Women flood to the top of embattled water industry


The crisis in the water industry has thrust some of Britain’s leading female executives into the spotlight.

That is because – unlike in many other areas of business where men continue to rule the roost – the sector is largely run by women.

Of the three top water firms listed on the London Stock Exchange, two have female chief executives, while of the 12 major providers in the UK, half are led by women. 

Most prominent: Thames Water chief Sarah Bentley is set to be handed £727,000 despite the firm being blasted by the Environment Agency

This figure is set to increase next year when Louise Beardmore succeeds Stephen Mogford as the boss of United Utilities.

The prominence of female bosses in the water industry stands in stark – and welcome – contrast to the rest of Britain’s top businesses.

A report from the Cranfield School of Management showed the number of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies reached an all-time high late last year but concluded there were still not enough female chief executives, chairmen or chief financial officers.

Only 12 companies in the blue-chip index have a female chief executive. One of the most prominent female bosses in the water industry in recent months has been Thames Water chief executive Sarah Bentley, who has run the group since September 2020.

She previously worked as chief customer officer at rival supplier Severn Trent and also serves as a non-executive director on the board of banking giant Lloyds.

The mother of five hit the headlines recently after the Mail on Sunday revealed she would be handed a total of £727,000 in two one-off payments just days after Thames was blasted by the Environment Agency for its record on pollution.

Most of the payment formed part of a £3.1million ‘golden hello’ for signing on as chief executive. It was in addition to her eye-watering annual pay and bonuses last year, which rose to £2million.

Bentley’s pay was the highest given to a Thames Water boss since 2015.

She has also come under scrutiny from the authorities after it was reported that a £250million water plant built specifically to protect Londoners from drought had been switched off, with the company admitting it would not be able to work until next year at the earliest.

Severn Trent boss Liv Garfield was made a CBE for services to the water industry in October 2020

Pennon¿s Susan Davy has seen the firm fare poorly under her leadership

Severn Trent boss Liv Garfield (left) was made a CBE for services to the water industry in, while Pennon’s Susan Davy (right) has seen the firm fare poorly under her leadership

This was despite the group reassuring regulators in January that the desalination plant would be ready to use in drought conditions. 

Thames has also been at the sharp end of public and regulatory outrage over the UK’s pollution crisis. 

It was named as one of the worst performing water companies last year, with the environment regulator giving it only two stars out of five, which means it requires ‘significant improvement’.

Meanwhile, Severn Trent boss Liv Garfield is a big hitter in the City, standing out among the tiny list of female FTSE 100 bosses. 

At 46, she is one of the youngest bosses to head a blue-chip company. Garfield has also run Openreach, BT’s broadband arm.

Female first: Northumbrian Water chief Heidi Mottram

Female first: Northumbrian Water chief Heidi Mottram

The mother of two was made a CBE for services to the water industry in October 2020.

Garfield is also one of the highest paid executives in the industry, with her pay packet amounting to nearly £4million. 

But recently some of the shine has been taken off her reputation after Severn Trent was deemed one of the worst offenders in the sector for pollution. 

Last year, the company was fined £1.5million for dumping 80,000 gallons of sewage into Worcestershire waterways.

Susan Davy, boss of FTSE 250 group Pennon, the owner of South West Water (SWW), has seen the firm fare even worse under her leadership despite the fact she was paid £1.6million last year.

Pennon was hit with a one star out of five by the Environment Agency last year, its lowest possible rating, after the regulator concluded its performance had been ‘terrible across the board’.

Looking to the rest of the sector, Northumbrian Water is headed by Heidi Mottram, who upon her appointment in 2010 became the first woman to run a major British water company.

Despite previously claiming she wanted to make Northumbrian ‘the best water company in the UK on every count’, Mottram has recently struggled to keep the firm’s reputation intact.

In January, she offered a ‘sincere’ apology to a worker whose leg was crushed by a 1.5-ton pipe after a series of health and safety failings that saw the company fined £365,000.

Boys' club: The prominence of female bosses in the water industry stands in stark ¿ and welcome ¿ contrast to the rest of Britain¿s top businesses

Boys’ club: The prominence of female bosses in the water industry stands in stark – and welcome – contrast to the rest of Britain’s top businesses

Northumbrian was also handed another £540,000 penalty after pleading guilty to polluting a waterway in County Durham.

Rounding off the list of female water bosses are Nicola Shaw, the head of Yorkshire Water, and Sara Venning, chief executive of state-owned Northern Ireland Water. Shaw is new to the industry, becoming chief executive of Yorkshire in May, succeeding Liz Barber. 

But Shaw, a former director at energy firm National Grid, faces a baptism by fire after the group was fined £1.6million last month for polluting waterways in Bradford.

Venning, by contrast, is a sector stalwart having run Northern Ireland Water for almost a decade. 

While she is paid much less compared to most of her counterparts, raking in around £215,000 last year, Venning has been no stranger to scandal at the firm, which in 2018 was accused of ‘extraordinary complacency’ and received fines of £80,000 for a raft of pollution incidents the previous year.

She also admitted to officials in February that the company almost ran out of money last year as it was forced to grapple with surging energy prices before being bailed out by the Government.

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