23 October 2018 | By Joe Marshall Interview

Liv Garfield, Severn Trent

With the hottest summer on record, 2018 put water companies under pressure. For the Severn Trent Chief Executive, however, challenges are there to be met

Earlier this summer, Liv Garfield, Chief Executive of Severn Trent was crowned Veuve Cliquot’s Business Woman of the Year. A 15 per cent rise in the company’s profits since she took over in 2014 have gone a long way to establishing her business acumen.

Ahead of her address at the CBI Annual Conference next month, we spoke to the youngest female CEO in the FTSE 100 about her role, her passion for social mobility, and how the future looks for the next generation in business.

Q. Where did your big break come and how do you feel about being a role model?
A. I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked at three fab companies that have been incredibly supportive. But it was BT where things changed and having supportive line managers at the time was instrumental.

I had the chance to try different things to see whether I enjoyed them. That’s always important in any career – to try different muscles.

I’m passionate that all senior leaders can do their bit in terms of mentoring and creating some footprints for other people to follow. I make mistakes every day, but at the same time there are things that I’ve learnt along the way that I can try to teach to others.

Q.  How do you think business can improve the number of women in boardrooms?
A. When you consider that I am still a rarity – one of just a handful out of a hundred CEOs – it’s incredible.

You have to accept that people really do look up to you. Having role models makes a massive difference. But you need the right culture – and that comes from having good diversity too.

Then it’s about making sure that there are opportunities and never assuming something about somebody. We all do it, so it’s about trying to have that dialogue so they don’t close their minds to opportunities. Likewise, organisations shouldn’t close their minds to the chance for those people to do something different.

Q. What challenges and opportunities do the next generation of people in business face?
A. We’re going into a generation where automation is going to become much more real, where advanced analytics and robotics are going to become a part of our working lives. I think the real-time nature of the world is going to move up a gear.

Look at the rapid advancement of technology and how social media has made such a difference in the ability to connect with customers. The pace of change will continue to provide huge opportunities to transform companies. There is such an exciting period ahead for businesses.

But we need to make sure that firms really invest in people, and that it is a combination of technology and people that makes anything successful.

Good companies with good cultures want to take the whole workforce and their customers with them. That means that they’re testing ideas out and younger people are getting involved in important projects.

Most businesses realise how important having a mixed generation is in decision-making. 20 years ago, decision-making was incredibly hierarchical. Now it’s becoming more of a shared situation.

Q. How important to you is social mobility?
A. I’m passionate about it. Severn Trent’s headquarters are in the Midlands and we’ve got the most socially deprived hotspots of any utility company.

For a while we’ve been actively involved in making sure that we search talent out to parts of our patch that might not necessarily get the opportunity.

To be in the top 20 of the Social Mobility Employer Index is something we’re proud of – and we believe that over the next number of years we can probably offer as many as 1,000 jobs into social cold spots.

Q. What challenges has the hottest summer on record brought Severn Trent and how are you preparing for the further impact of climate change?
A. Clearly if you run a utility which is based on water, then a heatwave brings with it a few challenges.

We always prepare assuming each summer might be the hot one. Normally, it doesn’t happen but this time it did. We stepped up brilliantly and managed to treat 20 per cent more water than we normally would.

What that has taught us is you just can’t tell. And you’ve got to expect more of the unexpected. Just like in any business.

For us preparing for next year, a key part of our planning is to assume that this is the norm and we’ll plan off the back of that.

Q. Your industry is one that often faces calls for nationalisation. How do you respond to that pressure?
A. We’ve done a lot of work preparing for the next five-year regulatory cycle, to really get underneath exactly what it is the customers want. We can see they want value for money, which is why we’re delighted to be reducing our bills by a further 5 per cent. They want increased service quality, so we’re really pleased to step that up across all our measures.

But they also want the company to be more socially responsible. I think that’s the judgement call now. How to truly make sure that right at the heart of your vision and your purpose is social responsibility.

We have been working on that for a while, and for us it covers a whole range of different areas. From contributing 1 per cent of our profit into local community schemes, to making sure that we create a greener future.

We will self-generate the equivalent of 50 per cent of our energy needs from 2020 onwards. We’re also making sure that we are actively involved in fantastic governance and corporate structure.

We have FTSE4Good status that lists qualities we have, for making sure that over 40 per cent of our employees do volunteering to give back to society.

So for us the answer to all political pressure is that we need to make sure that our customers feel as though they’re satisfied and we’re being totally socially purposeful.

Liv Garfield is one of the speakers at this year's CBI Annual Conference, being held on 19 November

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