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January, 1997

Name: Elana Amsterdam
Title: President, Ecosav Inc.
Start-Up Capital: $10,000

Elana Amsterdam's parents wanted their daughter to got to graduate school. Instead, she chose to work in a field dominated by burly men with questionable connections: garbage.

New York privatized its $1.5-billion-a-year commercial garbage industry decades ago. Immediately, the tough-talking haulers formed a cartel and ignored the $14.70-a-yard legal hauling rate. Amsterdam has consulted for clients that were being charged as much as %50 a yard. She was first clued in to all this during a post college stint as a bartender. ”I asked the owner why he paid so much for trash removal, and he shrugged and said." The haulers tell me what to pay.”

Amsterdam was quick to spot an opportunity for creative problem solving. Business owners didn't have the time or inclination to argue with the haulers. Why not hire yourself out as a garbage consultant, measuring the garbage and negotiating with the haulers for a more reasonable rate? Since her European- History B. A. from Columbia hadn't exactly prepared her for the world of refuse, she did stint at the Environmental Defense Fund, as well as at a waste consulting firm, to learn the trade. With this experience, plus $10,000 in savings and a computer, Ecosav was born in 1993. At the time, there were two similar firms in New York, but they went after big business. Amsterdam decided to target smaller retailers, clubs and restaurants. After two months of cold calls, she got her big break with upscale retailer Barneys New York. Facilities manager Gary Fescine was looking for ways to reduce operating expenses and figured he had little to lose be letting Amsterdam rifle through the store's garbage. Her fee: 50 percent of whatever savings she could negotiate.

After two weeks of ripping up black garbage bags and measuring trash in the middle of the night, Amsterdam filed her report. Not only was Barneys being over charged, but the clothier could have been doing more to separate out recyclables, which cost less to haul. Then she negotiated price cuts with the large, screaming men who ”got so close to me I can feel their spit in my face.” Was she intimidated? Amsterdam just smiles and says, ”They couldn't argue with my numbers.” Result: Barneys got a $100,000 price cut over two years.

Amsterdam's one-hundred-company client list now includes Café des artistes and '21'. Still the sole proprietor, she has office space and help with the dirty work. And since New York's Mayor Giuliani began cracking down on the garbage cartel and public hauler BFI brought outside competition to town, customers aren't as grossly overcharged as they once were. Has this change hurt business? No, says Amsterdam, because negotiation with the hateful haulers is no longer mainstay of her company. As the marketplace has changed, so has Ecosav. Today, instead of just measuring your garbage, Amsterdam will set up a full-service, environmentally correct waste disposal program. This includes selling your trash to the highest bidder, extracting the maximum recyclables and selecting the best haulers for each client. Amsterdam hopes to take Ecosav national soon, probably launching in the South. The biggest challenge will be maintaining her service level for the masses.

-- Kambiz Foroohar

Copyright January 1997, Working Woman Magazine