Wessex Water's drive for efficiency, new technology, a flat management structure and strong customer focus pre-dates privatisation. Former chief executive Ken Roberts led an aggressive campaign of automation, instrumentation and cost-effective delivery of water and sewerage services in the 1980s.
'In 1985 to 1989 we managed to get more of the water PSBR than any other water company,' enthuses today's director of quality and regulation Gareth Jones. 'We were driven in the latter years of public ownership to be run as a privatised industry. We paid a lot of attention to customers.
'Local authorities were involved in the way things were run. We had local consultancy committees way before we knew we'd be required to have them.'
The drive continued after Roberts handed over to the present chairman and chief executive Colin Skellett. Things that were achieved became a showcase for the industry: 'When the TV advertising was done for privatisation it was our control room that was featured,' relates Jones. After privatisation capital spending doubled and has been around £130M a year throughout the decade.
Soon after privatisation, Wessex founded a joint venture with WMI, the overseas arm of the Chicago-based company Waste Management. The JV bought Wimpey Waste Management and made numerous other acquisitions to become the third largest waste management company in the UK. This profitable company was Wessex largest 'out of core' business in 1996.
'Unlike others, we didn't rush into overseas activities,' says Jones. When Wessex did make a first move overseas it became involved in training and individual development rather than project management. It now has a cadre of some 20 people covering 30 or so countries and runs specialised training courses.
Wessex's home territory is packed with sites of special scientific interest and bordered by some of England's best loved coastline. Bristol, Bath and Bournemouth are the main conurbations.
The development of technology has to a large extent been driven by these geographical constraints. Disposal of raw sewage sludge was not acceptable on land, so early on drying and pelletising methods were sought out. New technology in the form of total odour control was introduced at sewage works such as in Poole where modern retail development had surrounded an old works near the harbour. Difficulties in upgrading sewage works in narrow valleys for small communities encouraged development of the space-saving membrane bio-reactor technique used by Kubota in Japan.
Effluent is claimed to be bacteria and virus free. Porlock has the largest MBR completed to date. It serves 4,500 people and it is only 'room-sized'. Swanage, which has long suffered from the Peveril Point storm outfall delivering sewage back into the bay, will soon benefit from a much larger membrane plant. This will deal with sewage from a 28, 000 population equivalent.
Jones claims the company management structure is 'about as good as you can get'. There are 'only three levels to the guys who do the real work'.
He cites Wessex' cost reductions as 'an exemplar for the industry'. From 1992 to 1998 there was a 29% reduction in total operating cost. 'The unit cost is that same as Thames, despite the rural geography.' The workforce has come down to 1,200 from 1,600 at privatisation. Rationalisation has included centralising the laboratories from all over the region to just one establishment with 51 people processing 2M samples a year.
Cryptosporidium tests are just starting up - it is an expensive prescribed method which uses £50 worth of consumables. Wessex carried out a survey and found that the general price being charged was about £300 a sample. It is bidding for work now at £80 a time.
In what could be a pointer to the future of the industry, Wessex made a hostile bid (ultimately unsuccessful) in the mid-1990s to take over its neighbour South West Water.