From what follows it appears that to some extent Martin Kane’s career in the UK water industry happened somewhat by chance but to anyone that knows him and his contribution since joining the industry we can only be thankful that he chose to stay with the industry when the chance came.
First of all congratulations on being presented with the UKSTT Lifetime Achievement Award.
What does it feel like to be recognised for what, for those of us that know you, has been a significant part of your working life?
I had no idea that I was being considered for this Award so when I got the phone call it took a little while to sink in. It is truly humbling to be recognised by colleagues in the industry for the contribution I have made. I started my career with Severn Trent as a wastewater treatment specialist and it was not until 1987 that I moved across to work in the water distribution team. I got absorbed by all aspects of pipework from design, installation, maintenance and operations. It was clear on privatisation that pipeline infrastructure was going to be a big ticket item. Rehabilitation became a critical activity and I was privileged to be asked to create a team specialising in this. Work then became a hobby and a passion and the pioneering stuff we did in Severn Trent led to me joining UKSTT’s board (the United Kingdom Society for Trenchless Technology) and then becoming its Chairman. I have also had the privilege of chairing the ISTT Guarantors for a number of years.
What does the Lifetime Achievement Award mean to you personally (and/or to your family)?
I have never set out to win awards or seek accolades for the work I have done. I always seek to deliver the best outcome I can whatever the task or challenge. I have a curious mind and have always sought to understand how things work and to think about what we could do to improve. I love leading teams of people but I am equally adept at playing a supportive role when required. I have shown to myself time and again that if you have the right mind set and create the right team around you then great things can happen. I see this award as recognition for the dedication and delivery of many teams I have created and worked with along the way. I have also had unwavering support from my wife Sheila who has been alongside me from the start. Finally it would have been great for my parents to have been around to share this moment but sadly that is not to be.
When did you start at Severn Trent?
Severn Trent Water (STW) Authority was formed in late 1974 by bringing together the water and sewerage functions of the local authorities in the Midlands. I was working outside the region and my job was heading for Thames Water. I was the first external recruit into the STW divisional office at Coventry in a team specialising in the design and build of sewage treatment plants. I did not know much about the Water Industry but the location in the Midlands suited us at that time. The original intention was to do a couple of years and then move on. However, I loved the Company and the work and we quickly settled in to living in Kenilworth so we stayed!
Having spent your career in the UK Water industry what have for you been the most significant changes that have witnessed across your career?
In short, mobility and technology. In the 1970’s the road system was quite rudimentary such that if you wanted to visit Strensham from Coventry it normally included an overnight stay. People from different divisions within Severn Trent rarely met as it took too long to get from A to B. We operated from local depots and many in the workforce did not own cars. The road system is so much better now.
Computers and phones did not exist and the internet had not been contemplated. You got knowledge from books, information from magazines and communicated by letter. You had a choice of four TV channels and if you did not watch a programme that night you had no way of catching up until repeats came round some time later. The ease with which information can be found and shared is the single biggest change. That said, I will not miss endless complex passwords that I cannot remember. Overall, it is much faster and definitely more stressful now.
What has been your most challenging experience over your years in the industry either in general or specifically trenchless or both (project/product development)?
The most difficult role I picked up was the move from Engineering Director to Customer Relations (CR) in 2005. We had some regulatory issues and I led the internal investigation into alleged misreporting of data. The outcome was a report to the regulatory situation setting out what had gone wrong. This resulted in a fine of £37.6 million pounds. Having been in my dream job of Engineering Director for less than 1 year I was asked to go and sort out the underlying issues in CR. This involved sorting out some complex IS issues then retraining and rebuilding the confidence of our teams. It was a three year turnaround project and it was one time when I really had to learn a whole new skill set at speed.
The most challenging project has been the Birmingham Resilience project, which is just going through final commissioning now. It involved building a new water treatment plant in the middle of an existing one without any interruptions to supply or water quality issues being experienced by the 1.2 million customers served by this site. It also involved a lot of tunnelling work through some difficult terrain both to bring a new supply in from the River Severn and to replace some parts of the 120 year old aqueduct bringing water from Wales to Birmingham. There were very heavy regulatory penalties for late delivery and the site teams worked miracles to complete on time.
What do you see as being your own greatest personal achievement in the water/trenchless industry?
The single moment which touched me most was picking up a trophy at the Severn Trent Awesome Awards a couple of years ago. The Award was for making an ‘Outstanding Contribution’. You have to be nominated and voted for by other folks in the company. Recognition by my colleagues was truly special.
Apart from that I have a tremendous bank of memories of the wonderful folks I have worked with over the past 49 years. Too many to mention individually but helping people reach their full potential has always been a passion for me.
As for my proudest moment, having been told at a number of performance reviews that I would possibly get to be MD of one of the fringe companies (we had lots in the 1990’s). I made it to the Water Executive team when I secured the Director of Engineering position in 2005, I then joined the main Board of Severn Trent in 2007 until 2015. Having started out as a technician in the Engineering team it was a real privilege to be asked to lead the department. I have to accept that I was not always the easiest employee to manage in my younger years.
Have you any now or when you started did you have any particular role models in the industry? Who were they and why did they influence your career?
Approach every job with a positive mind-set and learn as much as you can whilst doing it. Knowledge is a wonderful thing and folks who have a curious mind go and find things out. It is easy in a business process focussed world to just do the task in front of you. It is so much more enjoyable to have a deeper interest in what you are doing and that is what drives improvement and innovation. In the early 1990’s the person who made me realise this was Derek Lackington who was a senior manager at Severn Trent and was known throughout the sector as ‘Super Lac’. We had the most enjoyable and productive time together as we transformed the water supply and distribution functions and then set about creating the ST mains rehabilitation department in 1989. He passed away aged 55 just before he was due to retire. I had the honour of presenting the Lackington Memorial lecture at a plastic pipes conference on the first anniversary of his passing.
Now that you are outside the industry looking back in, what do you currently see as the industry’s most urgent challenges?
Climate change, impacts of dryer, hotter summers and warmer, wetter winters are real and beginning to impact our lives and we will all have experienced storm intensities and localised flooding increasing in the last decade. The water sector has limited opportunities to tackle the global causes of climate change but has a major role in mitigating the risks and helping Society cope with the impacts. So water supply demand balance will be front of mind and creating storm capacity alongside our ageing sewerage systems will have to be done. This has to be done with the needs of the environment being recognised and delivered at the same time. Water is a precious and finite resource and we have ignored this for too long. Both supply/demand and storm capacity have the potential to create opportunities for trenchless solutions
Where do you hope to see the water sector and its trenchless connection in the next 10 to 20 years?
There is a lot being written about the circular economy at the moment as we seek to understand the finite nature of resources on our planet and figure out how to sustain a living for a growing population. Waste must be rooted out and eliminated wherever it exists. Open trenching for utility apparatus installations is a wasteful activity in many situations. The trenchless sector seems to have settled into a slightly niche position. When I was more active in the 1990’s it was anticipated that society would become less tolerant of street works disruption and that as trenchless solutions should offer faster installation with less road surface damage they would become the dominant solutions of choice. That did not really happen. However as we think beyond the ‘cheapest’ cost mind-set and start factoring in all the true costs of the activity, the use of finite resources, the disposal of waste etc. trenchless techniques must become the first option engineers consider. There also needs to be a focus on true innovation. What do we have to do to arrest pipes ageing? What materials do we need to invent that allow us to line a pipe without any interruption to service and fully restore its strength and capacity and at a fraction of the current costs? Can existing technology and materials adapt? This is where we need to look longest and hardest.
The other side of this is that increasingly Water Companies, their contractors, academia and organisations like UKSTT will have to work evermore closely together to get trenchless taught and accepted as part of the civil engineering curriculum, both at further education level and at career development level. The UKSTT’s work towards this with university lectures and more recently with seminars and Masterclasses is helping get the word spread more widely and its efforts are ensuring that more and more engineers are aware of the advantages that can be obtained from the correct and effective use of trenchless systems as opposed to more traditional systems.
Is there anything not covered here that you would like to say about or to the industry you have been a part of for so many years?
It has been an honour to have worked for such an excellent company within an excellent sector. I found myself at home here from the beginning and have only considered leaving on a couple of occasions. I am please I stayed and I was lucky to find a company that has always exhibited the values I believe in.
Martin, thank you for your time for this interview. May your retirement be a long, fruitful and happy one.