When a community comes to the rescue
Many company CEOs can speak freely about drought, and the threat it brings, without ever being personally affected.
Reviewing strategies, targets and quarterly results can be very distant from communities plagued by water scarcity, parched river basins and empty reservoirs.
Yet Terri Benson, the managing director of Australian water utility South East Water, is a leader who understands the threat of drought more than most.
Living in Melbourne she also owns a farm over 1000 kilometres away in New South Wales. Two years ago, a massive bushfire tore through the whole farm, decimating everything except the house. Luckily the cattle were saved after Benson and her husband opened the gates as they left the property so they could reach a creek bed.
It was the sense of community during the aftermath that really struck a chord with Benson and perhaps gives an indication why South East Water puts community interaction at the heart of its communications.
“The fire was devastating to see but it recovered quickly thanks to help from the community,” she recalls.
“We had people bringing bales of hay to the property and strangers dropping off fencing wire and posts. Communities are very powerful and I think that's the other thing about my current role – it’s being aware of who your community is and what they expect of you is a privilege.”
Growing up in energy
Before working in water, Benson spent many years in the energy sector. In her words: “I grew up in energy.”
Over 14 years, she rose through the ranks at Essential Energy, a regionally based combined retail and distribution energy company. Starting in accounting, regulatory and HR roles, she eventually became the managing director, witnessing “many mergers, as well as restructuring of the business and reform”.
"The community tie with water is much stronger than with energy.”
Benson says it was between 2008 to 2011 when she witnessed the disruption of renewables and the potential penetration of solar energy. Planning for 2030 and organising workshops addressing community-based solar versus rooftop solar, she faced resistance.
An engineer told her: “But Terri, your grandchildren will worry about this – you don’t need to worry about it!”
Today, she uses this example to give people a sense of perspective in forward planning: “Everything is up for grabs and it’s going to happen faster than you can see it coming.”
In November 2012, Benson moved from energy to water, joining Seqwater as managing director. Shortly after being appointed, she led the merger of three companies into one.
“That was a really interesting year, restructuring that business as that included water supply, and security of supply having come out of nine years of drought in Queensland.”
Managing Melbourne’s massive growth
Drought is a topic Australians know only too well, with parts of the country facing a one-in-120 year super drought.
The South East Water managing director manages a large portfolio: the water utility treats and distributes 350 million litres of drinking water and removes and treats 300 million litres of wastewater daily.
While the water utility provides services to 1.8 million people across Melbourne’s south-east, the city’s population is set to double by 2051.
Despite the future challenges facing the business, she believes the connection between utilities and customers will become more important in the future.
“People are passionate about water in their lives,” she explains enthusiastically. “We're the silent provider. In some ways, the water authorities are nearly invisible to a lot of the customers, but it's essential to their lives. As soon as something happens to it, there's no room for error and the sense of community around water is much stronger than energy.”
One project that defines South East Water’s link between water technology and the community is Aquarevo. The development previously housed a water treatment plant. Instead of selling off the land, the utility has been working in collaboration with Villawood Properties to create a residential development with a difference: to showcase the future of water, matching supply with demand using machine learning.