Colin Skellett, Chief Executive, Wessex Water

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Each month, we use our extensive network of business leaders to bring you the latest insights on the challenges and triumphs facing executives today. We hope you find inspiration from their experiences.

In this interview, we welcome Colin Skellett, Chief Executive of Wessex Water and Chairman of the West of England LEP, to our regular series of interviews with leading figures in the South West business community. 

Hello Colin, tell us about Wessex Water and your role as Chief Executive

Wessex Water is a water and sewerage company supplying around 2.5 million customers over 4,500 square miles. We are a public health organisation that supplies a high standard of clean water, waste management and environmental services. As Chief Executive I have to make sure the business does what it is supposed to do and determine where it should go. I do a great deal of stakeholder management as our industry is heavily regulated and political. I have an excellent and capable board, but I have always kept control of two elements: communications (internal and external) and HR. The people within our businesses and how we present ourselves to others are critical factors.

How has the current economic climate impacted your activities?

The recession caused an immediate halt in new development. Much of our business is dedicated to supporting new development, so this sudden loss of investment resulted in redundancies for the only time in the company’s history. Bad debt is also a concern. While water and sewage rates are an insignificant portion of expenditure for the average family, we realise low income households can be very pushed in the current climate. We have developed social tariffs to enable low income customers to contribute to their bills in a sustainable way and better manage their personal finances. We work with other social support bodies such as the Citizens Advice Bureau to help these people. 

What challenges are you facing over the next 12 months?

We are currently working on a water grid infrastructure project to move water from North to South in the region. This is a £250m+ project that will take 4 years. There will be a price review on water that will reduce the price customers pay and will have a significant impact on the business. Retail competition will be enacted in 2016, meaning that business customers will get to decide who supplies their water. We also face an ongoing challenge in climate change and how it affects rainfall patterns. A big challenge is recruiting and retaining the right talent. There are many large companies in the same space as us competing for a limited technical talent pool. This is why we need to support our education providers to ensure a steady stream of skilled employees. 

Do you think that the government is doing enough to support your business or sector?

We don’t get any direct government help at all! The water infrastructure is badly underinvested. It has been 25 years since water privatisation and the rate of investment assumes water mains will be fully effective for 250 years which is just not realistic. We are governed by an independent regulator, which is positive as it attracts investment. EU Directives targeted at water companies are difficult and expensive to achieve, which results in greater costs for the customer. 

What is your view on the South West business scene?

This region is surprisingly resilient due to the diverse mixture of businesses we have here. The high quality of our Universities and Colleges is also a great benefit. The excellent work life balance that can be achieved in the South West is also a good way of attracting talent to the area. We are doing well but also need to be aware of our shortcomings. There are still significant areas of deprivation in Bristol and we need more ways of attracting people from deprived backgrounds into the workforce as all growth plans are dependent on a strong labour pool. I travel across the country and will say that the Bristol area can be slightly complacent. There is a real hunger and drive in northern areas such as Leeds and Manchester to ‘get things done’ which I would like to see more of here.

You are also Chairman of the West of England LEP, could you tell us more about that?

The LEP is the spiritual successor to the RDA. We are tasked with improving the economy in what was the old Avon catchment area. I’m very impressed with the level of engagement, with 800 businesses working with us. We also have particularly strong ‘clusters’ such as High Tech and Creative that are key for future growth. We ask businesses what their objectives are and the obstacles that prevent them from achieving these objectives. We then facilitate the removal of these obstacles. Our job is to get government attention and funding for business needs. I’m particularly interested in developing infrastructure, transport and place issues so that we have the right space to do business. You can see this in the various enterprise zones we have set up in the region. I’m also very interested in developing people and skills to make sure that education matches business needs. We also need to do more to sell the South West internationally as a place to do business.

Do you have any advice that you’d pass on to a newly appointed company director?

Talking from a Non-Executive perspective, you have to realise what a different mindset is required for NED work. Your job is not to run the business, but to advise and guide it. Take the time to listen and understand your business and realise that your skills and experience are not necessarily going to translate from one business to another. Non-Executives are taking on more and more responsibility, so treat the role with respect and realise that it will take considerable commitment to do well.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I’m rubbish at hobbies! I like live music, going to concerts and the opera and I also enjoy some gardening, but I’m not one of those people that can make something in their spare time I’m afraid.

Who is your hero/personal inspiration?

I don’t have one particular person I admire. Like a magpie, I have picked the best aspects from people I have worked with throughout my career. One boss early on taught me the value of taking the time to make a decision. I was young and eager to work quickly, but now I realise the value of patience. I also greatly admire my eldest son; his wife sadly died of cancer and he has handled the whole situation incredibly well. 

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading two books. One is on government disasters: when you look back at government disasters like the poll tax, you wonder how anyone thought it was a good idea or that it would actually work. This book shows the process and planning decisions that lead to these disasters. I’m also reading Peter Lovesey’s “Peter Diamond” books, about a murder detective working in Bath.  

What is your impression of Moon Consulting?

Moon Consulting have a great reputation in the business community. I know business leaders that are very happy with their services.