BC Water News caught up with Tony Urquhart, vice president and head of Brown and Caldwell’s Business Consulting Practice, just as leading thinkers on the business of water utilities were gathering at WEF’s 2012 Utility Management Conference. Read and enjoy Tony’s comments on the state of utility management. Also included are observations from others attending the conference, held in Miami Jan. 30-Feb. 2.

10 Minutes With ...
Tony Urquhart

Tony Urquhart

This year’s Utility Management Conference tackles “Managing in the New Normal.” What is the New Normal for water/wastewater agencies?
Ever since I started working in the environmental industry I have heard that the water/wastewater utility market is changing. One thing I have learned is that constant change by our clients means that we must constantly evolve to keep up with our clients and their challenges.

What are the primary challenges you see facing utility leaders?
Our clients continue to have ongoing asset health, service and environmental responsibilities, while societal pressures to do more with less continue to increase. On top of this, the current economic realities mean that funds for large capital projects are becoming harder to justify. This creates more opportunities to help clients with project justification, decision making, prioritization and cost optimization.

What do you see as the opportunities ahead?
The opportunity to communicate with and engage stakeholders via social media is going to be more significant than we think.

The other big impact is the way “lean” approaches are beginning to be embraced by the industry. If you go into any bookstore and browse the business section you see the word “lean” beginning to dominate the titles. In short, I think lean is all about speeding the innovation cycle up by leveraging human creativity more efficiently. The biggest challenge may well be overcoming internal cultural barriers to change.

How did you get started in the water industry?
I really got started in my second “real” job as a water engineer in a large, fast-growing city in New Zealand. I was lucky enough to get involved in the business side of the water industry and do some things that, in hindsight, were quite groundbreaking — such as contracting out maintenance and operations to the private sector and asset management software selection. Also, I was able to really get involved in the customer service side of a utility. At the time I had no idea that we were on the bleeding edge of the global water utility landscape. The experience I got then was invaluable — presenting to city council meetings, doing TV interviews, and selecting consultants. The ability to communicate was key to survival and I worked with some really good communicators. At that time the New Zealand economy was undergoing massive change — from the most protected economy in the western world to the most open and free-market economy in the western world, all in about three years! Massive deregulation and out-sourcing meant there was huge opportunity to change.

Where has your career taken you since then?
Well, I have lived in three countries, worked in 15 countries and visited many more. My kids are legal residents of three nations. In 25 years, I’ve had five employers in public and private sector utilities and in privately held and publicly listed consulting firms.

What are some of the most significant projects you’ve been involved with?
Probably being the project manager and co-author of the first edition of the International Infrastructure Management Manual. It’s had a significant influence on my career. I got an e-mail from a former colleague the other day who is undertaking a project to document the history of infrastructure asset management. He said I was the “possibly the longest running (i.e. ‘most historic’) member of the international AM community.” I certainly don’t feel historic.

What brings you to Brown and Caldwell?
After being away from consulting, I very quickly realized I missed it. BC’s innovation continues to impress me. A lot of companies talk it — but BC lives it and has a world-class knowledge and a culture of innovation.

What’s the worst job you ever had?
That’s easy. I had a summer vacation job as a laborer in a hardboard manufacturing plant. The job “stunk” — literally. I remember cleaning out extraction ducts with a wire brush and not being able to move my arms at the end of each day. It was around 100 degrees inside and it took about four weeks for the smell to go away.

What’s one thing at work you can’t live without?
A whiteboard.

What’s on your to-do list outside of work?
It’s a long list. One of my goals is to run in the World Masters Track and Field Championships in Brazil in 2013.

Tony Urquhart brings more than 25 years of utility business and asset management to his role leading Brown and Caldwell’s utility business and asset management team. Prior to joining BC, Tony delivered management consulting services to major utilities throughout the United States, as well as directing a global asset management and utility management education program. He is recognized as a global leader in the area of utility and municipal business consulting and asset management. He was the principal investigator for the Water Environment Research Foundation Condition Assessment Protocols project and Task Leader for the Remaining Asset Life project. He was also a keynote speaker at the International Water Association Strategic Asset Management Conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

Conference Notebook

“It is exciting to see the Effective Utility Management (EUM) initiative and concepts become so ingrained into our industry’s thinking and operations. I saw presentations on strategic planning, change management, risk management, and knowledge management and, even though these are well defined and proven management themes and tools, each case study showed creativity in their application. The UMC is a great venue where these types of novel ideas and approaches can be readily shared so that all organizations across our industry can benefit.”
— Tommy Bernard, Vice President

“The Utility Management Conference emphasized leadership – by inspiration. The keynote speaker Ed Ruggero looked to our country’s military history of developing the kind of leaders that people want to follow. It was fitting for an event imbedded with young professionals and their transformational thinking.”
— Jay Madigan, Senior Consultant

“Over the years, I’ve seen lots of changes and improvements regarding how utilities manage and operate their facilities. This year was noteworthy because it marked a definite advancement towards linking technology, information, and management strategy. It has become obvious that many utilities are operating this way and that it is quickly becoming an industry standard. Technology is now cost-effective and flexible enough to turn data into information, and to make this information available at the right time to help managers improve utility performance.”
— Allan Scott, IT Technical Director

“Utilities are increasingly thinking and acting like businesses. Leaders are looking to all levels of their organizations to deliver results that lower costs and improve performance. One utility is expanding revenue streams by providing customer service center functions to another organization outside its jurisdiction.”
— Sam Paske, Supervising Engineer

“Many utility directors attend this conference, as much or more so than any other national conference ... the ability to connect with utility leaders is significant. Coupled with the focus on young professionals in the coming years, this is a valuable opportunity to understand agency needs and how we can help.”
— Dane Jablonsky, IT Lead

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