L. Harvey and Sons, Inc., a full-service regional waste management and recycling company based in Westborough, Mass., is using a mix of 12-month bank lines of credit and manufacturer financing to get through the recession. “In decent years, we finance out of cash flow,” says Ben Harvey, the firm's executive vice president. “Lately, we have been using traditional bank financing.”

E. L. Harvey maintains two kinds of lines of credit, both with one-year terms. One line funds equipment, while the other covers operations. Both carry interest rates of .25 of a percentage point above prime. As of press time, the Federal Reserve Bank prime interest rate is 3.25 percent.

Harvey says the firm considers using manufacturer financing and its equipment line of credit for all equipment acquisitions. The choice usually, but not always, depends on which one offers the best interest rate. “When we use manufacturer financing, it is strictly for a single piece of equipment,” Harvey says. “But the bank doesn't like it when we do that because it reduces the amount we borrow against our equipment line of credit.”

In a nod to the slumping and uncertain economy, Harvey says that the company has disciplined its use of credit. For instance, the firm has plans for a large material recovery facility on the drawing board. “We have a timeline for the project but we've been extending it out as far as possible,” he says. “We believe we could finance it today, but the business climate just isn't right.”

The company also has taken pains to keep several banks it deals with informed about the status of business. “We meet with our bankers every year and go over our plan for next year,” Harvey says. “We also keep them informed on potential needs. For example, if we are bidding on a municipal contract that will require us to buy five trucks, we let the banks know that we will need, say, $1 million.”

Over the years, E. L. Harvey has taught its banks about the waste business. “Our relationship with our primary bank goes back many years,” Harvey says. “If our loan officer moves on, we meet with the next person right away to talk about how the waste business works. We bring new loan officers to WasteExpo to help them understand what the equipment we buy looks like and what it costs.”