Is she still among the boys’ toys then - this top-tier woman earlier running 2,600 trains daily and efficiently, and who now has broken into an industry some of us may still think of as hefty men, happy as hippos, squelching through mud with their welly boots, spades and hard hats? Weeks into her new job as chief executive of Northumbrian Water (NW), Heidi Mottram, the first female to head a big water and waste treatment company in Britain, puts us right.
“We have a lot of women working in this industry,” she says.
“One of the first places I’ve visited since coming to Durham is managed by a woman - the water treatment works at Lumley.
“It may be more a male than female industry still, but we definitely have women coming through. If you’re a good employer, and you’re seen as that and offering career development, you’ll attract a much wider group of people anyway.”
Previously managing director of Northern Rail since its formation in 2004, she has come from one regulated public service to another, boss now of a FTSE-250 company serving 4.2m customers in the North East, Essex and Suffolk. Will this job be easier, since dissatisfied rail customers could always switch to car or bus, whereas unhappy water customers will get no-one else to fill their pipes can only stamp and scream? “I don’t think anyone would ever describe being chief executive of a water company this size and scale an easy job,” she replies.
“There’s a huge amount of undertaking to produce quality water, and deal with the dirty end of things as well, across the areas we do. I’ve picked up incredibly quickly in my short time here that people in this company don’t behave as if in a monopoly. They care passionately about what customers think, the product they provide, and the impact if things don’t go right.” She cites one NW’s existing staff programmes, Right First Time, saying she’s right behind it.
“Every touchpoint the customer has with us has to be the best it can be. If a customer calls about billing, can we anticipate every question that might be asked?”
Already she has spent hours monitoring in the customer contact centre. But likewise, she says, it can bear on interacting more with customers who want to know why their streets are being dug up. They must be kept informed.
Mottram, a fluent as well as considerate thinker, brings to the North East an OBE awarded for services to the railways, and with a sector award describing her as “an inspirational leader making a huge personal difference to passengers and staff”. She gained these though her rail company initially had no new trains but did have inflexible timetables and two separate ways of operating. She still blended two into one and grew traffic. And earlier, when assistant station manager at Leeds, she did a boys’ thing and personally coped with a parcels train derailment causing chaos in a rainstorm as dozens of trains became stranded.
She went up the tracks herself and manually set the points to free the other trains during 24 of the most arduous but perhaps exhilarating hours of her career to date.
She never intended such a career initially. On graduating with a BSc (Hons) in geography from Hull University - noted for its hydrology studies - she had hoped to be a national park ranger; odd, one might think, for someone with a phobia about woodlice.
Unable to get a postgraduate grant for a specific course, she became instead a trainee in operations management with British Rail. Initially station manager at Harrogate, she moved swiftly up the management ladder via Regional Railways North East (she oversaw the linking of Middlesbrough with Manchester Airport), InterCity East Coast, GNER, Midland Mainline, then Arriva Trains Northern – all that in 18 years.
With her quietly authoritative manner, she’s on a new route now, eager to find out what it will be like to apply her principles and experience to another industry. Also, running NW enables her to have some positive influence on the environment, which has always appealed.
“The whole green agenda is quite close to my heart,” she says. NW has always aimed to provide good economic infrastructure for other companies. Now, increasingly, it’s taking on responsibilities in managing the environment.
“I’m impressed at how the business is already working for its catchment areas,” she says.
“It’s not just the sources of water that concerns it, but also seeing who’s in those areas, whether it’s farm or industrial communities, and seeing how we can work together to best protect that environment. We’re not just in a little world of getting water and getting it out to people.” The Kielder Forest park, an initiative with the Forestry Commission, exemplifies how providing utilities for industry’s benefit can also combine with care for nature and encouragement of sustainable recreation.
In built-up areas too the company will be increasingly involved at planning stages of new developments, indeed she has a team for that.
“There’s much more thought now about how everything connects,” Mottram observes.
So too with flood defence, for which water companies, the Environment Agency and local authorities are jointly responsible. Legislation has recently been passed with just such a bearing. She says: “In planning a housing estate, perhaps less thought might have been given in the past about effects on environment. Now surface water drainage solutions, like ponds and reed beds, will be interesting to consider.” Ambition, of course, must be tailored to the pricing agreement recently reached with the Ofwat regulator - “fair but challenging,” as Mottram sees it.
This sets out a £1.2bn investment over five years, and a 3% annual growth in dividend. It will have NW customers’ average bill for water and sewerage services in the North East running out at £312 for 2014/15 (excluding inflation, so at 2009/10 price levels).
That will make NW the third lowest-cost provider in the country. And the Consumer Council for Water has already concluded that NW is top in giving value for money. There is of course a possibility of less revenue from industrial users, particularly on Teesside.
Two big plants have already fallen victim to recession. But one, Artenius, has since had its plant acquired by a Korean company which NW is now working with to restore full production.
“There are ups and downs all over,” she says.
“One plant may have issues, another comes in. It’s a dynamic situation but appears reasonably in balance at the moment.”.
So what will be her management style in taking the business forward, following John Cuthbert, her predecessor? She says she’s a people person, confident that how she looks after and motivates her 3,000 staff (against 5,000 at Northern Rail) will directly impact on services provided.
“Look after your people and they will look after your customers,” she says. She plans to spend a lot of time with them, to get a better insight into the business, keeping them informed about the bigger picture, and being accessible.
She wants her managers to be positive and committed.
“You need to know if you’re going to pass the ball somebody is there to pick it up. Good teams do that without even thinking about it.” But the company right through, she declares, has commitment and passion in bucket loads.
And she doesn’t start with the difficulty faced at Northern Rail, where two functioning but very different work systems had to be integrated in a balanced manner.
The key to her previous success has lain in harnessing talent and pulling in the right direction efficiently and quickly.
She sees nothing in the business “broken or presenting a problem.” But she will additionally seek efficiencies to release capital for re-investment; she’ll be chasing added value.
“I’ll work with people to look at what we’ve got, what we’re doing, what can we do more of, and if there are certain things we want to push forward. We’ll look at research and development... See if some of the more technical things can be done more innovatively, using new technologies that are becoming available all the time.
Efficiency for me is about doing things better, smarter.” If economies have to be made, nobody and nothing will necessarily be immune.
“In a business run well as this one is there must be balance across the whole piece,” she says.
“You can’t take a short term view to what is a long term business.” That means the immense community work in which NW is exemplary will not be arbitrarily hacked.
As she explains: “What has ultimately been determined in the regulatory process is off the back of a two to three-year exchange between ourselves and Ofwat.
“So people should be reassured that regulation in water is a very thorough process to get the best possible outcomes, whether in customer service, investment or value for money.
All things have to be kept in appropriate balance.” A lot of effort goes into strategic development, things need a time to come to fruition.
A project at Abberton in Essex is considering water needs over the next 40 years. Very long-term industrial developments on Teesside also have to be assessed. Apart from hard figures, how will she know if she has done well in her career crossover? “I’m a big believer in balance,” she replies.
“What does good look like to the customer, to the employees, the shareholders, our partners? Slightly different things. You need a balanced score card.
“I don’t want a business that achieves everything for only one of those groups. We’re going to nudge the bar for all because everyone here is ambitious. It’s fantastic that we’ve already won so many awards in our industry, and I see a future where we’re perceived as the best water and sewerage company in the UK.”