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Republic Services Inc (RSG) Q3 2021 Earnings Call Transcript

By Motley Fool Transcribers – Oct 28, 2021 at 10:31PM

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RSG earnings call for the period ending September 30, 2021.

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Republic Services Inc (RSG -0.33%)
Q3 2021 Earnings Call
Oct 28, 2021, 5:00 p.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good afternoon, and welcome to the Republic Services' Third Quarter 2021 Investor Conference Call. Republic Services is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol RSG. [Operator Instructions]. Please note, this event is being recorded. I would now like to turn the conference over to Stacey Mathews, Vice President of Investor Relations.

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Stacey Mathews -- Vice President of Investor Relations

Hello. I would like to welcome everyone to Republic Services' Third Quarter 2021 Conference Call. Jon Vander Ark, our Chief Executive Officer; and Brian DelGhiaccio, our Chief Financial Officer, are joining me as we discuss our performance. I would like to take a moment to remind everyone that some of the information we discuss on today's call contains forward-looking statements, which involve risks and uncertainties and may be materially different from actual results. Our SEC filings discuss factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from expectations. The material that we discuss today is time sensitive. If in the future, you listen to a rebroadcast or recording of this conference call, you should be sensitive to the date of the original call, which is October 28, 2021.

Please note that this call is the property of Republic Services, Inc. Any redistribution, retransmission or rebroadcast of this call in any form without the expressed written consent of Republic Services is strictly prohibited. I want to point out that our SEC filings; our earnings press release, which includes GAAP reconciliation tables and a discussion of business activities; along with the recording of this call, are all available on Republic's website at republicservices.com. I want to remind you that Republic management team routinely participates in investor conferences. When events are scheduled, the dates, times and presentations are posted on our website. With that, I'd like to turn the call over to Jon.

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks, Stacey. Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for joining us. We are pleased with our strong performance in the third quarter. We continue to execute on our strategic priorities of customer zeal, digital and sustainability to drive growth and value for our stakeholders. During the third quarter, we delivered revenue and EBITDA growth of approximately 14% compared to the prior year. Generated adjusted earnings per share of $1.11, which represents an increase of 11% over the prior year and produced $1.4 billion of adjusted free cash flow on a year-to-date basis. We continue to effectively allocate capital by investing in value-creating acquisitions and returning excess cash to our shareholders.

Year-to-date, we've invested over $900 million in acquisitions to further enhance our market position and increase free cash flow. This is the highest level of acquisition investment in over a decade. On August 31, we completed the acquisition of ACV Enviro. This strategic acquisition broadens our capabilities and offerings in the environmental services industry. It also provides us with a platform to pursue additional growth. We are excited to welcome ACV to the Republic team. Our acquisition pipeline remains robust with opportunities in both the recycling and solid waste and the environmental solutions businesses. We now expect to invest over $1 billion in acquisitions through the full year. In addition to investing in acquisitions, we have returned $622 million to our shareholders through dividends and share repurchases.

We continue to prioritize customer zeal to drive profitable growth. This includes increasing customer loyalty, driving willingness to pay and attracting new volume as the provider of choice. Our customer retention rate remains at a record-setting level of 95%. During the third quarter, we delivered outsized revenue growth throughout our business. Total core price remained at an all-time high of 5.2%, and average yield increased to 3.2%. Volume increased 4.3% compared to the prior year, which exceeded our expectations. And acquisitions contributed an incremental 350 basis points to total revenue growth. The outlook for organic and acquisition growth for the remainder of the year is strong. Turning to digital. We continue to realize the benefits of our investments in technology.

In the third quarter, we made meaningful progress on the rollout of the next phase of our RISE platform. We have now implemented tablets in approximately 70% of our large and small container fleet. We expect to be substantially complete by the end of this year with plans to further deploy to the residential fleet beginning in 2022. Next, turning to our sustainability platform. We continue to partner with developers to capitalize on landfill gas to energy opportunities. We currently have 17 projects in the pipeline with more opportunities thereafter. On top of the royalty revenue, these plants will generate a majority of equity investment opportunities to further participate in the project economics.

We also recently opened a solar project on one of our closed landfills in Belleville, Illinois. This project consists of 30,000 solar panels and will produce enough energy to power 2,200 homes annually. We remain committed to increasing the recycling and circularity of key materials as part of our ambitious 2030 sustainability goal. We recently opened the first solar-powered compost facility in California to further our progress and address the growing community needs. This facility will provide critical organic processing capabilities to residents and businesses in the greater San Diego area. Our strong financial and operational results will not have been possible without our dedicated Republic employees.

We continue to invest in developing both existing and new talent and creating innovative solutions for the increased demand for skilled workers. We recently unveiled our Republic Services Technical Institute, which is the industry's first ever diesel technician school. This subsidized program is already building a strong pipeline of high demand technician talent for Republic. Additionally, graduates will have upskilling opportunities to further grow their career with Republic. These types of innovative investments in talent lead to external recognition for our company. Republic was recently certified as a great place to work for the fifth consecutive year. This is a meaningful achievement as employee recruiting and retention remains a prominent focus in today's labor market. Finally, turning to our outlook for the remainder of the year. Given the continued strength in our business, we now expect to exceed the full year guidance we upwardly revised last quarter.

Accordingly, we are increasing 2021 full year financial guidance as follows: adjusted EPS is now expected to be in the range of $4.10 to $4.13; and adjusted free cash flow is now expected to be in the range of $1.475 billion to $1.5 billion. I will now turn the call over to Brian.

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Thanks, Jon. Core price during the third quarter was 5.2%, which included open market pricing of 6.5% and restricted pricing of 2.9%. The components of core price included small container of 8.2%, large container of 5% and residential of 5%. Average yield was 3.2%, which increased 60 basis points from the second quarter. Third quarter volume increased 4.3%.

The components of volume included an increase in small container of 5.4%, an increase in large container of 3.9% and an increase in landfill of 6.6%. For reference, small container and MSW volumes in the third quarter were both above a 2019 pre-pandemic baseline. Moving on to recycling. Commodity prices increased to $230 per ton in the third quarter. This compares to $99 per ton in the prior year. Recycling processing and commodity sales contributed 160 basis points to internal growth during the third quarter. Next, turning to our environmental solutions business. Third quarter Environmental Solutions revenue increased $27 million from the prior year. This was driven by both organic growth from increased activity and the contribution from acquisitions. On a same-store basis, environmental solutions contributed 20 basis points to internal growth during the third quarter.

Adjusted EBITDA margin for the third quarter was 30.4%, and increased 10 basis points over the prior year. This included a 90 basis point increase from recycled commodity prices, a 50 basis point headwind from net fuel and a 30 basis point headwind from the impact of recent acquisitions, primarily driven by deal and integration costs. SG&A was 10.2% of revenue. This represents an increase of 20 basis points over the prior year, which was exclusively due to higher incentive compensation accruals. Year-to-date adjusted free cash flow was $1.4 billion and increased $247 million or 22% compared to the prior year.

This was primarily driven by EBITDA growth in the business. With respect to our full year cash flow guidance, we expect to spend a disproportionate amount of our full year capex and cash taxes during the fourth quarter. It should also be noted that we increased our expected full year capital spending in our upwardly revised guidance by over $50 million. This increase relates to capital to support growth opportunities. Free cash flow conversion through September continued to track ahead of our original expectations and increased 330 basis points over the prior year. During the quarter, total debt was $9.3 billion, and total liquidity was $2.4 billion.

Interest expense decreased $11 million due to refinancing activities completed last year, and our leverage ratio was 2.8 times. With respect to taxes, our third quarter adjusted effective tax rate was 25.5%. We had an equivalent tax impact of 27% when you include noncash charges from solar investments. We expect our fourth quarter equivalent tax impact to be approximately 25%. This includes the effective tax rate and noncash solar charges. I will now turn the call back over to Jon.

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thanks, Brian. We continue to create value for our stakeholders by executing our strategic priorities, which drives profitable growth and increases returns. We are expecting the positive momentum in our business to continue to produce profitable growth in 2022.

At this point, we anticipate producing above-average revenue growth, leading to high single-digit adjusted free cash flow growth compared to our full year 2021 performance. As usual, we will provide full year detailed 2022 guidance on our fourth quarter earnings call. With that, operator, I would like to open the call to questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator Instructions]. Our first question today comes from Tyler Brown with Raymond James.

Patrick Tyler Brown -- Raymond James & Associates, Inc. -- Analyst

Hey, good afternoon guys.Brian, thanks for the detail on the 10 basis point improvement. But one, kind of how should we think about margins in fourth quarter? Will they likely hold sequentially? And then number two, and I know you'll give more details on this, but big picture, you've got a strong CPI rollover. You've got a rational open market. Do you expect in 2022 to make progress on that 32% margin goal?

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Yes, Tyler, let me kind of answer the first part of your question. I think you embedded two or three questions in there. So at least with respect to sequentially, there's a normal step down sequentially from third into fourth quarter as well as -- we talked about the fact that we're doing more deals than originally anticipated. So we expect the highest level of deal and transaction and integration costs in the fourth quarter. So again, while we expect to see in the underlying business, we're expecting to continue to see really strong performance. We do expect a sequential step down in third to fourth quarter..

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

And then on your second question, Tyler. Yes, outlook is strong for next year. Certainly, we've -- but strong pricing on the open market portion of our business already, we'll continue to do that. And then as some of these escalators kick in, the lag effect of 12 to 18 months. So some of that kick in into 2022, that provides more upward pressure on pricing, which we think will lead to margin expansion in 2022.

Patrick Tyler Brown -- Raymond James & Associates, Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. And then just from a modeling perspective, how much revenue today would likely roll over next year?

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

If you just take a look at the deals that have been completed through September, it's 160 basis points.

Patrick Tyler Brown -- Raymond James & Associates, Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. And then my last one here. So Jon, it's interesting. If you look at the big three, I think you guys posted actually the best volume growth this quarter, you actually had the toughest comp. So I'm not asking you necessarily compare and contrast you with the peers. But was there a line or a vertical that just gave you this outsized strength that you saw? Yes, I'm just kind of trying to -- it's not really your strategy to prioritize volume over price. I just want to make sure that, that's -- make sure I've got that all straight.

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Well, you certainly have the last part right, which is we're always going to start with price over volume, right? I mean the thesis broadly of our company in the industry is that we can price ahead of our cost inflation, and I think we've proven to do that in a kind of rapidly changing environment this quarter. So we certainly feel good about that. In the short term and the long term over time. And on the volume side, listen, we certainly left some volume on the table. If we had more labor, we would have gone after some more opportunities on that front. So very strong demand environment. And I think the TDP print was just 2% for the quarter, a lot of that is on the consumer side. I think the industrial side of our economy is very, very strong right now. And so our volume has been pretty broad-based, pretty strong across the board.

Patrick Tyler Brown -- Raymond James & Associates, Inc. -- Analyst

All right, thanks guys.

Operator

Our next question comes from Hamzah Mazari with Jefferies.

Hamzah Mazari -- Jefferies LLC -- Analyst

Hey, good afternoon. My first question is just on SG&A leverage going forward. Maybe you could just walk through any potential COVID-related costs that came out of your system that are now coming back? Maybe there's some costs that are permanent in nature post -- sort of looking at the business through COVID that you've insituted. Just give us a sense of how to think about that going forward.

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. I'd say there's some modest puts or takes, and we're already seeing some of that. For example, small container weights are coming back. And long term, that's a good thing, that's a positive sign for demand. But that's certainly a a headwind for us in the very short-term period that we already saw some of. And we think that modulates over time. Certainly, with the Delta variant, we had some elevated PTO costs, right, in the quarter of people who were sitting out and still getting paid over time. So that's a headwind that abates over time. Listen, as traffic patterns come back, does that slow us down a little bit? Maybe.

I would have guessed we would have seen a lot of that, but our RISE platform is really delivering a lot of productivity into the business. And then more from a central function standpoint, we'll shrink our real estate footprint incrementally here as we have some of our more transactional colleagues working from home permanently. But that's pretty modest broad strokes. Get a little bit of travel, come back. But we'll also take advantage of Teams and do things in different ways over time. So again, lots of individual puts and takes, but certainly, I don't see any big structural headwinds that are going to come after us.

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Yes. And Hamzah, to your question specifically on SG&A, we've had a number of those costs come back into the system as far as some of the travel-related costs. So we're seeing that in the current period. As I mentioned in my prepared remarks, most of the increase we saw really had to do with incentive compensation really didn't have to do with any of those ongoing SG&A expenses. So we feel pretty good about our performance and our ability to leverage right, SG&A going forward as we continue to grow the top line and migrate toward that 10% of revenue.

Hamzah Mazari -- Jefferies LLC -- Analyst

Got it. Very helpful. And just my follow-up question. You mentioned landfill to gas. You mentioned 17 projects in the pipeline. Historically, I think you've just outsourced and taken royalty revenue. I think you referenced that you have equity stake opportunities. Is that something you've done before? And why not just bring them in-house, given some of the ROIC and strong sort of margin profile of some of those projects.

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. Well, it's a great question. So historically, again, we've been more opportunistic and site by site in this. As the world is moving into a more sustainable operation. We're certainly doing our part and hopefully leading the way. This has become more critical for us going forward. So not only do we have a 17 projects, we've got another slate behind that, that we're evaluating. And we'll participate in a different way than we have historically probably on an equity basis, but probably not full ownership. And why I say this? We have a limited number of landfills.

And so this is a great growth opportunity for us to pursue, but there is a ceiling to it. Once you've kind of built it out on all the landfills that make sense, that's it. We like to put all of our financial capital and our human capital in places that we can grow in an evergreen way. And so that's what we'll put our attention. Combine that with the fact that there's a lot of external financial and human capital resources who are anxious to partner with us, and we think that's probably going to be the winning combination for us going forward.

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

And the other thing too, Hamzah, is that partnering up with a third party, we can actually move faster than if we were to sit there and go on our own way. And that's one of the reasons we want to move quickly on this opportunity.

Hamzah Mazari -- Jefferies LLC -- Analyst

Got it. I just had a clarification question. Historically, I think at third quarter, you've talked about preliminary 2022 sort of maybe top line. Is that a change in sort of how you're thinking about guidance? Or maybe historically, you haven't done that?

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Yes. No, Hamzah, I think we talked in our remarks as well. What we talked about here was providing visibility into where we see free cash flow going at this point. But that said, I think you also hear the tone. We're optimistic about the momentum in pricing. Volume is strong and there's additional opportunities. And again, when you look at just the acquisition rollover as well as the pipeline of acquisitions that are there, we feel that 2022 is going to be very strong on that front as well. So contribution from multiple facets that at least relative to a historical growth rate, we feel it's going to be outsized.

Hamzah Mazari -- Jefferies LLC -- Analyst

Got it, thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Jeff Goldstein with Morgan Stanley.

Jeffrey Daniel Goldstein -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Hey, good afternoon. Thanks for taking my questions here. So labor expense has clearly been a key topic in the quarter. But within your COGS, labor, I noticed actually declined as a percent of revenue year-over-year. So maybe you can just talk about how you've managed to contain that. Is it primarily from raising price? Is there anything around scheduling or maybe doing proactive wage increases that you'd call out? Maybe just talk a little bit more about the success managing that in the quarter. And then, I guess, going forward, is there any reason to think you won't be able to manage it as well?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. Thanks for your question. I think you have to look way back to low CPI environment. And we've always had the fundamental belief that we want to give our people a fair and certainly steady increase every year. So we were raising their wages at 2% or 2.5%, even in low CPI environment. And focusing in parallel on employee engagement and making sure this is the place that the best people come to work. So you put those two things together. And we think our employee value proposition has been really strong. And while turnover has been elevated, it's been modestly elevated, right? And we would have taken more people if we could, to pursue some incremental growth opportunities, but our retention has been really strong. Now that being said, we're facing the same pressures in the macro environment.

So we've looked and done surgery in targeted markets where we think we weren't as competitive or maybe turnover was elevated. But you kind of take those cost increases and you offset it with, what we think, is our digital ops and our RISE platform, which is really driving productivity. And we look at our performance kind of in the quarter versus 2019, right, we're just seeing we're getting more work, right, out of the same labor hour. And that's been really productive. And I think you're seeing it hold in a very challenging environment. And then on top of that, of course, we're pricing because the market bears it, and we want to support future wage increases for our employees.

Jeffrey Daniel Goldstein -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Okay. That all made sense. And then now that you've had Santek for a few months. I think it closed back in May. I'm curious for the path forward on bringing those margins back up to Republic levels. And any sense of synergies you'd expect out of that business? And then remind me, in terms of pricing within the Santek book, was that in a place you were happy with? Or is there room to reprice some of that business as well? Just an update there would be helpful.

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes, we're really excited about that acquisition. Great set of assets, gets us into certainly some geographic markets that we weren't in before. And that creates a basis or a platform for further growth, both organic and additional tuck-in acquisitions. As Brian mentioned, there's always start-up costs in the first year. And the bigger the deal, the more of the start-up costs because we really then have to get multiple sites and the systems integrated, and there's a lot of employee benefits and related costs. And we really try to front-load all those and get all those done at once. A, to get those behind us; but b, the great employee experience. And so if those linger forever, they feel like they're not really part of the company, we think that leads to higher turnover time. So we get after that and have a very proactive and intentional plan. And we're ahead of that plan. And I think you'll see in 2022 that will be a nice certainly tailwind for us as those costs come behind us. And, again, given the nature of that company and being fairly landfill centric, the margins are really attractive.

Jeffrey Daniel Goldstein -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Okay. Thanks for the color.

Operator

Our next question comes from Walter Spracklin with RBC Capital Markets.

Walter Noel Spracklin -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Yes, thanks for taking my question. I'd like to turn back to acquisitions for a moment. When you look at the pipeline, which you mentioned is quite robust right now, I was wondering if you could be able to provide a little bit of color on that pipeline, perhaps discuss whether are these all smaller tuck-ins? Are there any larger, chunkier targets in markets that interest you? And as a follow-up, is the regulatory review and scrutiny at all impacting your ability to do deals in this environment right now?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

I mean, the performance has been very strong this year, and the pipeline looking forward is very strong. And I would say the towering characteristic of that is it's very, very balanced, right? It's balanced certainly weighted more heavily toward recycling and waste just given that's where the bulk of our business is. But certainly, plenty of opportunities in the environmental solutions portion of our business as well. It's certainly balanced across size, plenty of small tuck-ins, take a number of what we call medium-sized deals.

And listen, we maintain a perspective on everything. So could there be some larger deals that come through over time? Yes, those are obviously more episodic and could be challenging from a regulatory review. On balance, we have a very crystal clear point of view of where the regulation sits. And so if we think there's a deal that really is not going to get through, we just don't spend energy and time pursuing that opportunity.

And -- or if we do have limited regulatory scrutiny on a deal, we bake that right in. We understand what we probably have to divest, and we go right to the regulators and say, here's our perspective, and again, they'll draw their own perspective. But we plan that right into the model, so we're never surprised on the back end of that. So yes, there is heightened scrutiny versus four or five years ago on larger transactions. But more broadly, it's not slowed us down at all from I think, what is a different level of acquisition than we've historically done.

Walter Noel Spracklin -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Okay. And as my follow-up on special waste, it looks like it was a good quarter for you on special waste, had some nice tailwind there. But it can be lumpy business. How do you look at contribution from special waste from quarter-to-quarter? And is there any flags that you would give us in terms of how we model it in quarter to next? Or are you fairly confident that, that's going to be a good tailwind for you here over the next several quarters?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. I think it's a good tailwind. Again, we saw we were active as ever. We saw times of uncertainty. I think if you go back 20 to 25 years, special waste typically pushes, right? Jobs get sold and they get confirmed, but they just don't drop and get delivered. And so I think what you're seeing now is those things are starting to move. And so I feel good about that. The pipeline is very robust going forward. It's a project-based business. So by definition, right, there's going to be quarters that are a little higher versus others. But I think the outlook for the next 12 to 18 months is very, very strong.

Walter Noel Spracklin -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Appreciate it.

Operator

Our next question comes from Michael Hoffman with Stifel.

Michael Edward Hoffman -- Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Inc. -- Analyst

Good afternoon, thank you for taking my questions. My attempt to do that is on organic growth, thinking about a baseline exit momentum going into 2022, your price and volume -- are we in the right neighborhood if we're starting with a three handle on price and then volume ex special waste lumpiness still has momentum from new business formation, service interval trends being positive? We haven't seen a peak in that activity. So that creates tailwind. What's the right way to think about going into 2022?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. Certainly, on the pricing, we would expect something starting with a 3. And then on volume, listen, we're in a V-shaped recovery. And obviously, the further along you get just arithmetically, right, that slope starts to flatten. But I think there's still plenty of momentum. I talked about the labor side being a little constrained there. So versus a pre-pandemic year, you're going to see outsized volume growth in 2022 from us.

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Yes. And the follow-up to that, though, is probably not as high, though as what we're going to see in 2021. It's somewhere in between.

Michael Edward Hoffman -- Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Inc. -- Analyst

I couldn't hear you, Brian. Could you say that again?

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

No, I just said to Jon's point, most of 2021 was a recovery of units that were lost during the pandemic. My only point was that the volume, at least the way we're thinking about it right now, would be somewhere in between what we're doing in 2021 or what we're going to deliver in 2021 in that historical average.

Michael Edward Hoffman -- Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Inc. -- Analyst

Got it. Got it. And then last one for me is on free cash flow. And you think about a baseline of a conversion ratio, and you've talked about getting into the mid-40s. It appears that you're going to be there this year. So is that now the new -- you've got to it? And in that context going forward, you're spending more capex this year, but did you pull any forward? Or should I think of capex as the same rate of spend percent of revs in 2022?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. I think that capex is really more a function of growth, incremental capex. And these acquisitions we do, oftentimes, there's a plan and there's development projects associated with those, which are great, those are more onetime in nature, right? And then you the benefit of the returns of those in the future years. And from a free cash flow conversion standpoint, yes, right? We think we've hit a new baseline, and we have plans to further expand that going into 2022 and beyond.

Michael Edward Hoffman -- Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. Thanks.

Operator

Our next question comes from Jerry Revich with Goldman Sachs.

Jerry David Revich -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

Hi, good afternoon everyone. Can you talk about what pricing announcements you've made to your open market customers in October. And as you folks look at the inflation that everyone across the industry is seeing, how much do you feel like you need to push open market pricing over the next couple of months to make sure we've got enough room to execute as we hit the medium part of the inflation cycle?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. I would say that you've got to look back, right? We've already done that. We jumped on that pretty much in the mid- to end part of the first quarter, understanding where inflation was going, and you're seeing our open market, another 100 bps of incremental pricing versus the prior quarters, right, because we're pricing not only existing customers but also new customers, right? Our capture pricing tool as we saw steel go up, for example, on containers, right? We put that right in. And so immediately, we're selling a different price on the street, right, to cover the cost of that incremental steel, right, with a return against it.

So we're not diluting returns as we price that through. So listen, wwe're putting more price out. That price is being realized in the marketplace. And again, we have a good broad, backdrop, right, when things like -- bacon is doubling and all kinds of things are going crazy, rental cars and from just a consumer purchasing standpoint. Where prices are going, these price increases are relatively modest against that backdrop, and I think that's a good reason why they're holding.

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Yes. Jerry, just a follow-up there. Again, we've been quick to act in the open market. You really haven't seen the contribution yet from the restricted portion of the business. That's still to come in 2022 with some rollover benefit into 2023.

Jerry David Revich -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

And just to clarify, so the current level of core price increases for open market, 6.5%, and obviously, we'll see the restricted acceleration from here. But is the 6.5% now at a high enough pace to cover this heightened level of inflation? Or should we look for open market increases to be higher than the 6.5% we're posting now?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes, you could see that incrementally tick up, but we're also managing costs in a way, right, where we're taking the price and the cost inflation and expanding margins as we go. Not only looking back, right, we're almost a 200 basis point expansion, if you look back a couple of years. And we think we've got more room to run on that going forward. And to keep in mind, we price to existing customers. It's not a onetime event, right? We price ratably kind of in an open market, roughly a twelfth of a book goes out every month, right? It's our ability to be flexed up on that is really, really high.

Jerry David Revich -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. Great. And then you alluded to recycling investment opportunities in the press release. Can you just expand on that? What's the range of opportunities in terms of building facilities organically or seeing recycling rate increases out of your existing footprint versus acquisitions? Can I tell you just to flesh out that opportunity set, please?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. We think there's five or six core markets we're in that we would like to have an asset. That was one over time, we'll probably build if we could buy it, that would also be an opportunity, but it's probably something we'll build. Certainly, seeing acquisition opportunities, smaller ones, for recycling centers as we do some more medium-sized deals going forward. In part because we want to make sure we've got a place to take the material off of our back and not always be dependent on a third party in those markets. And in part because we think these resources have increasing value over time, right?

In a world where plastics, for example, the consumer packages companies are really in a need for post-consumer content and we have it, and we're an aggregator. So over time, that material is more valued, and we think we're going to be able to capture a piece of that as we move forward. And the other thing I'd add, Jerry, there's plenty of opportunities on our existing facilities to drive in more automation to kind of change the capex and opex trade-off. Those are tough jobs. Those are higher turnover jobs. And so it allows us to reduce the labor forces incrementally in those facilities, but then also produce a better product with more state of the art equipment.

Jerry David Revich -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

Appreciate it, thanks.

Operator

Our next question comes from David Manthey with Baird.

David John Manthey -- Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. -- Analyst

Good afternoon, thank you. First off, can you give us some early thoughts on capex for 2022? I don't know if you expect that to drop back into the 11% to 12% of revenues range. And if you're willing to share with us a couple of your spending priorities for next year?

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Yes. David, look, we'll get into details when we're back together in February on the components within the free cash flow. But I would sit there and say, as you think about over time, right? As Jon mentioned, we've made really good progress on free cash flow conversion. We expect to continue to make progress and start to drive that free cash flow conversion into the high 40% range. Some of that is going to be by reducing our capex as a percent of revenue.

David John Manthey -- Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. And second, how do you think about your commodity basket as you move into next year? I mean do you budget for flat? Or do you assume it's going to be lower than that? Just how do you think about the commodity basket broadly as you look to the out year?

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Yes, now, right, but we're kind of looking at is more of in line with a year-to-date average as compared to current pricing. But again, once this plays out, we have a couple more months under our belt, we'll be able to give you a better perspective when we're back together in February.

David John Manthey -- Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. -- Analyst

That's good. Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Sean Eastman with KeyBanc Capital Markets.

Sean D. Eastman -- KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc. -- Analyst

Hi. Nice quarter. A couple of modeling ones for me. Brian, I think you mentioned 160 basis points of acquisition rollover. Is that a net number or a gross number? And then secondly, I guess it's safe to assume that you guys are going to do something better than that because you're indicating that next year is going to be an elevated level of deal activity as well. Is that correct?

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Yes. So the 160 is essentially both gross and net, quite honestly. But yes, if you think about -- that only includes deals that have been closed through September.

Sean D. Eastman -- KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. Got it. And OK. So we'll have more upside there by the end of the year and then whatever you guys do next year, we'll layer on to that.

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Correct.

Sean D. Eastman -- KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc. -- Analyst

Got it. And then just drilling in on margins. I don't want to fit you guys into a box before you're giving the guidance. But maybe just thinking about the normative 30 to 50 basis points of operating leverage in the business, just naturally. I mean, what would be the moving pieces to think about relative to that? I mean maybe recycled commodities are a tailwind in the first half. I'm not sure maybe the acquisitions you've done are modestly dilutive into next year. Just trying to think through those moving pieces, that would be helpful.

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. I mean the core of the business, right -- you should think of margin expansion or pricing ahead of our cost inflation, which we're certainly very committed to doing. And then there's some other pieces around that, right? Commodity prices, right, could create a drag depending on where that asset goes, right? Fuel was a drag in the quarter, right, that in general, we price fuel and our fuel recovery fee is a pretty good broad hedge to fuel, but we have a little bit of a drag as we go up, and then it happens we have a little bit of a lag as we go back down.

So depending on where fuel goes. But I'd say there's probably more chance that's a neutral or a tailwind at it in the next year. And then acquisitions, like I said, right, we kind of loaded up all those integration costs in the first year. And so we expect that to be a little bit of headwind to the overall margin for a portion of that headwind in the equation into next year, but nothing dramatic, right? We're still committed to expanding margins next year with all those pieces put together.

Sean D. Eastman -- KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. Excellent, very helpful. I'll turn it over. Thanks, guys.

Operator

Our next question comes from Noah Kaye with Oppenheimer.

Noah Duke Kaye -- Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. -- Analyst

Good afternoon. Thanks for taking the question. I think your footprint just seems to align naturally with some population and demographic trends. And so may partly explain the great organic growth trends we've seen from here. But I wonder if you could talk a little bit about new business formation and new business origination for the company. And specifically, Jon, how you might be leveraging your digital platform to help drive that new business formation or rather the new business origination for the company? Is there anything that you're doing differently now at Republic than you might have done in years past to help identify and build new business?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes, we've certainly advanced the cause with our digital tools. I mean our sales team is on the Salesforce platform. And we've got a lot of lead generation tools across the different verticals in our business that populate new leads going forward. And we've certainly seen some of that. Frankly, I think there's more of that to come, right, as we get through Delta and consumer confidence even gets higher here and we "get back to traveling, get back to business." So we're optimistic there's more upside of that going forward. But we think we're getting certainly our fair share of the growth or more because we've got 1,000-plus sellers out there. Working very local markets to find opportunities one at a time.

Noah Duke Kaye -- Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. Thanks. And then I guess in the context of the ACV Enviro acquisition, I wondered if you're able to share your vision for what kind of scale you want to have in this segment over time. And obviously, you've talked about environmental services TAM being around $20 billion and the fact that the customer base wants to consolidate who it uses for service given sustainability and other drivers. But do you want it to be $1 billion business within a few years? Is that out of range of what you're thinking? Can you talk a little bit about your ambitions?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. No, I think that's actually really a good starting point. I think $1 billion in three-ish years, I think, is a reasonable target. We certainly will not raise or reach to get there by any means. We certainly wouldn't be afraid to clear that if we think we have the right opportunities to go forward. It will be a mix of organic growth and acquisitive growth. More acquisitive than organic just on a percentage basis as we scale that business. And listen, that's been a really good fit for us in the early days, not only have they performed well, but we expected to see a lot of integration opportunities with our waste and recycling business. And we're seeing a lot of those come through opportunity to internalize disposal, cross-sell with customers. And it's just going to strengthen the value proposition of both sides of our business.

Noah Duke Kaye -- Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. -- Analyst

Okay. Thanks so much.

Operator

Our next question comes from Kyle White with Deutsche Bank.

Kyle White -- Deutsche Bank AG -- Analyst

Hi, good afternoon. Thanks for taking my question. I wanted to go back to special waste volumes as well as C&D. Just curious, are you guys seeing any impact on these volumes from the tight labor market and kind of the stretched supply chain across the business and the environment?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

No, not really. I mean listen, the supply chain is impacting us in weird ways, like where we have a solar project we're putting in, and we can't get some of the equipment, it's trapped on a boat outside of Long Beach. So that project might not go in this year. But those are more incremental one-off things. And again, we're blessed to be in a business that is a service-based business, right, and not materials-based or we would be probably suffering like some of these other companies are. So we feel good about that, but not in the special waste or C&D side. We think there's more demand coming back in that business without a question. But I don't think the supply chain disruptions that attach anything to that part of the business right now.

Kyle White -- Deutsche Bank AG -- Analyst

Got it. And then on the solar investments. I think initially, you're targeting $125 million for this year. Is that still the right target? And should we expect that target to go higher next year?

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

It might be modestly more than that. As Jon mentioned, we've got some of these projects right now. It's all based on what gets placed in service by the end of the year. I would say a good number to use through the cycle is in that $150 million to $175 million range. That's all, yes, predicated on some of the tax laws that are in place today.

Kyle White -- Deutsche Bank AG -- Analyst

All right. Thanks.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our next question comes from Michael Feniger with Bank of America.

Michael J. Feniger -- BofA Securities -- Analyst

Hi guys, yes, thanks for taking my question. I appreciate the outlook raise, but just to put a final point on it. I might have missed it. Is EBITDA margins up year-over-year on the fourth quarter? Or is there just a lot of integration, acquisition costs that kind of creates some noise on the quarter?

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Yes, I think it's a couple of things. It's ES what you said on kind of the integration cost. But also when you take a look year-over-year, we've consistently seen since the fourth quarter of last year, heavier container waste, that sort of thing. So that probably will put a drag on the performance relative to the prior year.

Michael J. Feniger -- BofA Securities -- Analyst

Okay. Got it. And just to be clear, Brian, just on the 32% margin target, you guys might have already fleshed out. Is the track 2024? Is that how to think about it? Can it be much earlier? Or is there some inflationary pressure and just a lot of this acquisition? Obviously, it's lower than you integrate, I get it, you're moving higher. Just like how do we think about the margins in the context of that 32% target?

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. Look, I think we're not going to put a specific year on it, but we are certainly trending in that direction. And I think you're going to see a ratable improvement, right? I don't think you're going to see any big jump or I don't think you're going to see it flatten. And it's going to be a consistent set of levers, which is we are going to continue to grow. We're going to price ahead of our cost inflation and give our people a fair wage increase, that drive productivity right alongside that. And look, we're growing in a different way than we ever have before. And over time, we think that gives us leverage on SG&A, which further helps with the margin expansion.

Michael J. Feniger -- BofA Securities -- Analyst

Good. And just like lastly, if I could squeeze it in. When I speak about these acquisitions, the solid waste and the environmental services, can you just help us, Jon, is like the environmental services, is this lower than average margin, when we think of some of this stuff outside of the oil and gas, more of the downstream? Is that lower margin you guys can bring it up over time? Just kind of thinking about that portion of the business that you guys are growing relative to like the nonhazardous solid waste.

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Yes. So we start with everything on intrinsic value returns, right? That's where we start from a fundamental standpoint. Any deal we do is going to have to clear that hurdle, right, individually and then naturally, collectively, it will over time as a platform. These businesses, in general, do have a lower margin profile than recycling and solid waste. They also have a different capital intensity. So when you think about free cash flow conversion, right, it looks very similar. And we do think there's certainly an opportunity to raise those margins over time. And again, we have been incredibly consistent over the last decade on our commitment to pricing, right?

And that we won't flinch back off of that, right, as we grow in the broader environmental services space, right? We are going to be able to price because we're going to provide a differentiated service, and that supports us not only giving a fair wage increase to our employees, but then expanding margins and providing great returns to our shareholders over time.

Michael J. Feniger -- BofA Securities -- Analyst

Thank you.

Operator

And at this time, there appear to be no further questions. So I'd like to turn the call back over to Mr. Vander Ark for some closing comments.

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Thank you, Eli. In closing, we are pleased with our third quarter performance. We delivered double-digit growth in revenue, EBITDA, EPS and free cash flow. We continue to manage the business to create long-term value for all stakeholders and expect continued profitable growth in 2022. I would like to thank all our employees for their continued hard work and commitment to our customers. It is our team of dedicated employees that make these results possible. Have a good evening and be safe.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 50 minutes

Call participants:

Stacey Mathews -- Vice President of Investor Relations

Jon Vander Ark -- President, Chief Executive Officer and Director

Brian M. DelGhiaccio -- Chief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer

Patrick Tyler Brown -- Raymond James & Associates, Inc. -- Analyst

Hamzah Mazari -- Jefferies LLC -- Analyst

Jeffrey Daniel Goldstein -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Walter Noel Spracklin -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Michael Edward Hoffman -- Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Inc. -- Analyst

Jerry David Revich -- Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. -- Analyst

David John Manthey -- Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. -- Analyst

Sean D. Eastman -- KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc. -- Analyst

Noah Duke Kaye -- Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. -- Analyst

Kyle White -- Deutsche Bank AG -- Analyst

Michael J. Feniger -- BofA Securities -- Analyst

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