Uncharted waters: Kevin Young, Managing Director of Sydney Water

Uncharted waters: Kevin Young, Managing Director of Sydney Water 450 450 C-Suite Network
Uncharted waters: Kevin Young

Kevin Young has a clear memory from the start of his career with Sydney Water: “On my first day, the communications team came up to my office, pressed ‘Record’ on a camcorder, and said, ‘What do you stand for?’ I replied with 3 things. First, our safety performance must dramatically improve – we injure far too many people. Second, every part of our business must meet and beat the market. Third, customer service is an attitude, not a division.”

6 years later, he’s facing a tidal wave of change, one that is positioning Sydney Water front row in a new world where utilities have a critical role in creating tomorrow’s liveable cities. The CEO Magazine meets Kevin to learn more.

The CEO Magazine: You’ve been managing director of Sydney Water since 2011. How has your role evolved since you came on board?

Kevin: Sydney Water had just embarked on a new price path with a commitment to save over $173 million on operation costs and around $500 million in capital project costs when I joined.

The early years were about getting match fit, which we have done. We drove enormous savings, and this led to the recently announced current price path, as set by IPART, where we have lowered water bills to customers by a typical $100 per year. That’s a saving of $400 per family over a 4 year period.

The early years were about getting match fit.

That was a great start. But the focus now is on transforming the business. We are undertaking a once-in-a-generation investment in technology and implementing an operating model that is all about the customer and the future.

In addition, we are looking to Sydney Water’s role in 2040, which will be more about creating liveable cities. Our role is not to be the master plumber of cities but the master planner, and that is creating a lot of excitement in the business.

Can you elaborate further on what the change from master plumber to master planner involves?

When I graduated as a civil engineer from the University of Newcastle in 1978, the water industry was all about the assets. As far as I could tell, engineers ruled the industry and most of the work was done with an in-house workforce. Sydney Water back then had over 20,000 employees.

Kevin Young Managing Director of Sydney Water
Kevin Young (left) signs an MOU in 2016 with Terry Bailey, former Chief Executive of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

Today, we have 2,400, and over 84 cents in every dollar that we spend is outside of the business. That percentage is always increasing. We now partner more and more with the private sector, and as a water utility we have been going up the customer value chain. Since graduating, I’ve seen so much change and disruption. We started with a focus on constructing assets, and then on operating and maintaining assets, and then on economics and whole-of-life costs.

Fast-forward to today and the water industry is transforming yet again, and the rate of change is dramatic. This time, however, the change is to keep up with technology, to meet the growing expectations of our customers, and to be a key driver in the liveability of our cities. To achieve this, Sydney Water has to be a master planner.

Sydney’s population is forecast to reach 9.9 million people by 2036. What role does Sydney Water have to play in preparing the city for this?

There’s a critical opportunity, and imperative, to embed water management with urban planning and design – to recognise and support the way water underpins our increasingly urbanised environment and how it looks, feels and functions. The Greater Sydney Commission is doing great work…