Interview with Mel Karam, Bristol Water CEO

Richard Archer leads our Utilities team at Deltra and for the last few years has had a core focus on partnering with the Water sector. His experience of Water companies over the last 4 years has been an interesting journey, having been privy to meeting some fantastic individuals in the water sector at all levels, Richard has a real firm grasp on the market and the key players within it.

After attending Utility Week Live, and getting involved in a panel interview with Mel Karam of Bristol Water, Basil Scarsella of UKPN and David Wright of National Grid it was clear that Mel had a genuine enthusiasm and passion, not only about the future of the Water sector but more so the opportunities to make Bristol Water not good, but great. It was this enthusiasm that made us want to follow up with Mel after the event to gain further insight into his plans and vision for Bristol Water.

First and foremost Mel, how have you found your initial period with Bristol Water so far?

I have held a variety of positions within the Water sector as you know, but Bristol Water as an organisation have some great and talented people and there is certainly a community/family feel to the organisation. I have a talented leadership team, and some great people who are looking to move the business forward, so I am excited about the challenge ahead.

So you mention challenges, what do you view as the key challenges facing Bristol Water?

Immediately we are having to prepare ourselves for the next price review (PR19). As an organisation we have to take stock from the lessons learnt from the previous price review. What is clear is that we need to build a better relationship and dialogue with the regulator (OFWAT). I am now trying to ensure that the organisation is focusing on improving our due diligence when it comes to programme delivery with a focus on managing better our TOTEX, CAPEX and OPEX. We currently enjoy a good standing regarding SIM, however I want us to deliver beyond our existing position. Culturally we want to move from being good to great, and this is not just from a perception within our peers in the water sector but also across the wider utilities sector and beyond.

Driving better customer engagement is extremely important and we are working to improve our customer segmentation, customer journey management as well as the channels of communication we have with our customers.

One of the challenges impacting the water sector as a whole is driving cultural change, and responding quicker to the market, what are your views on this?

Typically there is a perception of the water sector shielding itself from lessons learnt from other sectors. We are viewed as being somewhat inward looking, and a lot of my role is about shifting legacy cultural behaviours and mind-sets.

One of the reasons for joining Bristol is that it is of a scale where we are able to be more agile than some of the larger players; allowing us to make operational and strategic decisions faster. We have also appointed a number of Non-Execs to the Board, from outside of the sector. Hopefully these individuals’ different viewpoints will give us the opportunity to achieve our ambitious goals.

One of the reasons for meeting you Richard is that we need to get a better external view of the market beyond our geographical boundaries and we need to start getting a stronger blend of internal and external capability to move Bristol Water forward.

From a personal standpoint why did you join Bristol Water and what are the good things Bristol are doing that are not so apparent to a wider audience?

At the top of this meeting I mentioned that Bristol Water has a very solid perception in the local community, we demonstrate a strong C-Sat/Sim performance and we are an agile organisation. Personally I have worked across a number of Utility sectors and Water has always fascinated me. I have tended to look at things from an Asset perspective but in my role as CEO I get to have a wider view of the organisation.

There are a number of talented individuals here, however my ambition is to not only to be known as a great local employer but an organisation delivering best in class service beyond Utilities. One of the things which may not be so apparent is that Bristol Water were voted in the higher quartile of results in terms of a recent UK CSI (The institute of Customer Service) report which rated us achieving 83.9%. This was higher than other local utility providers such as Ovo Energy. It may also not be completely known that Bristol Water supports the Glastonbury Festival and works with the organisers to provide water to some 200,000 festival-goers. We developed the below the ground infrastructure which is completely invisible to the public.

Mel has outlined his vision, he is taking steps to ensure that this permeates through the organisation and he is looking beyond “Water” to get best practice to drive a compelling customer proposition. All in all the future is bright for Bristol Water and they are being led by a forward thinking leader who is daring to be different.

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Richard Archer

3rd August

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