Joke Cuperus is understandably a busy lady. Despite having just landed in Singapore, she finds time in a rammed diary for an interview.
Laughing at my joke about consuming the famous ‘Singapore Sling’ cocktails to help ease any jet lag, beneath the opening niceties it’s clear that the CEO is a determined and resolute leader. Calm and articulate, Cuperus has a tough job on her hands.
Not only was she appointed as the CEO of Dutch water utility PWN in November 2015, this year she will move from being interim to full time CEO of the company’s global technology arm, PWNT.
After graduating with a Masters in Law from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, Cuperus enjoyed various roles before spending 15 years in water, including heading up the governmental department of infrastructure and water maintenance.
After starting as CEO of the utility, she needed to make tough decisions early, which she describes as “painful”.
These included cutting the number of managers almost in half as part of a strategy to “make the utility much more dynamic”.
Describing the resultant leaner and more efficient philosophy as one of her highlights, the CEO adds: “When I came in, I was not satisfied to see low levels of dynamism within PWN. It was a very internally facing organisation, not external. It was a very traditional drinking water utility, and I wanted to bring in outside experiences and perspectives.”
The result? A more socially responsible, open and transparent organisation focused with a new and improved network. In short: a better ship to navigate the waters ahead, she believes.
Changes are hard to undergo for many, especially when made by a new boss in a long-standing organisation.
“I am really happy to see that we are building up this kind of organisation and people begin to understand why it was necessary,” she adds. “When I started the reorganisation, two years ago, many didn't understand why I did so. Now a lot of people, not all of course, say they understand what you meant and they really like also to see that it is getting better.”
Diversity in water
Being the lead female in a largely male dominated engineering community, it raises the question of whether diversity within PWN has also changed.
“I am not a woman who likes to have a quota in my company,” states the CEO. “I really wouldn't like for myself to be chosen because I am a woman. Of course, we had applications for all management jobs. We took in 18 new managers and we conducted hours and hours of meetings for the application process.”
She adds: “The best people were, in general, a lot of women. So I was never forced because I like to see that we have a growing amount, and I think half the managers are female and half men. So we made a big improvement in this area.”
With a more diverse, transparent and external facing utility now under her belt, Cuperus could focus on her next assignment: PWNT.
Bringing PWNT closer to home
When she was appointed as the interim CEO of PWNT, Cuperus said the company had grown “far away” from the parent company.
On paper, the technology subsidiary had become the industry’s poster child for ceramic membrane-based water treatment technology. Singapore, Australia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the UK were all projects or trial notches on the PWNT bedpost, achieved since its launch in 2009.
PWNT was on a journey to bust the industry myth that ceramic membrane technology was only suitable for industrial applications because of high CAPEX.
However, fast-forward almost 10 years and in a twist of fate the company faced rumours over the operation of its flagship Andijk III project in the Netherlands, coupled with two high profile exits.
Former CEO, Jonathan Clement, as well as former chief technology officer, Gilbert Galjaard, both moved to US company, Nanostone.
“The real goal and reason we set up this kind of subsidiary was not to be commercial but to test new techniques in our utility and to finance our R&D,” explains Cuperus.
“The aim was to have a daughter company, a subsidiary, to see if we could finance the R&D efforts,” she says. “When I came in, I saw this had gone away. The business was getting more standalone, more commercial than we could accept with the framework of a governmental organisation.”
Although PWNT was set up as a subsidiary to stand alone financially, PWN has needed to finance the company “completely, or nearly completely”.
Moving forward, the organisation is in the process of appointing a new chief operating officer to help with the day-to-day running of the business, with Cuperus overseeing both organisations.
Proving ceramic membrane technology
Responding to a question over Andijk’s operational challenges, Cuperus downplays any concern and believes it’s perfectly normal when commissioning new technology.
The site was opened in May 2014 with the capacity to produce 120 million litres (120,000 m3/day) of drinking water per day.
“All projects face challenges,” she responds firmly. “Most of them are operation challenges, which you get in Singapore, in the UK, but also in our utility. And what we've seen in our utility are the normal diseases - you can say they are the start-up diseases. We put some new techniques in an old surrounding, and then you see that the technique is working but the old assets are reacting to that, and that's the only operational challenges.”
Meanwhile, UK utility South West Water is nearing the opening of its £60 million Mayflower Water Treatment Works. This followed a pilot study conducted in April 2013.
Due to open in the third quarter of 2019, the site will be the UK’s first to combine suspended ion exchange with resin regeneration system, inline coagulation and ceramic membrane microfiltration.
In Switzerland, PWNT recently installed three C37 CeraMac systems at a plant known as Quellwasserwerk Sonnenberg.
This was commissioned by water utility ewl energie wasser luzern, a utility provider in Lucerne, Switzerland. Opened in October 2018, PWNT reports that the plant “is running really well”.
The CEO says there has been a healthy interest from companies in Sweden through to Belgium in these projects.
Running a water utility is enough of a challenge, even for one person. The same goes for running a global technology company, especially in a highly competitive market where ceramic membranes are still finding their place among popular polymeric alternatives.
Furthermore, the two companies by their very nature have opposing ambitions. A water utility is designed to make sure water delivery continues uninterrupted. Meanwhile, a dedicated technology company requires a certain commercial tenacity to secure trials, scale up and bid on tenders.
Joke Cuperus appears to have the rare ability to run both businesses. Under her watch, PWNT will inevitably take a more structured, corporate route, inline as the R&D arm of a public water supplier.
Yet, further commercial projects are needed to help prove ceramic membranes in municipal water settings and South West Water’s Mayflower opening could not come soon enough.