If ever there was an outfit that lived up to the maxim "doing well by doing good," it's Norway's Tomra Systems (TMRAY ). The 32-year-old company is the world's leading maker of "reverse vending machines," the refrigerator-size cabinets at supermarkets that collect empty cans and bottles and return deposits to customers. With more than 50,000 of its boxes installed in 40 nations, Tomra, based just outside Oslo, has a 90% market share in automated beverage-container return systems. And there's lots of room to grow: Only 15% of the 800 billion beverage containers used each year are now subject to deposit. "We still have a huge market to conquer," says Chief Executive Erik Thorsen, 47.
Global domination wasn't on the agenda when two Norwegian brothers, Petter and Tore Planke, began marketing their bottle-gobbling machines in the early 1970s. Since then, Tomra's boxes have become vastly more sophisticated, brimming with optics, lasers, and microprocessors so they can communicate with Tomra operations centers when they need to be emptied or serviced. Helping stores slash handling costs while doing something for the environment has been good business for Tomra, whose revenues have nearly tripled during the past six years, to an estimated $363 million in 2003.
Tomra's top line has sagged a bit in recent years, though, because of discontinued operations and the weakening dollar. And profits are under pressure because of a big expansion in Germany. As a result, its shares are down 22% from a year ago.
To pump up revenues, Tomra is diversifying into new segments, such as running high-tech recycling centers for local governments. It's a dirty business, but Tomra is cleaning up.
By Andy Reinhardt in Paris