The serious drought of the mid-1990s brought to my attention the challenges of working in the water sector as it deeply affected the area I lived in. The Pennine reservoirs that provided water for many of the cities of the north dried up and the threat of water rationing loomed large.
Amongst the companies affected was Yorkshire Water, owned by listed group Kelda, which I joined as a junior accountant in the non-regulated waste and laboratories side of the business. I arrive after 18 months in the group accounting team of a paint manufacturer owned by oil giant Total, having previously graduated from Leeds University.
I got the opportunity to do different roles across Yorkshire Water, through working in finance, including regulation and operations. I became head of finance of the waste water unit, as well as head of finance for Brey Utilities, a joint venture company owned by Yorkshire Water and Earthtech Engineering before ended up as the head of regulation at Yorkshire Water.
Finance and regulation are closely linked in the water sector. That’s because economic regulations underpin many of the considerations for how business is managed in the industry.
The vital role performed by the water sector, was a big draw for me. Key elements include serving communities in public health, sanitation and protecting and enhancing the environment. Those are all very responsible objectives, which can make you feel pretty good about your contribution.
I moved to South West Water in 2007 to become finance and regulatory director. As I had been head of regulation at Yorkshire Water, I knew how the water business worked and how it came together as an over-arching business plan and how you dealt with regulators.
The role looked like an interesting challenge because at that point South West Water was known for having the highest bills in the country, and a lot of investment had been undertaken to improve bathing water in the region.
South West Water’s close links with the local community are very evident. That is partly because the company is one of, if not the largest, employer in the region- so it is very high rofile.
Stepping up to a finance director role was all about getting the frameworks and governance in place. How that works, in terms of governance, risk and assurance as well as interaction with the rest of the board on strategy was all new. As FD you have to think about strategy, not just for the near term but also for the future.
Work on the business plan is all about translating for the board, not just what the next year looks like but also the next five, 10, 20 and even 25 years and being able to translate that strategy and being able to say ‘here are the different scenarios and here are the potential outcomes.’
When you’re investing in infrastructure you’re investing for the very long term. There are investment decisions that you’re making on assets that will have lives of 40, 50 or 60 years. Some of our network is 100 years plus in terms of the length of time those assets will be around for.
Stepping up to become CFO of Pennon, the listed owner of South West Water, in 2015 was made possible by having worked with some great mentors along the way, that I made a point of seeking out. It’s the kind of industry that attracts individuals who are willing to give a lot to others.
To understand the practicalities of what extra responsibilities I’d be taking on, I worked very closely with the then group finance director who was close to retiring. I was able to shadow him in investor meetings.
One of the fundamentals I learnt is that you have to distil clearly what your business is and what your objectives are, into easily digestible sound bites.