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A bridge over troubled waters

NI Water chief executive Sara Venning emerges from this week's stand-off with the trade unions in better shape than her company - or her outgoing chairman

By Alex Kane

NI Water hasn't had the happiest of histories since it was created in 2007. It has had five chief executives in that time and what can only be described as a series of PR crises.

At the beginning of 2011, the-then chief executive, Laurence MacKenzie, resigned over the mishandling of a cold weather crisis that saw 450,000 customers lose their water supply. In 2010, the chairman, Chris Mellor - along with three board members - was removed amid a controversy over the awarding of contracts.

In 2008, chief executive Kathryn Bryan resigned when it emerged that the company had miscalculated its projected income. And, in August 2013, chief executive Trevor Haslett stepped down, citing "personal reasons".

Given that short, turbulent history, it's no surprise that the position of chief executive has been described as a "poisoned chalice". And it's no surprise, either, that it proved so difficult to find someone who was willing to take on the challenge.

A recruitment campaign in October 2013 produced six shortlisted candidates, who were all deemed unsuitable. A second recruitment campaign, in January 2014, saw the company turn to Sara Venning, who had joined them from NI Electricity in April 2010.

Venning, in her early forties, from Cookstown and married with three children, had graduated from Queen's University in the summer of 1996 as a Master of Engineering (MEng) in electrical engineering.

A few months later, she was appointed customer operations manager with NIE and stayed there until April 2010, when she moved to NI Water as director of customer service delivery. When Trevor Haslett stepped down as chief executive in August 2013, she was promoted to interim chief executive.

Yet she didn't apply for the post in the first recruitment round in October 2013, because she "wasn't sure if the time was right". Yet, by January 2014, having been in the interim post for just three months, she had clearly convinced herself that it wasn't a poisoned chalice after all and that she should take up the reins full time.

So, in April 2014, exactly four years after joining the company, she took over as chief executive with a salary package of around £175,000: "The staff are more than happy that they know who their CEO is, how their CEO thinks, and they are clear on their goals and directions and the place that we want to drive the organisation to."

Given the various upheavals and setbacks that have dogged the company since 2007, "the place" she needed to drive the organisation to was a place of stability and coherence. In other words, she had to prove that NI Water didn't, as some observers had commented, have the sort of "fatal organisational and management flaws that will make it unworkable without massive restructuring".

She seemed to acknowledge these criticisms as valid when she argued, in an interview in June 2014, that NI Water could more efficiently discharge its duties to customers "if it had a less-burdensome governance model".

She also made a very strong case for more investment: "We could usefully invest more in conjunction with our environmental regulators. We have schemes that they agree they would like to see us do.

"So, yes, we could invest more if government could free up more capital for us. We have lived within the governance model we have had and we have delivered under that model and believe we can do more. So, rather than focusing our energies on lamenting it ... we are about making the most of what we have."

A few months after her appointment, she was buzzing with optimism: "I'm here for the long term and I am very invested in Northern Ireland and NI Water. I am a relative newcomer to the industry, but I would like to be here for quite a long time to come. There is a lot of value we can add to Northern Ireland and to its economy."

But here she is, nine months into the job, and the question marks over NI Water and its latest chief executive are dominating the news agenda.

This is, by a very considerable margin, the greatest challenge she has faced in her career and there are already people who believe that she "may also be forced onto her sword before this latest fiasco reaches its conclusion".

Oddly enough, this was actually a rather old-fashioned sort of industrial dispute, rather than the sort of chaos, cock-up and mismanagement that has dogged the company on other occasions. That fact alone may have helped her weather the storm.

This was management versus unions over pensions, with unions claiming that their members would have to work longer for less pay and a revised pension scheme that could cost workers £100 a month.

And, while it was true that thousands of people were seriously inconvenienced when their water supply was cut off, Venning was able to say that it was unacceptable that "industrial action was being aimed and targeted" at NI Water customers.

For the first time in its history, NI Water was able to point the finger of blame at others. And she did.

What also helped her position was the level of criticism being directed at Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy, particularly from the DUP.

One of their MLAs, Tom Buchanan, clearly acting with leadership approval, said: "I am calling for him [Kennedy] to come out of hiding and stop this crisis with immediate effect. If he cannot sort out this crisis, he is clearly unfit for purpose in his role as minister and he should resign with immediate effect."

And the third thing in her favour has been the absence of NI Water chairman Sean Hogan over the past few weeks, leaving her to front up.

Her background has been in customer service and delivery and, in almost every statement she has made, she has prioritised NI Water customers above and beyond all else.

So, while there has been criticism of management failings within the company and of an obvious need for reform, she has escaped most of the blame.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that this hasn't been the "usual" sort of crisis for the company, or that blame has been deflected to the union involved, or that Danny Kennedy has been in the firing line. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that she has played her cards well over the past few weeks.

That will strengthen her position for the two big challenges that still remain: restructuring the company (the fact that it was the west of the province, rather than the east which bore the brunt of the industrial action indicates the dysfunctional state of the organisation); and attracting the level of investment she talked about last June - which probably means becoming a champion for the introduction of water charges.

Customers matter to her: "You are running networks, you are dealing with faults. Fundamentally, you are providing a service to customers and you must be able to respond to emergency events quickly and bring customers back to their normal state of supply.

"A utility is for customers a service they don't want to think about; it should just be there - it is 24/7. If you are steeped in that, it is a way of thinking and a way of life. If you are a utility person, you are always thinking about it, because your services are always required."

And it's that enthusiasm for customer service which will, I suspect, prove to be her greatest asset to NI Water.

People only notice the flaws when their service is disrupted. All they want is service resumed as quickly as is possible, while being kept fully informed and, where necessary, receiving a rebate as a gesture of goodwill.

Venning understands this. She understands the importance of customer loyalty and brand loyalty.

She emerges from this mess in better shape than her company, or her outgoing chairman.

It looks like NI Water has, at last, got a chief executive who will stay in place long enough to deliver the changes and restructuring it so badly needs.

A life so far

  • She graduated from Queen’s University in 1996 with a Masters in Engineering
  • She lives in Cookstown with her husband and three children
  • She worked for Northern Ireland Electricity between 1996 and 2010 as customer operations manager
  • She moved to NI Water as director of customer service delivery in 2010
  • Took over as interim CEO in September 2013, but didn’t apply for the full-time post a few months later
  • In January 2014, she changed her mind and was appointed CEO in April

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