How Unitywater is meeting the needs of Queensland’s growing population

How Unitywater is meeting the needs of Queensland’s growing population

Unitywater was born against a backdrop of unprecedented industry reform.

In the early 2000s, the Queensland government made a decision to consolidate water and wastewater services, which previously had been the responsibility of local councils within South-East Queensland (SEQ). Australia had just endured the Millennium Drought, Queensland had suffered a full decade of record low rainfall and water security was the driving force behind much of the era’s decision-making. The political intent of Queensland’s water reforms was therefore to effectively drought-proof South-East Queensland.

In July 2010, Unitywater was established as part of this water reform programme, as the entity that provides water supply, sewage and trade waste services to residential and business customers from Noosa in the north to Moreton Bay and the boundaries of Brisbane City in the south. In 2012 it was placed under the leadership of CEO George Theo, who brought a unique understanding of Queensland's water challenges through 25 years’ experience in key roles within the water industry.

As it has been set up, Unitywater now has just three shareholders: the Noosa, Sunshine Coast and Moreton Bay Councils, themselves reconfigured under a recent amalgamation programme. It purchases bulk water from South-East Queensland Water (Seqwater) and distributes it to some 750,000 residents across the region. Another important part of its work is to collect, treat and dispose of sewage.

George Theo walked into a very complex situation when he took on the role of CEO. Unitywater was an amalgamation of six local authority water businesses serving the heavily populated and fast-growing area of South-East Queensland to the north of Brisbane. Moreton Bay Regional Council, for example, has the third largest population of any local government area in Australia. A lot of hard work lay ahead, he recalls: “We had inherited legacy and multiple technology systems that had to be replaced with fit-for-purpose systems – and we had to rationalise our accommodation as well as our extensive fleet of vehicles, plant and equipment. As an example, we were working out of 18 separate buildings; now we have just four.” In front of him lay the task of creating a refreshed, agile and people-focused business.


The technology challenge

The legacy systems in use back in 2010 included two asset management systems, no fewer than 11 different supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems to remotely monitor and control water and sewerage assets, two geographical information systems (GIS), two people management and payroll systems and two finance platforms. On the other hand a proper document records system was non-existent, and the process for managing customer bills on a daily basis linked to consumption was inadequate. Clearly it was vital to replace the old technology systems with best-of-breed software.

Theo saw this as an essential part of the strategy to place Unitywater's customers at the heart of the business by improving their customer experience with the organisation. The last six years have seen a huge amount of time and effort going into the task of transforming the IT platform and creating an agile and forward-thinking identity, and an inclusive culture.

The company delivered a consolidated asset management system based on IBM Maximo and ESRI ArcFM, a geographical information system to replace all those legacy systems. The result has been that staff working on managing the network, its treatment plants, its remote pump stations and water and sewerage fittings are able to tap in on portable devices to look at the condition of the assets, capture further information on condition and performance of assets and at the same time plan and cost any interventions that may be required. Our field workers are no longer just maintenance workers, he says, but information workers. “In SCADA alone we are now monitoring more than 1,000 different sites and operating them remotely using ClearSCADA installed by the IT automation specialist AIT. We have a human resources information system (HRIS), and a single documents management system from Sydney-based Objective Corporation.”

This year, the organisation rolled out a business intelligence platform which is all about leveraging technology to achieve efficiencies.

A prime example of this is the current campaign to encourage customers to move from paper to electronic bills. Already more than 68,000 of 300,000 account holders have signed up to e-billing. “We are working hard to raise that number significantly. It's all part of our goal to be a hassle-free business for our customers. We compare the Unitywater customer experience with other leading-edge service providers in banking, insurance, airlines and the like. They are our benchmark, not other water companies. Digital technology is at the forefront of change, so we have embarked on a programme to make our website and online tools as simple as possible for our customers.”    

Efficient – and green

The technology transformation delivered a reduction in staff numbers from around 835 in 2010 to 708 today. Over the last six years A$133 million of operating cost has been taken out of the organisation, and in the same period capital expenditure has come down by more than A$150 million each year compared to when the organisation was formed. Energy is a big part of the cost of running a utility company, he points out, and in a programme to optimise the largest of Unitywater’s 17 sewage treatment plants (STPs), and the hundreds of pump stations he notes that in the last year alone A$1.2 million was saved on electricity cost.

Solar panels have been installed on the roof of one of the main administration buildings, saving 25 percent of its electricity use, he says. “At the same time we have looked at challenging the institutionalised operating arrangements in our network of water supply and sewerage assets, which has led to reconfiguring processes within the sewerage treatment plants, and taken a critical review of the way water and sewerage is transported through the network.” Over the long term, there are opportunities to make even greater savings at the STPs and within the network.

One major investment currently being considered is a waste-to-energy facility at the Kawana sewage treatment plant: scheduled to open by late 2019. The plant will take the bio-solids from other STPs and will also be able to use the fats, oils and greases generated by trade waste customers. “One of the goals we have as an organisation is to minimise our environmental footprint,” says George Theo. “The new plant will reduce our reliance on coal-fired plants. If we can find enough smart ways to generate energy we aim to become self-sufficient in 10 to 15 years. Over the next three years though we will reduce our electricity consumption by 30 percent at this plant. In the future we may also produce enough bio-gas to potentially run a fleet of buses and vehicles. Imagine taking the number 2 bus powered by bio-gas from a local sewage treatment plant, now that would be something!”

Another STP, at Maleny, won the award for Best Specific Environmental Initiative at the UN World Environment Day Awards, presented in Melbourne in June 2015. The award recognised a A$17 million investment in the plant, which uses a membrane bio-reactor to treat effluent to a very high standard before sending it to a newly created irrigated rainforest and wetlands area in the district. While he is very content to win awards of this sort – and with more than 30 in its pocket, he admits that looks like an addiction – what really makes him proud is the knowledge that while back in 2010 most of the STPs were non-compliant with their licence obligations, they are all fully compliant today. “Maybe the biggest achievement on the STP front though was that we turned one off! By reconfiguring three plants, we were able to close one of them completely.” That project won Unitywater the national Infrastructure Project Innovation Award at the 2016 Australian Water Awards.

Training to succeed

Theo set out to create a unified Unitywater culture based on the way the new organisation wanted to do business and to be recognised for a workforce that is safe in the work it does, agile, innovative and reliable in delivering customer and environmental outcomes that are wanted. The IT transformation is part of the new thinking, he says: “We need people who can respectfully challenge the status quo and be comfortable in the big data world by developing the skills they will need to succeed. Are we ready to meet those challenges? We are heavily investing in and supporting our people to make sure they have every opportunity to succeed.” The better equipped they are, the better they can face up to the exponential growth of technology, data and customer expectations, he believes.

That’s why training has taken a front seat. It’s vital that all our people understand that Unitywater wants excellent leaders, why? Because the workforce deserves to have excellent leaders.: Leadership can be learnt, he believes, and he has brought in a leading organisational psychology company Change Focus to deliver a programme that uses well proven tools to make people aware of their leadership qualities and use them consciously. These include 360-degree feedback from peers, managers and subordinates. “We have given 100 people who have leadership roles within the organization objective information based on the feedback from the people they work with, then buddied them with organisational psychologists who give them one-to-one coaching over twelve months. Then we go back at the end of that period and re-run the 360 degree feedback.” This, he adds, reveals managers’ blind spots. “We have seen better decision making, better engagement, and people adding leadership to technical skills and enjoying the challenges before them.”

In the fabric of the community

Queensland has invested heavily in desalination plants, and notably, the state has installed a A$9 billion pipeline interconnector linking Noosa in the north to the Gold Coast in the south. “There is plenty of secure water for customers now – and we are finding the average water consumption is declining year on year. The experience of the millennium drought changed behaviours and instilled a greater value in the mind of the public on how water is best used,” Theo reflects.

George Theo is passionate about corporate excellence, but his eyes really light up when he starts talking about community engagement. “We don't want to be just someone you get a quarterly bill from.” His headline initiative is the under-resourced, under-the-table issue of domestic violence, and supporting one particular women's refuge in Queensland. “It's a safe place for women and their children to escape to – some of them are fleeing quite horrific abuse.” Unitywater prides itself on its good gender balance and equal opportunities but facing the statistic that one in four Australians have either experienced domestic violence or know someone who has, a number of our employees must come into that category – and the rest need to be made aware. As well as giving direct support to the refuge, Unitywater has programmes to teach staff about healthy relationships and raise awareness of the issue. “I am really pleased that we are taking a stand on the issue of domestic violence in our community,” he says. He wants his two young daughters and all young Australian children to grow up in a society where abuse is never tolerated.

The list of Unitywater's social engagement programmes and sponsorships is a long one. In 2013, it became a corporate sponsor of WaterAid, providing vital funds to help the charity improve access to safe water, improved hygiene and sanitation in the world’s poorest communities. That's a global initiative, on a local level it likes to bring local people and bush care groups together to support initiatives like the Creekside Greening programme. Native seedlings are planted in reserves and wetlands, resulting in improved water quality and habitat regeneration for a variety of wildlife. Unitywater also commits to sponsorship of local Men’s Shed facilities, which contribute to improved mental health and well-being of retired men, as well as a programme that gifts free books to children to improve the literacy of pre-schoolers. In a higher-profile gesture, the company doesn't mind making some of its facilities available for large scale artwork – the Ferny Hills, Caloundra, Peregian Beach and Pt Cartwright reservoir artwork projects have engaged whole communities and at the same time turned bland concrete reservoirs into bright pieces of eye-catching public art.

On the lighter side of social engagement, Unitywater is reaching its future customers through their universal passion, sport. “We are distributing tens of thousands of Unitywater-branded drink bottles through sporting clubs and we want every child in the region to have one. We also sponsor scoreboards at small locally run football and cricket grounds. We are keen to be seen as part of the fabric of the community.” Another initiative in the pipeline is to allow each of Unitywater's employees the opportunity to take a day out on full pay to volunteer with local charities and community organisations.

There's a sound business case for all these initiatives, George Theo concludes. Inclusiveness, of employees and customers, is part of his vision for the company, reflecting the way he wants it to be positioned. 

“We are an innovative company with energetic and passionate people who are always challenging the status quo. We want to continue to deliver minimal price increases through efficiencies and operational excellence.”

“We may be the only water partner our customers have for now, but that could change, so we treat our customers as if they could walk out at any point in our relationship. We'd like our customers to become our advocates so that when things go wrong, as they sometimes do, they will say that Unitywater is an excellent company that puts things right, listens, and always responds positively.”

Theo says: “We want to be different and we are keen to create something special at Unitywater that everyone can be proud of.”

George Theo