The utility industry has seen a lot of change over the past few decades. In the first of an ongoing series, we talk with retired utility professionals to find out more about their careers and perspectives. In this issue we talk to Chris Geehman, whose career took him from the State Rivers & Water Supply Commission, which eventually became South East Water, overseeing their largest ever construction project, to a stint in the private sector.

How did you get started in utilities?

I graduated in 1973 as a Bachelor of Civil Engineering from Monash University.

Back in those days my father strongly encouraged me to get a job with the government; “A secure job, with great benefits”. Later in life I was able to make him eat those words.

Anyway, on 14 January 1974 I joined the (then) State Rivers & Water Supply Commission, which was responsible for all the irrigation works in the State (except Mildura) along with the provision of town (urban) water supplies to just about everywhere outside of the Melbourne Metropolitan area. It was a fantastic organisation for a new engineer as they had a three year training scheme where you were sent for nine month stints to each of the four major components – Investigation & Design, Main Urban Supplies, Rural water Supplies and Construction.

As a result of Government re-structuring of the water industry over the years, I worked for the various successor bodies namely: Mornington Peninsula & District Water Board, Melbourne Water and South East Water Limited. I was at the latter until I left in 2007 and joined the consulting engineering company of Connell Wagner, now Aurecon. I worked there until my retirement in 2010.

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How did the industry change during your time in it?

There have been a lot of changes to the water industry since I joined in 1974. Firstly there was the closing down of “The Rivers” around 1986, leading to the formation of a number of individual irrigation areas in the State, along with the combining of small water and sewerage boards into large ones covering a greater area and population. This was both a sad and exciting time for me personally. ‘Sad’ because The Rivers was like a big family and it had put me onto a career path that I never regretted taking. ‘Exciting’ because I was now with the Mornington Peninsula & District Water Board (MPD&WB) and you could already anticipate a lot of the benefits that would result from this new arrangement. No more having to refer matters to “Head Office” for a decision, less red tape, etc.

There have been a lot more changes since then; some for the good and some for the not-so-good. The latter was exemplified, in my opinion, by the Government decision to combine the MP&DWB with the Melbourne & Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) to form Melbourne Water in 1991. This was certainly a backward step in terms of administration efficiency, cultural amalgamation and clashing of procedures. There was the ridiculous situation, again in my opinion, of forming this huge organisation when everything previously had been about being smaller, more efficient, etc. Ah, on such things do Governments justify themselves.

Sanity seemed to return in 1995 when the Kennett Government split Melbourne Water up into the wholesaler, Melbourne Water, and three retail companies being City West Water, Yarra Valley Water and South East Water. Of course there was more to this arrangement than first met the eye. It may be recalled that at this time the Kennett Government was on its privatisation march and was breaking up and selling many Government owned industries, including electricity and gas, and the Water Industry was to be the next on the agenda. However, privatisation did not proceed after a cryptosporidium (water bacteria) scare occurred in Sydney and the Victorian politicians of the day re-thought the matter.

What was it that attracted you to the industry?

As a Civil Engineer I always wanted to be involved in building things. This was realised for me during my career in the Water Industry. I got experience in planning, investigating, designing (not my favourite discipline I have to admit), construction, operation and maintenance of some pretty amazing pieces of infrastructure. I got to work closely with other engineering disciplines and became involved with estimating, financial control and people management. Private industry at the time could not give such opportunities for engineers at the scale of what the utilities were doing.

Also the Water Industry has always tried to look “long term”. It was building assets for the State that it expected to last 100 years with the consequent expense that this entailed. This philosophy is not so popular these days with water utilities required to provide the Government with appropriate annual dividends and consequently have to adjust their budgets accordingly. The utilities are always looking at ways to reduce costs – and rightly so – but there comes a time when such cost-cutting is detrimental.

What is the most memorable moment from your career?

In 2003 while with South East Water Limited (one of Melbourne’s three retail water companies), I project managed the Hallam Valley Main Sewer Project, which was required to relieve an overloaded urban sewerage system that during storm events was subject to sewage pump station spills and occasional discharges within private properties.

The project was located in one of Melbourne’s fastest growing ‘growth corridors’ and for me it involved:

•       Engaging and managing a firm of consulting engineers preparing the detailed design and later acting as Superintendent of the Contract;

•       Preparing the tender documentation, calling and assessing tenders;

•       Preparing reports to the Board for approval;

•       Acting as the Principal’s Representative under the Contract.

The actual works comprised:

•       Some 8.5km of 1500mm gravity sewer (reinforced concrete jacking pipes, PE lined to prevent H2S attack) installed by pipejacking;

•       Generally at depths between 8 and 11 metres;

•       Grade of 1 in 1,000 (0.1%);

•       34 Maintenance Holes of  2.5, 3 and 4 metre diameter;

•       Over 1 km of 900mm gravity sewer – with more than two-thirds installed by pipejacking;

•       Decommissioning of 6 pumping stations

At a total estimated cost of $37.5M it was South East Water’s largest construction project.

In spite of some difficult conditions such as a high water table, encountering rock and flooding of the site, the construction was completed in May 2006 some five months early. While the cost was approximately $0.9M over the 2003 approval, this included a $1M worth of additional work that was brought forward from the following year’s program.

As I had been involved with the Project from start to finish, and this does not always happen under such long projects, I came away with a great sense of pride and satisfaction.

Another memorable moment was at the 2010 Australasian Society for Trenchless Technology (ASTT) Conference at Coffs Harbour, NSW. I had been asked to attend in order to be a member of an ‘expert panel’. However, it turned out that the main purpose of getting me to the Conferences was to present me with the ASTT’s Person of the Year (POTY) Award. To say that I was ‘gob-smacked’ would be an understatement as I had never envisaged that I would be so honoured by ASTT, especially when I knew there were many others more deserving than I.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry today?

Unfortunately today’s life philosophies seem to have too much focus on the “now’; about what can be obtained as quickly as possible and worry about the repercussions and consequences later. I believe that if you are working in a utility such as the Water Industry you have to look long term and this applies especially to the infrastructure. Once these assets, such as pipelines, are built you do not want to have to touch them for a long time. Melbourne’s old sewerage system is a fantastic example of this philosophy.

My last job (with Aurecon) was as a Project Manager for the client, Melbourne Water, for the replacement of the 100+ year old Melbourne Main Sewer in Port Melbourne. This sewer had not only survived structurally but it had handled the rapid growth of our City and the sort of flows that the original designers could not have imagined. It was more the latter that necessitated its replacement rather than its structural soundness, which was very good considering where it was located and how it had been built in the late 1800’s.

We still need to ensure that our thinking goes beyond the current 5 or 10-Year Strategic Plan when we are designing and building assets.

Also the Water Industry focus (at the time I left South East Water) seemed to be on presenting a good public image and of generating additional revenue.  For example, at that time the ‘Marketing/P.R.’ department at South East Water had more staff than the group responsible for spending $16M on renewing ageing water mains. The Strategic plan contained, as I recall, less than a page on what the organisation was going to do in order to maintain its thousands of kilometres of water and sewer pipelines.

It needs to be remembered that a Water Company’s ‘reason for being’ is the provision of water and sewerage service to its customers.

How are you spending your time in retirement?

My only involvement today is social contact with former colleagues. At these informal gatherings we reminisce about the “good old days”, which at the time weren’t old and often weren’t good!

I am currently involved with lawn bowls and play three times a week. Also I am Secretary of my club and this alone probably takes up about 10 hours a week.

Earlier this year my wife and I had our kitchen renovated and I put my project management skills to good use. I found I still have the knack for organising contractors and getting the job done on time and to budget (well almost) and I also did the painting. This, of course meant that the rest of the interior had to be painted and I managed to fit that in between holidays.

Earlier this year we did a short caravan trip to Sydney to visit friends and in September went to New Caledonia. Last year we went to Europe for eight weeks and in 2011 visited Vietnam. We are now planning a trip to New Zealand in 2014 to do the Milford Sound Walk and later next year we hope to go to the USA & Canada.

I also try to fit in an occasional game of golf.

As my father used to say, “I had more spare time when I was at work!”

 

Chris is a publishing veteran, having launched more than ten magazines over the course of his career. As the Publisher of Utility, his role today is more hands-off, but every now and then he likes to jump back on the tools and flex his wordsmithing muscles.

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