Waste Management ($WM) is a waste and environmental services company that operates in 20 countries. It mainly deals with garbage management from collection to recycling. Their clients consist of major businesses, residential areas, etc, and usually have contracts with cities to bring it to transfer stations where the waste is compacted, ultimately ending up in landfills they own and operate. This brings $18 Billion in revenue in 2021.
Rise of WM Inc.
The 1950s is when the waste industry started expanding because there was more garbage being produced. This was right after WW2, there was a baby boom, and the population was expanding at an incredible rate. In 1956, there was a small garbage collection company called Ace Scavenger. At the time they were only operating 12 garbage trucks around the Chicago area, But they noticed the new potential in the industry and invested heavily in expanding this business - bought new trucks, made deals for garbage collection in new areas, acquired some of their smaller competitors.
In 1965, The government responded to this nationwide increase in trash production by implementing stricter laws and stricter rules. Most small businesses shut down. Ace Scavenger had spent the last decade expanding so they made it, and a couple of years later they merged with another similar company and the resulting company was called Waste Management.
In 1971, They went public and started acquiring competing companies with the capital they raised. They landed some contracts from other countries. They also started getting involved in the disposal of chemical and toxic waste on which the government was making new regulations. In the 1980s they were involved in a line of scandals that involved dumping hazardous waste in illegal places, resulting in millions of dollars in fines, a sharp decline in their stock price, and a lot of negative publicity.
In the early 90s, after years of mostly non-stop growth and success, They finally started experiencing some major financial troubles. There are multiple factors responsible for this, the primary being a weaker economy, resulting in people spending less and generating less waste. In 1993 the revenue fell for the first time ever and profits were down.
When earnings come in below expectations, it negatively impacts stock price and the company’s overall public image. And hence, from the years 1992-97, WM Inc. fraudulently made it appear that they were doing better than they really were. Dean Buntrock is responsible for most of this, as he's the one who set earnings targets, maintained a culture of fraudulent accounting, personally directed specific accounting changes to be made to make targeted earnings, and was the spokesperson who announced these earnings to the public.
In 2002, The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed suit against the founder and five other former top officers of WM Inc. charging them with perpetrating a massive financial fraud lasting more than 5 years. The complaint, filed in the U.S. district court in Chicago charged that the defendants engaged in a systematic scheme to falsify and misrepresent Waste Management's financial results between 1992-97. The company officials cooked the books and enriched themselves for years and duped unsuspecting shareholders.
As the SEC put it, they avoided depreciation expenses on their garbage trucks by assigning unsupported and inflated salvage values and extending their useful lives. This effectively adds money to their earnings that shouldn't be there. They also assigned arbitrary salvage values to other assets that previously held no salvage value.
They failed to record expenses for decreases in the value of landfills and refused to record expenses necessary to write off the cost of unsuccessful and abandoned landfill development projects. Hence, by making such adjustments, they fraudulently increased their earnings. They scammed investors, who decide which stock to buy based on such information. In 1996 documents stated that Waste Management made $192 Million that year when in reality they lost $39 Million.
These numbers were even verified by an independent auditing firm, Arthur Andersen (A&A). Despite finding irregularities, They signed off on the records, as they felt a conflict of interest since they would make more money keeping Waste Management as a client.
The SEC estimates that Dean Buntrock (CEO of WM Inc.) gained more than $17 Million through performance-based bonuses, retirement benefits, charitable giving, and selling company stock while the fraud was happening. For example, he received a tax benefit by donating inflated company stock to his former college to fund a building in his name.
Arthur Andersen paid a $7 Million penalty, which was the largest ever against an accounting firm. In addition to this, Waste Management agreed to pay $220 Million to settle shareholder lawsuits. Waste management's management team decided to pay over $30 Million to the SEC, Most of which came from Buntrock.
Today, Waste Management is back on its feet and doing better than ever. WM is now the largest player in the garbage recycling space with a market capitalization of $64 Billion. Major shareholders of WM include Bill Gates, Vanguard, and BlackRock.