NI Water boss Sara Venning: As the chief executive, you're the decision maker and the buck stops totally with you
NI Water chief executive Sara Venning tells Margaret Canning about her drive to make the business more efficient and why she prefers it to remain a silent success
She’s the leader of one of the top five companies in Northern Ireland, but we only hear about her when things go wrong. Sara Venning (43) has been chief executive of Northern Ireland Water since 2014. She’s the fifth chief executive of the government company (or goco) set up to replace the Water Service in 2007.
Last January, the company dealt with interruptions to supply affecting around 10,000 homes following industrial action over pension reforms, as its 1,300 workers moved from a final salary scheme to a career average pension scheme. Agreement was reached with the union and the company and its staff are now through the first year of the increased staff pension contributions which were the sticking-point for staff.
Mrs Venning acknowledges it was “undoubtedly” the toughest period in her career of nearly 20 years in utilities.
“It was character building and the most sustained period of continual work pressure and thinking.
“But it tends to bring out the best and the worst. The worst was that none of us wanted to see customer impact, and there was customer impact.
“The best was that the team of people who were here were so focused and worked so hard. It was undoubtedly a test, but the support of the team around me meant we got through it and came out stronger.”
Ultimately, the working relationship with the union has improved, she says — and she hopes that union and company can work together to implement changes in future.
Those changes could include “more freedom over how we organise ourselves and pay our staff.”
Already, efficiency levels have been improved. Mrs Venning says the firm has closed the efficiency gap with the best company in Great Britain from 49% to 13% and hopes to reduce that gap to 5% in coming years. She wants to bring the company through more challenging reform in future.
“We have probably taken a lot of low hanging fruit, so we’re probably going after some of the more difficult stuff. We’re up for that.”
She grew up as the eldest of four children in the centre of Cookstown and always had a passion for organisation.
“My first job was in my grandfather’s clothes shop, Eastwoods Clothing Co in Cookstown, and from the start, I wanted to reorganise it. They had an electronic till but hardly used it, so I soon changed that.”
She excelled in science and maths at school in Dungannon Academy, so studied a Masters in electrical and electronic engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast, graduating with a First.
Her job as chief executive is to keep NI Water providing clean water to around 795,000 properties and she wants the public to know its successes.
“We’re public sector and have delivered a lot. The water is clean and it’s safe and the environment is protected and the improvement in the company has been very big since 2007. We have taken £60m out of our cost base, had delivered every single business plan put forward in externally verified way and increased customer service. If you’re expanding your business, we are there to support.”
The company presents both regulatory and statutory accounts. Its regulatory accounts for 2014/15 show annual turnover at £370m, with pre-tax profit £62m. The statutory accounts report annual turnover of £426m and profit before tax of £131m. Economist John Simpson points to the regulatory accounts as the ones which bear most comparison with commercial realities.
Her salary has also been scrutinised. Between 2014/15 she was paid £147,000, which included back pay relating to the earlier financial year. She is happy to discuss the matter.
“If I look at my salary, I think I am very fortunate. I think back to how I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve applied for every job I’ve got. I started off getting paid £10 on a Saturday, so I didn’t come from a privileged background. My first job in NIE was paid something like £14,000. For me, everything I applied for was about the challenge and the job and less so about the salary.
“I know I have a good salary, but that’s because I applied for a job with that salary.
“We have 1,300 employees, a turnover of £370m and a capital programme of £140m. I’m responsible and accountable for all of that. I took £5m out of our costs last year, so if you wrote that up as a job and decided how much would you pay — compared with water companies in the UK, NI is getting tremendous value for money, that’s all I can say.
“I have a good salary, yes, it’s the salary that comes with the job. I should be judged on what I do. Is your water clean, are your services improving and are you getting what we are promising, and more?
“It’s undoubtedly a success story, but it has been won through hard work and risk.”
Along with Elaine Birchall of SHS Group, Darina Armstrong of Progressive Building Society and others, she’s one of a handful of women leading our top 100 companies. She’s also one of the youngest. But gender doesn’t preoccupy her.
“Right through engineering I have been in the minority and worked on the basis it’s what I know and what I can do, not whether I’m male or female.”
She joined NI Water after 14 years at NIE.
“I have greater seniority now and that brings its own challenges and responsibilities. I think as CEO you are the ultimate decision maker and ultimate person of accountability. You’re right at the top and the buck completely stops with you.
“Most of the time through your career, you look to one side and think, we’re all in this together or such as such has my back. But when you’re the boss, there’s just you.
“That’s a role you develop into as you grow through different roles. You get more comfortable with leaving the pack behind as you start to lead.”
She describes NI Water as “asset-intensive”. Those assets — including 26,000 km of water mains — bring large capital requirements. What she wants is a medium term financial settlement with the Executive which will enable NI Water to plan ahead for capital investment and know how much funding it will be getting, beyond planning only on a financial year basis. “In the wider UK government there are large capital programmes being run that can require more than one year budgeting programmes, and it can be done.
“I’d like our Executive to put in place that medium-term financial settlement. It needs to be recognised that water and sewerage is a key part of infrastructure and making sure it’s fit for purpose is crucial.
“But there are competing priorities and as a service, NI Water is silent.
“You certainly don’t wake up in the morning and think, isn’t that wonderful and so clean, so plentiful.
“It is naive to think that anyone wakes up and thinks that; I know that I don’t.”
Businesses are charged for water, but domestic customers aren’t, with that element of cost subsidised by the Department for Regional Development (DRD). She’s determined to avoid pronouncing on the rights and wrongs of charging. “That’s a decision that the Executive need to make. For us, I’m focused on the outcome. I just need the funding. If you give me that, I’ll deliver efficiency, services and the infrastructure. Government has a choice on continuing to subsidise it and that’s entirely within their gift.”
Mrs Venning lives in Glenavy with husband Martin and their three daughters, Caoimhe (14), Niamh (12) and eight-year-old Cara. Though she emphasises it’s early days in her children’s education, she says engineering is a good field to work in and one she’d encourage her children into.
“It’s hugely interesting and for me, I chose it because I was good at it.
“There’s always a right answer in engineering. I like something with a right answer that’s not subjective.”