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Waterco | Birth of a succeeding SME

004 peter jones waterco jan 2018  dsf8460 crop

A desire for a rural life pushed Peter Jones into setting up water and flood management consultant Waterco.

When Waterco managing director Peter Jones was deciding whether to start his own business, the biggest risk he considered was location.

Would civil engineers want to come and work in rural north Wales? “It was perceived as the middle of nowhere,” he recalls.

Fast forward 20 years and the Ruthin location is now one of the firm’s strong points – the quality of life and good schools means the firm has high staff retention rates – and the business’ outlook could not be further from parochial, providing its water and flood risk consultancy skills to clients UK-wide.

Ditching timesheets

It is also far from a backwater innovation-wise, with the firm recently taking the bold move to ditch timesheets in the name of client care.

Jones started Waterco in 1998, at the age of 46, when Hyder closed its office in Alltami, north Wales. At the time he feared he would not get a job anywhere else, partly because the bigger consultancies wanted younger graduates.

He says he did not find it difficult changing from the technical side to running a business: “I’m not sure it is that different,” he observes. “When working for a client you’re always balancing what you’re designing against the cost of it.”

Jones’ initial vision was for a micro-business, offering specialist skills to larger consultancies. But that strategy didn’t last long.

The major consultancies will only outsource when they’re desperate and then it’s a short, peaky workload

“We started out in the early days thinking our market was the major consultancies, and that our role was to be a sub-consultant to them. That was a flawed idea because the major consultancies will only outsource when they’re desperate and then it’s a short, peaky workload and you get no continuity at all,” he says.

Instead, the firm found itself going directly to the client, with its early reputation built on delivery. “In the early days, like most SMEs, when the client said: ‘jump’, we said: ‘how high?” It was that, that got us a foothold, as we were seen as a can-do consultancy that would deliver quality on time. We were seeing clients who were used to being promised the earth by companies who then failed to deliver.”

Sought after skills

That has changed over the years, says Jones, and what is now sought is  the firm’s specialism in all things water – water engineering, drainage design and flood risk – through data assessment, options modelling and solutions design.

Clients are utility companies such as Dwr Cymru Welsh Water and developers, which have an increasing need for flood risk advice.

“Drainage and flood risk are two critical things to a development and clients have to make sure that that is right at the outset, before they commit serious money to the project,” says Jones. And that means bringing in experts.

Specialist teams

“What we’re seeing is clients prepared to assemble a team of specialists, rather than simply offload it all to a one-stop-shop,” says Jones.

Today the firm employs 38 people at its Ruthin office, eight in Chester and five in Manchester. It has been a steady expansion, with Jones keeping a prudent eye on cashflow, but nevertheless making sure that marketing is not overlooked – even when busy.

“It’s an easy one to miss, but the best time to be marketing is when you’re busy,” says Jones.

“People make the mistake of waiting until they’re quiet and then expecting it to happen, but it doesn’t happen overnight. And this is just my perception, but there’s something about the timbre of your voice. When you’re busy you have a confidence about your voice that people pick up on, when you’re quiet there’s a desperation,” he says.

The firm has a management team of nine, including Peter’s son Pedr, who is commercial director. It is Pedr who has driven many of the firm’s business management innovations such as the radical decision to get rid of timesheets.

Removing stress

By taking away timesheets, Waterco aims to cut out a stressful part of the week for staff; encourage staff to collaborate to solve problems and ultimately, says Jones, deliver a better service to clients.

It also ends the cycle of when a staff member asks a colleague for help, they reply: “OK, but who do I charge that time to?”

The firm made the decision after taking a frank look at timesheets and whether using them really reflected the financial performance of any given job; whether hours were getting allocated to more successful projects to mask those not doing so well. The Jones’ asked themselves whether a person’s charge out rate had any impact on whether the right people were getting attributed to the right job; whether timesheets contributed to corners being cut when the project cost ceiling was near; and how far the timesheets were really used in benchmarking a new job’s costs.

What clients really want

“When we did that soul searching we realised all our clients really want is the job delivered on time and within budget. We didn’t think we were encouraging it, because if the job was running on a bit, the perception was ‘well it’s not our fault, it’s just taking a bit longer’. By taking the timesheets away, we’re now focused on delivery and that’s what the client wants at the end of the day,” says Jones.

 “More and more clients like to see fixed fee proposals; they like a financial line in the sand where they know the projects are going to face certain costs, so what we do in the background was not really of huge significance to them,” adds Pedr.

Alongside this innovation, the firm has also put in place measures to help staff deal with stress – personal or work-related, including giving staff access to a confidential counselling service from an external provider.

 More and more clients like to see fixed fee proposals; they like a financial line in the sand

Staff members who have genuine passions for activities such as cycling and walking have engaged their colleagues to take part in events such as the Dwr Cymru Water Industry Bikeathon.

The result of an increase in staff cycling or walking to work is fewer sick days, but the approach is for a gentle, organic attitude to work rather than a manufactured corporate one.

Jones gives the impression of a firm, steady hand at the helm of a family-orientated firm, but this belies some radical thinking which is why Waterco is definitely a company to keep an eye on. N

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