Jim Martin, one of the water industry’s most experienced reform experts, took over the helm of the WIOA board in March 2013. Recently Utility met with Jim to discuss his first year in the role, and get his thoughts on the challenges that lie ahead for the Australian water industry.
Jim’s career in the water industry has been impressive and wide-ranging, and the last 30 years of his career have been spent in management roles in the water industry – notably as the CEO and Managing Director of Ovens Water Corporation/North East Regional Water Corporation in Victoria. In addition Jim has also been heavily involved in the reform of state water industries in Victoria (in 1994) and Tasmania (in 2008-09).
Jim’s first year at WIOA has been a year of observation and understanding of the organisation and the logistics of its operations.
“It has been a stimulating year, and a most enjoyable year, in which I have been able to catch up with many colleagues, friends and acquaintances of the water industry and for the first time to meet people involved with WIOA,” said Jim.
“We conducted a risk management workshop, a Strategic Planning Workshop and implemented a Board Governance review including documenting a number of new policies and procedures to guide our activities.
“Each of the workshops provided me with some very important insights into the thinking of the organisation, and I hope the sessions also provided some value to the Board Directors, the Committee and Advisory Committee leaders who were involved in each workshop.
“As for changes in the future, we should see a larger involvement of members through our interstate advisory committees and their state-based events. We believe a more localised input from members into the activities in each state will provide that right flavour for growth and ownership that we saw in the development of WIOA in Victoria in the early years.”
Understanding that water quality is a public health responsibility, in conjunction with the Victorian Department of Health, WIOA has also instigated the Water Treatment Operator Certification scheme in Victoria. WIOA has built up the knowledge and appropriate processes to accommodate the recognition of operators and to secure their careers in Victoria. Recognising that there is a need for this to happen throughout Australia, WIOA is now working collaboratively with a number of organisations to implement certification under the National Framework in other states.
“WIOA specialises in the education and skilling of operators, and it is appropriate we continue this through providing a certification process. We see this activity as an important future role of our responsibilities,” said Jim.
Growing membership has also been a focus for Jim in his new role. Member numbers are growing on an annual basis, and WIOA now has more than 2,200 members, including a number from overseas.
“The advisory committees in each state are important in promoting the benefits of membership and we usually see a jump in member numbers once operational people experience our events like our training seminars or the conferences,” said Jim. “We have also continued to build a strong relationship with our colleagues in New Zealand and will support them as much as we possibly can.”
A new direction
According to Jim there are many parallels between his new role with WIOA, and previous roles in the water industry, such as working with a team in achieving objectives.
“The main difference I have found as a Board Chairman, the role differs inasmuch as it becomes more of an oversight role and one that is more of a sounding board for the executive and directors. I hope that my role can instil some learnings I have acquired over 30 years in water management.
“The product is naturally different as well – in the past, the concentration was primarily on drinking water and sewerage services, along with assisting government framing legislation.”
Jim said that part of his role with WIOA that he finds particularly satisfying is being able to experience and participate in the achievements of the water industry operators. “The water businesses rely heavily on their efforts, and they are also the people that relate directly with the customers.
“I am also enjoying working with the other Directors and the WIOA staff. To see the dedication and effort everyone puts in, shows why WIOA is the success it is.”
For Jim, the career highlights that stand out include his participation in the Victorian water industry reform program instigated by Jeff Kennett in the 1990s.
“My career as a CEO began in 1994 with my appointment as CEO of Ovens Water, and three years later I was appointed CEO of North East Region Water Authority. At that point in time, there were well over 200 water and sewerage entities in Victoria, and under the reform program, this was quickly reduced to just 15. The massive change during this era, while it created a lot of anxiety, also provided many of the highs in my career.”
Another highlight was a water industry tour of America in 1988, as it provided significant insight into the variations of water management. Added Jim, “I believe it helped the reform program in Victoria in the 1990s, in that we were able to impart some of that knowledge into the Victorian legislation.”
Jim said his experience with the Institute of Water Administration (IWA) in Victoria has also been beneficial and enjoyable. “The IWA is very similar to WIOA in that it concentrates its education at the management level. I served two years as President and received the John Robbins Award, which recognises the distinguished contribution made by an individual to the Victorian water industry; and the Barry Leach Award, which is the highest industry award for contribution to the water industry.”
Upon retiring in 2008 from North East Water, Jim enjoyed some time in Tasmania assisting with the state’s water reform program.
“Currently my appointment as chair of WIOA is another highlight. While I was CEO at North East Water, I saw the good work that WIOA did for operators and experienced many conferences in which my staff participated and enjoyed their recognition and success. I know that each individual’s career is benefited by recognising the operators and involving them in WIOA. To retire and be approached to fulfil the role that was so ably and professionally undertaken by Ron Bergmeir is certainly a humbling experience.”
Given Jim’s impressive catalogue of experience with water reform in Victoria and Tasmania, he has become an advocate for this type of change across Australia.
“Moving responsibility for water management out of local government and instigating regional water authorities with the appropriate critical mass provides a more professional approach to water management. To have skills-based boards conducting the corporate governance and initiative gave the water industry a professionalism that was previously missing.”
In recent years Jim has also been called upon to share his expertise in water reform in Queensland. “With the appointment of Campbell Newman as Premier in Queensland, together with the water reports published by the Water Commission and the Productivity Commission, regional Queensland felt it needed to assess different models of governance in water administration. I was invited to provide a number of presentations and advice regarding my experience in Victoria, study tours of America and New Zealand, and my more recent experience in Tasmania. I am an advocate of the reform in Victoria and Tasmania. Such an approach is definitely a beneficial way of tackling the major infrastructure issues and regulation of the water industry in a very efficient manner that benefits taxpayers.”
On the topic of privatisation, Jim is firmly of the belief that it is not the right option for the Australian water industry. “After the experience in 1998 of the Sydney suspected Giardia and Cryptosporidium outbreak, I am firmly of the opinion that the responsibility of water supply is not for private enterprise. It is a public health responsibility and if the water industry were to run under a privatised arrangement, the drivers and outcomes could be distorted.
“However, I feel that there is a role for private undertakings through infrastructure alliances, partnerships and the like, but not in the day-to-day management of the water industry.”
Jim has attained many insights into the technological advances that the industry has achieved in recent years, with many of the changes seen over the years nothing short of amazing.
“I am amazed with the range of technologies created and adopted over the years. The computer era and the development of tablets and smartphones has made an enormous difference to the way a modern operator does their job.
“Water treatment technology has improved immensely over the years and in many cases, the operator skill level required has increased. Operators have an even more vital public health protection role now.”
However, Jim says he is disappointed that the water industry cannot convince the public of the benefits of turning wastewater into a drinkable state.
“It is a matter of the mind,” he admitted. “Some communities could benefit by such an approach and in some areas, this approach would resolve many resource issues and would provide a sustainable outcome.”
The road ahead
As for the future outlook for the Australian water industry, Jim believes there are many challenges and changes still to come.
“Currently water corporations are faced with operational cost reduction pressures. The long drought revealed many water supply security failures of systems throughout Victoria; and many bushfires have caused havoc to water quality standards in many townships. Most of these have been addressed, or are currently being addressed. Nevertheless, it has come at a cost to customers. With electricity and gas prices all increasing above CPI levels, at the same time the public have been hit with these extra water costs, and spending must be curtailed.
“Many corporations are attempting to overcome this situation by restructuring and looking at their business with the view of creating more efficiencies. WIOA has an important role through our conferences and exhibitions. Many of our exhibitors provide access to new products, technology and services which can assist water businesses increase their operational efficiency and save money. Therefore, there will be a continued embracing of new and improved technology.”
Jim also believes that in the years to come, more mergers may happen throughout the states, as history of reform in Victoria has shown that critical mass works.
“While there are attempts in both New South Wales and Queensland for water reform, there is still a long way to go. I know these states are larger and have a different history of politics. However, I do not think that remoteness is an excuse for not creating the previously mentioned critical mass. Technology has provided an answer to this.”
With Jim’s extensive and varied experience across the Australian water industry, there seems little doubt that his knowledge and expertise will continue to help guide the way.