Browning-Ferris Industries

By: Diana J. Kleiner

Type: General Entry

Published: November 1, 1994

Updated: September 20, 2016

Browning-Ferris Industries, with headquarters in Houston, provides waste management, recycling, and sanitation services to commercial, industrial, residential, and governmental clients in the United States and international markets. Under a decentralized management structure, its numerous subsidiaries and affiliates collect, transport, treat, and dispose of commercial and industrial solid wastes and facilitate resource recovery, hazardous-waste treatment, municipal and commercial sweeping, medical-waste services, portable-restroom services, asbestos removal, and public transportation, including city and charter bus services, shuttles, and on-call van service. In 1988 BFI was the industry's second largest publicly held company, serving 4.5 million households, 544 municipal contracts, and 522,000 commercial and industrial customers. In 1992 the company had 26,000 employees, operated in the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela and had sales of $3.25 billion. BFI owned, leased, or operated more than ninety sanitary landfills, had fifty-five transfer stations for urban waste consolidation and shipment to distant disposal sites, and carried out initial resource recovery through its American Ref-Fuel Company, jointly owned with Air Products and Chemicals, Incorporated.

The company was founded as American Refuse Systems, Incorporated, in 1967 when accountant Tom Fatjo, Jr., began residential waste collection in his Houston suburb. By 1968 he had expanded into shopping malls and small factories and won a Houston landfill contract that allowed him to enter the disposal business. Fatjo entered into a partnership with Louis A. Waters, then vice president of corporate finance for a New York securities brokerage, and acquired controlling interest in Browning-Ferris Machinery Company, a publicly traded firm that distributed, serviced, and leased heavy equipment for construction and maintenance. In 1970 the partners incorporated Browning-Ferris Industries.

As the business grew, national regulation regarding the environment put new restrictions on collection and disposal services, toughened sanitation standards, curtailed incineration, mandated landfill burial, and increased costs. Competitors failed, and Fatjo bought them out, keeping many on as managers. Harry Phillips, Sr., of Patterson Waste Control, joined BFI when it acquired his firm; became BFI president in 1970. In 1976 he became chief operating officer, a post he held until 1988. The company entered recycling in 1972 with the acquisition of Consolidated Fibres, Incorporated, a processor of waste fibers, and by the mid-1970s owned a nationwide wastepaper company. BFI provided sanitation services in Spain through its first overseas contract in 1973. By 1975 revenues totalled $256 million. At this time the firm operated 2,800 trucks in 131 cities, had 7,700 employees, and owned sixty landfills.

Passage of the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency Superfund caused new problems for BFI, leading to litigation over environmental violations and accusations of price fixing. In 1988 William D. Ruckelshaus, former Environmental Protection Agency chief and deputy attorney general during Watergate, assumed the office of chairman and chief executive. In 1991 Harry Phillips returned to top management. In 1983 CECOS International, a BFI subsidiary, had established a new Chemical Services Division to treat hazardous wastes along with BFI's Newco Waste Systems, and in 1988 BFI had acquired W. T. Stephens Contracting Incorporated, an asbestos-removal business. In 1990, however, BFI withdrew from the toxic-waste business after a series of legal and financial problems. Subsequently, BFI developed facilities for treatment of infectious medical wastes.

The International Directory of Company Histories (Chicago: St. James Press, 1988-).

Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Diana J. Kleiner, “Browning-Ferris Industries,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 25, 2022,

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November 1, 1994
September 20, 2016

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