From the Top: Q & A with Heiner Markhoff

Your work experience includes background in plastics. How did you get from there to the water/environmental field?

I was appointed to run GE Water in October of last year, concurrent with the merger of GE Water into the new GE Power and Water division. Previously, I had been president, GE Plastics Europe, Middle East, and Africa. GE Plastics was sold to Sabic in 2007.

During my more than 15 years with the company, I have had the opportunity to demonstrate my ability to achieve results. GE is a great company to work and I have been fortunate to have held a variety of senior roles in the organization. I clearly have a lot to learn about the water business.

GE Water (with 8,000 employees and earning $2.1 billion in sales) merged into the GE Power and Water division. Please explain that move and what you expect to gain from it.

Energy and water are inextricably linked. You need energy to produce water, and you need water to produce energy. Both challenges must be addressed together; that is the driving force behind the formation of the division. This approach gives GE the scale, diversity, and expertise to effectively pursue and manage power and water projects worldwide.

Bringing together technologies from the energy and water sectors not only makes good business sense, it enhances our capacity to provide comprehensive solutions to meet the growing demand for both power and water. This will benefit our customers in both sectors.

What is GE's primary business in the water sector?

We bring together experienced professionals and advanced technologies to solve the world's most complex challenges related to water availability and quality, increased productivity and cost reduction, and environmental regulations.

We develop and provide chemicals, equipment, and services for water and wastewater treatment, reuse, and process systems solutions across a wide range of industries.

Over 75 percent of our business is focused on the industrial markets, with the balance serving the municipal water and wastewater markets. For heavy industry businesses such as refining, chemical, power, steel, and mining, we focus on providing solutions that address total cost reduction. We also serve sectors in beverage, pharmaceuticals, and microelectronics where high purity water is critical to their operations.

Finally, we have numerous customers in water-scarce regions where demand exceeds supply and it is essential to address this challenge with water reuse and water reduction projects. These regions include the Middle East, Africa, China, Australia-New Zealand, and the western United States.

You have said that GE Water is a technology provider. Would you elaborate on some of the most successful/valuable technologies?

Our membrane technologies filter water, handle fluids, concentrate solutions, recover byproducts, and treat wastewater for recycling or discharge. We offer membrane elements, spiral membrane equipment, filters, hollow-fiber membranes, electro-dialysis/electro-dialysis reversal systems, and electro-deionization equipment in numerous configurations.

GE recently expanded its ultrafiltration products with the introduction of the ZeeWeed 1500.The new pressurized module offers cost-effective, skid-mounted solutions that can be rapidly installed for water treatment, tertiary filtration, and pretreatment for brackish and seawater desalination. It is available for small- and medium-sized packaged and custom designs for municipal and industrial plants.

By combining unique technologies across the portfolio and continuing to develop advanced products, we can solve some of the world's toughest water challenges. For example, a recent mine-water reclamation project in the eastern United States combined ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis, softening, evaporation, and crystallization to meet the customer's need to treat and reuse the rising levels of drainage water.

Another success story was the upgrade of the Kyrene Water Reclamation Facility in Tempe, Ariz., which featured GE's ZeeWeed membrane bioreactor technology, resulting in the reuse of an additional 2.5 billion gallons of water a year for commercial and industrial applications and for aquifer storage.

Although you are relatively new to the job, are there some opportunities—partnerships, expansion, R&D, new products or services—that you are pursuing?

We continue to explore or expand partnerships that will allow us to rapidly gain scale where needed, bring new technologies into the portfolio, and co-develop future solutions.

We continually develop new technologies to meet industry challenges. Energy recovery, low energy membranes, integrated power-water hybrids, and super-capacitive desalination are a few of the developments we are driving.

Future products will be designed to

  • reduce the total cost of producing water,
  • reduce waterborne disease,
  • reduce water footprint, and
  • improve the finished water quality of wastewater treatment, enabling expanded reuse.

We plan to launch new chemical programs to further inhibit deposition, corrosion, and microbiological fouling while reducing impact on the environment.

How is the work progressing on the NUS-GE Singapore Water Technology Center?

The center is expected to be fully operational by mid-2009. Together, GE and NUS are investing US$100 million (SGD$150 million) in the center, which will house company scientists and engineers who will develop new solutions for low-energy seawater desalination, water reclamation, and more efficient water reuse. This will help expedite fundamental research and industry innovation in water treatment, while also strengthening collaboration with government and industry in Singapore and abroad.

The center is the most recent addition to GE's worldwide technology development efforts. It joins a network of centers, including the China Technology Center in Shanghai.

Do you manage the company in a sustainable way?

We do. In fact, in 2005, GE launched a global environmental initiative called ecomagination, which is our commitment to do operate in an environmentally friendly way.

When we launched ecomagination, we set a cadence of achieving our commitments sequentially in the years 2008, 2010, and 2012. By 2008, we said we would reduce our greenhouse gas intensity by 30 percent, and we beat that by actually reducing our intensity by 41 percent. At the same time, we're working with our customers around the world to help them achieve similar efficiencies.

In addition, the company is doubling its level of investment in clean research and development from $700 million in 2005 to more than $1.5 billion by the year 2010. This research effort is focused on helping our customers meet pressing energy and water challenges.

In March of 2008, GE announced its commitment to reduce its water consumption 20 percent by 2012. The company has developed a detailed plan to execute its water reduction projects.

Who do you consider your competitors?

I like to think that while there may be other companies that produce some of the products that we do, most of those companies do not have the complete portfolio of products and services that we offer. And the very few that do, in my opinion, do not have the deep expertise that we have. It's not only about making a great product. It's about getting the most out of that product and making it work exactly the way a customer requires. This is the value we bring to our customers that few, if any, other companies can match.

What is your company's greatest challenge now?

Our goal has always been to develop technologies that will add value for our customers and their operations as well as offer benefits to the environment. In these difficult economic times, it is more important than ever to work closely with our customers to develop cost-effective solutions to not only enable them to grow profitably but also address the challenges of water scarcity and water purity worldwide.

Where do you see your company in the next five years?

I hope that over the next three to five years, GE Water will be known for these key characteristics:

  • Innovation. We invest heavily in technology; it is important to our business and we want to continue to establish a leadership position.
  • Environment. We are very committed to developing products and services that provide a balance between our customers' environmental and business goals.
  • Partnership. We want to be seen as a strategic partner for our customers and as a valuable partner to the companies that we collaborate with.
  • People. Our people are the heart and soul of our business. We will continue to invest in our people, so they continue to provide value to our customers.

About the Author

L.K. Williams is the Environmental Group Editor of 1105 Media.

Featured Webinar