Meet The Experts: Chris Milligan, PE
To many people - both inside and outside of the company - Chris Milligan is the face (and in most cases, the brain) behind BlueInGreen. A licensed professional engineer in nine states, Milligan has served as CEO and President of BlueInGreen since September 2016.
He has extensive experience in municipal and industrial water and waste treatment and his research of membrane bioreactor (MBR) technology has been published numerous times by the Water Environment Federation (WEF). A regular presenter for the American Water Works Association (AWWA), Milligan has been named to the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal's 40 Under 40 and Water & Wastes Digest's Young Water Professionals.
In this week's Meet The Experts, we sat down with Chris to learn more about his passion for water treatment, where he sees the industry going and what makes BIG such a special place to work.
What led you to engineering?
Honestly, I thought I wanted to be an architect. Too subjective. Engineering was objective, and I was good at that. So, I did computer engineering for a year or so - finally got frustrated looking for missing semi-colons at 2 o’clock in the morning. I ended up finding a way to combine the subjective large-scale design elements with the objective math and science - and, I got a couple civil engineering degrees.
What excites you about working with water?
At the risk of sounding cliche, it truly is the most valuable resource we all share. It is critical to our daily survival in a way nothing else is. It shapes our planet and our lives in ways we don’t even realize. Heck, it makes up over half of our bodies. Unfortunately, we are just now beginning to value it correctly. So, maybe it’s also something about rooting for the underdog, or the undervalued. There is this stuff that we all use everyday - we turn the knob and it’s just there, for drinking, for watering grass, for washing cars, and even processing chicken. On the other end of the spectrum, we all flush and our troubles disappear.
My wife always reminds me to just tell people I am a ‘water’ engineer and leave off the ‘waste’ part. But, to me, that part of the water cycle is the most important - whether it be at the municipal level or cleaning up water produced by the industries that make our bacon, our beer, our Amazon boxes, our gasoline and our blue jeans.
What is your proudest moment as an engineer?
There have been many proud moments - every time you see something you designed get built, it’s a proud moment. But also, it is a nerve-racking moment for an engineer. A professor of mine once put it as bluntly as you can: “If you build a bridge, and the bridge falls down, you get no partial credit.” This was his answer to a student who was demanding partial credit because he got all the calculation steps correct but fat-fingered a number on his calculator.
Admittedly that was tough to hear, but it’s the reality for most engineers and designers. Every day, people take for granted the bridge they drive across, the building they walk into, the food they eat, and the water they drink. A friend’s wife once said to me, “Engineers have our lives in their hands more than doctors.” That was certainly a proud moment.
Describe an average day at BlueInGreen.
Wow. There is no ‘average day’ at BlueInGreen. Every day is different - and, that is why I love it so much. In my current role at BlueInGreen, I have the opportunity to visit with potential customers and clients, understand their water-related needs, and work with them to develop cost-effective solutions. This is probably the most fun - maybe because my roots are in consulting engineering.
I really enjoy figuring out how to maximize the use of existing infrastructure by applying sound engineering principles with BlueInGreen’s technology to deliver value to the customer. I have seen many over-designed projects cost the customer significantly more money than necessary, and it really does upset me. You will see this reflected in the culture at BlueInGreen - our team does what is right and always looks for ways to save the customer money.
"There is no ‘average day’ at BlueInGreen. Every day is different - and, that is why I love it so much."
So, that’s some of what I do. Other days, I am out on a project site working alongside the team to start-up equipment and train operators, address a warranty issue or help in optimizing a process for additional cost reduction. This provides a great opportunity for me to understand what our project delivery teams are facing out there and to dive into the trenches beside them in an effort to show just how important the work they do each day really is. Even as CEO, it’s worth my time to make sure we are delivering the best possible project. Of course, nothing and no one is perfect, so we continue to improve on our technology and solutions, as well as the processes around them.
There are days when I get to spend some time on improving things through research and development, figuring out what markets to go to next and how, developing new sales proposal templates and, yes, even writing the content you see here. In addition to all that, I have the opportunity to work on financial aspects of the company frequently - from monthly reporting, to Board meetings, to investor relations and strategic planning. How’s that for an ‘average day’ answer?
Walk us through a problem that you solved during a recent project.
We had a customer who was paying an exorbitant amount on chemicals for odor control. Although they were spending around a million dollars per year on the chemicals, they were still having odor issues and not getting the results they were paying for. We were able to go in with one of our temporary, portable units and clearly demonstrate better results that the incumbent solution at 25% of the cost.
Moreover, the results showed a noticeable reduction in biological oxygen demand as well. Ultimately, by leveraging our technology and expertise, we were able to develop a solution for not only reducing the costs associated with odor control but also a solution to replace some of their existing aeration equipment and greatly reduce the associated power consumption.
I believe that is an area where we truly differentiate ourselves from most of the competition - experience and expertise. There are many equipment providers out there, but BlueInGreen delivers solutions. The solutions we offer are a combination of our innovative and disruptive technology as well as our experience and expertise. We are not a huge company, but we have a wealth of expertise in many engineering disciplines and a tremendous amount of experience owning, operating and maintaining treatment facilities - and, we continue to learn and grow every day.
What do you hope to achieve with your research?
There is no end goal when it comes to research at BlueInGreen - rather constant improvement. We have many new concepts and ideas that we are working on. The area that is most exciting to me right now is biological aeration - or, as we say, oxygenation. Efficiently dissolving oxygen into water is where it all started at BlueInGreen and our oxygen solutions have the longest track record in the market.
"I believe that is an area where we truly differentiate ourselves from most of the competition - experience and expertise."
However, much of the initial focus was on environmental remediation or fishery protection. More recently, we have further developed numerous applications of the technology in a variety of biological processes - including conventional activated sludge, RBC, SBR, MBR, and MBBR, as well as aerobic digestion.
An engineer always wants to see the numbers and data, and with several large-scale installations in operation, we have a great story to tell. Most notably, we are working to build on a concept we developed called Bioavailability™ - which is a much better way to evaluate oxygen transfer efficiencies as it relates to biological treatment. By doing this, we hope to boil it down to dollars per pound of BOD removed as opposed to dollars per pound of Oxygen put into the water - a much better process efficiency indicator with a direct financial correlation.
If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
That’s a tough one - but, I think I have to go with the traditional consultant-owner relationship. I wish consultants would do more consulting and the owners would do more owning. Far too often people hide - they hide behind insurance policies, they hide behind their previous decisions, they hide behind their consultants, they hide behind perceived risks, and they hide behind what they believe are ethical obligations.
What about the obligation to deliver value at the lowest possible cost for your clients or your shareholders? Too often both sides use excuses to justify doing the same things they have always done. Sure it works, or you wouldn’t do it. But, does it work as well as it could?
What do you like to do outside of work?
I have a wonderful wife and three stellar kids - one boy and two girls. They keep me busy and entertained outside of work. I used to be quite the avid biker - both road and mountain. I’ve ridden the Hotter'N Hell Hundred in Wichita Falls, Texas a couple times and made it from Durango, Colorado to Moab, Utah on a mountain bike with a few other guys.
Now that the kids are getting older, I am (maybe selfishly) trying to get them involved in biking. We have a ton of great trails in Northwest Arkansas, so I am using that as my excuse. Right now, all the kids are playing soccer and that’s enough to keep us hopping. I do occasionally find time to help out a non-profit organization I founded called Aquagro that is working to develop a new model for the family farm using aquaponics - a combination of proven technologies for food production. It is exciting stuff and ties into my passion for water and creating an alternative to the typical office job.
What advice would you share with an aspiring engineer?
Find something you can own. Whether it be becoming the expert in new software for your firm, or taking on the challenge of organizing an area that no one before you did, or leading a team to do something great, or better yet, owning a company with a purpose. The best piece of advice ever given to me was just this.
At my first job, I became the expert in hydrologic and hydraulic modeling. I developed training materials and went around to all the regional offices and trained them. I got noticed. I stood out amongst the crowd. And, I got rewarded. I try to take that approach with me everywhere, asking what can be improved on here, can I streamline this process, can I take time out of this task that I have to do everyday, what can I do today that will make tomorrow easier?
Own something. It’s a bit scary for most engineers - we tend to be risk-adverse introverts, and remember my story about the bridge falling down. No risk, no reward. Put yourself out there, sign up to do something you aren’t sure you can do, be amazed at the results.
What do you hope to accomplish next?
I wake up, and go to sleep, every day thinking about how to take BlueInGreen to the next level. Over the past 15 years, the company has invested into technology, intellectual property, people and early adopters. We have developed the best-in-class equipment for dissolving gases into liquids. In the last five years, we took a single core technology, applied different gases in different processes and developed four product platforms to provide solutions for a host of water treatment related applications.
"Ultimately, it’s my goal to see the people who helped create the success - the engineers, salespeople, technicians, and operators - take an ownership stake in the company and take it to the next level."
With over 40 installations to date and nearly 1 billion gallons of water treated each day, we are quite certainly becoming the 'go-to’ for oxygenation, pH adjustment, oxidation and odor control in the markets we currently serve. I hope we continue growing BlueInGreen and achieve the success we deserve. Ultimately, it’s my goal to see the people who helped create the success - the engineers, salespeople, technicians, and operators - take an ownership stake in the company and take it to the next level. That would be my proudest moment.