Jim Gill, 51, has been managing director of the Water Corporation of Western Australia since 1995. Before joining the Water Corporation, he spent seven years as chief executive officer of Westrail, and prior to that he held senior engineering and management positions in the highway field. In 1968 he graduated with a first-class honors degree in engineering from the University of Western Australia. He gained his PhD from Cambridge in advanced computer-aided design and in 1983 completed a Master in Public Administration at Harvard.
AIM: You have a distinguished background in engineering. Do you regard yourself as an engineer or a manager?
Gill: A manager. But in my position it is extremely useful to have worked as an engineer because you get a certain instinct about things. My career as a manager did not just happen. It was a decision I made when I was 22. I did a PhD in Britain and when I started I decided I wanted to go into administration. I followed this with a Master in Public Administration at Harvard. Had I stayed in the engineering field, I would probably have followed a career as a structural engineer in the design field.
AIM: Why, after such a successful turn-around at Westrail, did you switch to the Water Corporation?
Gill: Running the WA railways was a tremendously satisfying job. But I didn’t want to be still running the railways when I retired. The Water Corporation, which was then known as the Water Authority, was about to change, and it was presented to me as a great challenge. The Water Authority was highly trusted by the people of WA, largely because of its people. However, the government regarded it as too fat, too protected and too rich, and could see scope for improving efficiency by greater involvement with the private sector.
AIM: What was your strategy from the outset; and do you think it has been realised?
Gill: My strategy was to make the Water Corporation into a “directional organisation” rather than a “doing organisation”. I knew this vision would create immense upheaval as people learned new skills and adopted a different approach to things. We ultimately achieved our goal without any forced sackings; although in the first 15 months the staff was reduced from 3700 to 2000. I had to identify quickly the high-performing people in the Corporation, at whatever level, and move them into positions where they would generate our future vision. It is a difficult task, however it is easier for a new managing director with no strong relationships with people in the organisation.
The managers brought in a lot of consultants in an advisory capacity but we did not bring in new people we filled the skills gaps from within by “rearranging” the people we had. One exception was the hiring of a commercial general manager. We were a monopoly as the Water Authority, and didn’t need to negotiate in the commercial world. But we needed commercial skills when we began negotiating with mining companies and developers, and contracting out.
AIM: What have been the greatest achievements under your direction?
Gill: Now that we are corporatised, we have a “Corporations Law” board of directors. I am the only executive on the board. The Water Authority was a 19th-century model public utility that set its own standards for water quality, plumbing and customer service. Since January last year, there are two external regulators: one for pricing and one for management of the environment.
We are the second largest “water board” in Australia, servicing the whole state. Apart from spinning off the irrigation business, we can’t see it being split up. But we do face competition for segments of our business when they come up for renewal. For instance, some large customers could sink bores and make some of our services redundant; and in the industrial areas, French and British companies are already bidding for water and waste-water activities.
We have got to get to know our customers and work with them to achieve their goals. Previously the responsibilities of the Water Authority stopped at the “boundary”. We want to cross the boundary and add value inside.
Customer service was not a priority when we were a monopoly. It is now, and we are making big investments to be world-class; and we have already won an Australian customer service award.