In 1999, Mark Miller sat down with his father, Jim, and came up with terms under which he would buy Miller Environmental Group, a business Jim Miller had started 28 years earlier. That year, the business had 60 employees, with headquarters in Calverton and five other offices in two states.
At about that time, father and son were also partners in another Long Island environmental services business, National Response Corp.
“My dad and I sold our half in NRC and by 1998, we began talking about Miller Environmental Group, in which my dad was the sole shareholder,” Mark Miller said. “There were some health concerns for my dad at that time, and we were transitioning away from NRC. It developed that he felt it was time to sell MEG, and I felt it was time for me to take on the challenge of running the business.”
Terms of sale were drawn up that required Mark Miller to take on “debt up to my eyeballs” and make monthly payments to his father. “He said, ‘You do realize I am not giving this to you?’ He sold it at fair market value in an arm’s length transaction. He held the note, and his was the first check I wrote every single month,” Mark Miller said.
In the 20 years since that transaction, MEG has boomed into a premier entity in the industry and one of eastern Long Island’s most successful enterprises. Under Mark Miller’s leadership, business revenue quadrupled, the number of employees grew to 150 and the firm expanded to include 11 offices in six states.
Last month, Mark Miller sold MEG to a New York-based financial services company for an undisclosed amount. Started in 1971 by Jim Miller, a former lobsterman and commercial fisherman — MEG had been wooed for several years by prospective buyers who saw in the Calverton company an efficiently run business that punched well above its weight class. Major events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 — when MEG rounded up 1,600 workers to assist with the massive cleanup — helped grow the business and put it on the map nationally, as did work it performed in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to restore power to thousands of homes.
“We were able to come up with a management system and to use our 150-person team to leverage our way onto much bigger national projects,” Mark Miller said. “We operated like a substantially larger company just by the way we managed the company. With Deepwater Horizon, we put together a group of 1,600 people. We were one of the top five contractors on that project. The others at the table were huge companies with thousands of employees. We were the little locomotive that could.
“In recent years, I was getting calls every week, some several times a day, to see if we would be willing to sell MEG,” he continued. “But I wanted to make sure, more than anything, that everything we worked so hard to build, and the employees who have taken this journey with us, would be protected. To me, that was the most important thing.
Some of the companies that inquired, he said, intended to make major changes. He made sure to avoid that.
“Then GenNX came along, and they saw what we had accomplished here, and they said they wanted the company as it is,” Mark Miller said. “That is how I wanted to do it — to protect people who have worked hard and raised families and bought houses and done all sorts of important things.”
GenNX is GenNx360 Capital Partners, which has major holdings in industrial companies and now adds MEG to its portfolio. In making the announcement, the company said Mark Miller would leave day-to-day operations but would continue as a member of the board of directors. Two longtime MEG employees were promoted as part of the transition: Jerry Coogan, who started as a laborer with the company, is now CEO, and George Wallace, who started right out of college, was named executive vice president.
Before establishing MEG, Jim Miller and members of his family were commercial fishermen out of Port Jefferson Harbor. Aboard his 32-foot Lady Barbara, Mr. Miller maintained lobster traps in Long Island Sound. His sons were deckhands and his wife, Barbara, sold lobsters off the back of the boat. As a 7-year-old, Mark Miller’s first job was to put rubber bands on the lobster claws.
Nationwide, an environmental movement was growing; the federal Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970 and the federal Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. Against this backdrop, an oil spill occurred in Port Jefferson Harbor while a tanker was delivering oil to shore-side terminals. With major changes in environmental laws, the Miller family saw a need for a new business model and created MEG, a new entity for a changing time. That business would move into a building on Edwards Avenue in Calverton and begin providing a wide range of services to clients in the marine business, electrical utilities, aviation and the rail sector, among others.
The firm’s work at the Deepwater Horizon spill is a master class in business acumen and hustle. In the face of enormous demand for cleanup workers, the firm trained and transported people to the Gulf. MEG took over an abandoned Kia dealership in Mississippi as headquarters. The firm rented entire hotels for their workers. They set up a tent city where workers could check in, have breakfast and get their orders for the day before being bused out to work sites.
“It was like being in a battle without getting shot at,” Mark Miller recalled. “How do you support a large number of people in remote areas? How do you house and feed them and get petty cash to people? How do you handle payroll? How we did this explains why companies began to call wanting to buy us.
“I feel wonderful about this,” he added. “There is no seller’s remorse. But I am certainly not retiring. I am 58 years old. I have a long way to go. My dad is 84 and he comes to the office every day.”
On a recent afternoon, father and son, who are neighbors in Southold, stood together by a model of the Lady Barbara, the family’s lobster boat, at their new offices in Cutchogue.
“That’s how it all began,” Jim Miller said, pointing to the model. “With the Lady Barbara. Everything has worked out very well, and I couldn’t be happier.”