Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Casella Plants Flag in Waste-to-Energy

The solid waste collection and disposal industry has been transformed by the building enthusiasm for waste recycling.  Founded in 1975, Casella Waste Systems (CWST:  Nasdaq) has been around to experience a lot of change and has been quick to get on the bandwagon.  The company is a self-described recycler and resource manager as well as a solid waste collector.

Granted the company is still heavily focused on its conventional solid waste business.  Casella management has outlined a four-point plan to grow the company and increase profits.  Top on their ‘to do’ list is to find incremental landfill capacity.  They are also trying to create new efficiencies at each of the company’s thirty-five solid waste collection operations.  That is just the usually blocking and tackling tactics of an incumbent solid waste handler. 

However, Casella has become much more than an ‘old school’ garbage hauler.  Some years back, Casella added metals recovery and plastics recycling to its menu of services, at the same time establishing a new revenue stream from the sale of recovered materials.    The company operates sixteen recycling facilities in its home region in the northeastern U.S.   Additionally, Casella operates nine landfills, four of which have been outfitted with methane gas recovery facilities.  The company actually produces 25 megawatts of power for local users.

Casella has also stepped into the organics-to-energy business.  Operating as Casella Organics, the company has established an anaerobic co-digester at a dairy farm in Massachusetts.  The plant co-digests dairy manure and food residuals from nearby sources.

A little over a year ago in April 2013, I wrote about Casella’s financial performance in the post “Casella’s Mixed Bag.”  Although operating cash flows have been at times ample, the company has had trouble delivering profits to its bottom line.  At the time I did not have a great deal of confidence in the stock to deliver returns in the near-term.  The stock actually took off a few months later, rising by as much as 50% after management provided guidance for sales growth in a range of 2.1% to 4.3% in the fiscal year ending April 2014.  Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) were guided in a range of $91.0 million to $95.0 million.

Alas, the stock lost all of its gains as the year progressed.  Casella was able to make good on its plans to grow revenue.  Sales in the fiscal year ending April 2014, were 9.3% higher than the previous year.  However, the company stubbed its collective Big Toe on profitability.  EBITDA was reported as $86.4 million, well below the guided range.  Since EBITDA is a critical factor in CWST valuation, disappointment increased with each passing quarter.

CWST is now trading near its 52-week low.  A review of historic trading patterns suggests the stock is oversold.  There has been a very strong bearish trend building in CWST since June, after the company reported fiscal year 2014 financial results.  It seems implausible that the stock could decline from its present level just under $4.00 per share.  Then again, shareholder equity has been eroded to a deficit and long-term debt levels have been rising.  Coupled with persistent net losses and shrinking profit margins, the weakened balance sheet does not provide a great deal of encouragement for investors who might be tempted take advantage of the cheap price for CWST.
 
That said, we note that the stock has been at the current price level four times in the last five years, rising each time by an average of 75%.  The company has a well established customer base and has been able to convert 11% of its sales dollar to operating cash.  If an investor has confidence in Casella’s regional stronghold in waste collection and hauling as well as the new flag the company has planted in the waste-to-energy business, then it is time to take a long position in CWST wait patiently.

 
Neither the author of the Small Cap Strategist web log, Crystal Equity Research nor its affiliates have a beneficial interest in the companies mentioned herein.

 

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