Consider Some Trash for Your Portfolio

The barrage of hurricanes that battered the Southeast months ago took an enormous toll, first and foremost on the families that live there. Many companies felt the impact as well, from Office Depot (NYSE: ODP  ) to JetBlue Airways (Nasdaq: JBLU  ) to Outback Steakhouse (NYSE: OSI  ) to Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX  ) -- and that list is most assuredly not all-inclusive. With every storm cloud, though, there is a silver lining -- someone had to haul away the debris. Waste Management (NYSE: WMI  ) , the nation's largest trash collector, answered the cleanup call -- a tall order with a $59 million paycheck.

The windfall was one reason that third-quarter revenues, announced yesterday, rose 9% to $3.27 billion. Collection revenues increased 8.6% to $2.1 billion, and landfill revenues improved 7.2% to $805 million. Net income soared 44% to $302 million (including a $71 million tax audit settlement) from $210 million the year before. Backing out a $0.12 gain from the tax settlement, earnings of $0.40 per share still represent a solid 14% increase, in line with estimates.

Few people would consider trash hauling a glamorous business, but, as the saying goes, somebody's got to do it. Often, the task falls to Waste Management, who controls an industry-leading 28% of the market. The company owns more than 30,000 trucks, 366 transfer stations, 145 recycling centers, and 17 waste-to-energy facilities. Combined, the company has more than 27 million commercial, industrial, and residential customers and accounts for about 40% of the nation's disposal capacity.

They say that one man's trash is another man's treasure (last cliche, I promise), and Waste Management's crown jewels are 300 company-owned landfills. Government permits for landfills are hard to come by, and these sites not only provide added income (known as tipping fees) from other haulers who have no landfills of their own available but also help limit the disposal fees that Waste Management would otherwise have to pay to dump trash it has collected.

Waste Management has been marred by scandals in the past but has since made amends and moved in the right direction. Revenues last year rose to $11.5 billion, reversing three straight years of declines, and free cash flows year-to-date have reached $850 million. Flush with cash, management has opted to lift the firm's dividend payment to $0.80 (a 2.8% yield) and will be repurchasing up to $500 million in company stock this year.

Waste Management has truly turned garbage into gold and even collects methane gas (a natural byproduct of a landfill), which is ultimately sold to public utilities and industrial customers, as is the electricity generated by the intense heat of the waste-to-energy facilities. Both volume and pricing are on the rise, and the company has to compete with only a small number of rivals, including Allied Waste (NYSE: AW  ) and Republic Services (NYSE: RSG  ) . Waste Management, which trades at only 18 times trailing earnings, proves that maybe a little trash in your portfolio is a good thing.

Waste Management's recent dividend hike places the company's yield in the top 20% of the S&P 500. If this gets your attention, you should be readingMotley Fool Income Investor.

Fool contributor Nathan Slaughter counts Men At Work among his all-time favorite garbage-collecting movies. He owns none of the companies mentioned.


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