The water company John Mowbray joined almost 30 years ago was a mere babbling brook compared to the mighty ocean it is today. Ahead of his impending early retirement, the Northumbrian Water chief tells Andrew Mernin about his remarkable career and looks forward to life on the open road.
More recently Mowbray’s thirst for globetrotting was quenched by his work for WaterAid – the water access charity which is intrinsically linked to Northumbrian Water through the utility company’s own in-house fundraising group.
The Wearsider cites as his career highlight the fact that his employer has been so accommodating in letting him get heavily involved in activities which focus on issues in the water industry wider than company success, such as supporting WaterAid.
“I’m lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to dabble and get involved in other things, that the company has been kind enough to let me do,” he says.
Meanwhile, “tears and goose bumps,” is Mowbray’s nutshell description of his experiences in Africa with WaterAid.
Reminiscing on a 2007 trip to Malawi, he talks passionately about the struggles faced by many of the world’s poorest to access clean water. And he clearly appreciates the duty which companies which profit from water supplies have in helping communities where clean water is scarce or non-existent, having enjoyed a lengthy stint as head of Northumbrian’s WaterAid fundraising committee.
“We visited a village called Nkwali which had nothing but mud huts with thatched roofs. They took us down to the river and the kids jumped in the river, but that was their drinking water, where they washed their food, where they washed their clothes, there was no sanitation and even the animals used it.”
Then, after returning to his native North East, amid the relative mundanity of office life, came what Mowbray calls the best feeling ever. His colleague, Alistair Baker, received a call and shouted across the room: “John, Nkwali’s got water.”
“It was quite a tearful moment actually,” remembers Mowbray. “They’d put pumps in so they had clean water and it really brought it home to you that, as a result of what we’d done, we’d had an impact on people’s lives.”
As well as helping communities overseas, Mowbray plays an active role in supporting North East causes both in his guise of utility firm director and individually.
Among numerous achievements in his busy corporate social responsibility drive, he is particularly proud of the work done at Sunderland school Castle View Enterprise Academy, which is sponsored by Northumbrian Water, with Mowbray sitting on its board.
Alongside the council, other private-sector players such as Leighton Group and Esh Group and housing organisation Gentoo, Northumbrian Water has helped to transform Castle View from being a flagging school into an exemplary one.
“We helped to design and build it, recruited a new headteacher and, in terms of GCSEs grades A to C, it’s gone from 26% to 54% in two years,” he says.
“Behaviour is better, there’s a sense of pride in the community and kids who were off the rails are doing some amazing things.”
Mowbray’s involvement with Castle View is likely to continue beyond his Northumbrian Water tenure. So too will several other roles on the extensive list of responsibilities he holds.
Meanwhile, there is much activity, challenge and change ahead for Northumbrian Water to fill his final half-year at the firm.
Fresh from last year’s £2.4 billion takeover by Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong billionaire and Asia’s richest man, and Northumbrian’s ultimate de-listing, the company’s expansion continues at pace.
Today it serves 2.6 million people in the North East and 1.8 million in the South East and has a £33m waste-to-energy treatment facility at Bran Sands, not to mention numerous other assets such as Kielder Water.
Mowbray sees new opportunities in the waste management and energy generation arenas, while he believes the Government’s plans to remove barriers to competition in the water industry could present new challenges in the coming months.
He will no doubt watch with interest as the company’s ongoing diversification plays out once he has clocked out for the last time. And as he looks out to sea from one of his favourite spots on the coast near his home in Fulwell, he will have a constant reminder of what he believes is one of the company’s major legacies since he joined it in 1983. “Because I live beside the seaside, I often wonder what I used to swim in. All the crap went out to sea and we used to swim in it, which is not the case now.
“Now that I know what we’ve done as a company, I know the beaches are the best they’ve ever been.” Perhaps from August, Mowbray will have more time to enjoy basking in the region’s new, cleaner coastline. Or, judging by the list of organisations relying on his strong but unassuming leadership, perhaps not.