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Heritage-Crystal Clean caters to mid-size clients

Daily Herald
March 7, 2003

By Jennifer Coogan Medill News Service

A typical day for a worker at environmental services firm Heritage-Crystal Clean LLC can involve holding a hose as it sucks up sandy, oily sludge out of a auto shop pit. Or it can mean transporting solvents that have been used to clean greasy factory gears.

Yet what the industry may lack in glamour, Elgin-based Heritage-Crystal is making up for in sparkling sales, up 41 percent last year, to $31 million.

And it's holding onto plans to go national and, one day, public.

Not yet four years old, Heritage-Crystal opened its business in the wake of changes in the environmental services industry.

In 1998, Laidlaw Environmental Services Inc. took over Elgin-based Safety-Kleen Corp. and moved its headquarters to Columbia, S.C.

Once a major employer in Elgin, many former Safety-Kleen employees were left looking for work.

One such employee, former Safety-Kleen President Joseph Chaloub, led a group that formed Heritage-Crystal Clean. Then in 1999, it acquired a parts cleaning company that provided its base business.

The competition for new and former clients led to a host of legal battles and allegations of wrongdoing.

While Safety-Kleen still dominates the parts cleaning business, Heritage-Crystal is building itself up, operating in 30 states.

It has made a name for itself by catering to small- to mid-sized business clients.

While larger waste service companies collect railcars filled with waste, Heritage-Crystal focuses on smaller, diverse materials - sometimes as small as light bulbs and used batteries.

John Fortin, vice president of manufacturing at Wheeling-based Fluid Management Inc., said the tight economy and safety were factors in becoming a customer.

"You put your business in their hands," he said. "If the environmental regulations are violated, we're the ones held responsible."

Customers also like an innovative Heritage-Crystal program, putting old cleaning solvent to new use. Upon collection, the old solvent is safety tested and recycled for other uses.

"By law, they are not creating a hazardous waste, so manifesting requirements don't apply, and that cuts down on their administrative burden," said Greg Ray, vice president of business management, Heritage-Crystal.

From the beginning, Heritage-Crystal investors have set their sights on rapid growth.

The fledgling firm has been busy laying down an infrastructure that includes service trucks, operators and state certifications.

Even though the company has yet to post a profit, it nevertheless has plans to go public one day.

"We haven't set a time frame," Ray said. "We have to achieve a certain scale."

In the meantime, Ray said he finds the work rewarding.

"There's such a huge difference, psychologically, in working for a growth company," Ray said. "There's something satisfying about building things."

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