Watercare chief executive Raveen Jaduram has worked to reverse what he calls a "culture of fear" at the organisation to empower staff and to prevent disasters like the 2011 explosion that killed an employee

1. Where are you from?

I grew up in a small town in Fiji surrounded by cousins. My grandparents emigrated from India and had 13 children. I once tried to count all their descendants and lost count at 150. Our family owned many of the businesses in Labasa; an island resort, hotel, construction company, pharmacy. My dad managed the cinemas but he didn't have much English so at age 14, I ended up negotiating with the Hollywood film distributors. We got all the Star Wars and James Bond movies. I was a big fan of Clint Eastwood. Fijians love action movies. The Godfather didn't do well in Fiji. It was too slow.

2. Did that job make you popular with your friends at high school?

Yes. Working on the "crowd theory" that you're more likely to go to a crowded restaurant than an empty one, I'd get all my school mates to loiter outside the cinema entrance on Sundays at 5pm. That was our biggest screening because lots of people would come to town for church. If we got a full house my mates would get to see the movie free the next day.


3. How did you become a civil engineer?

I didn't really know what a civil engineer did but I applied because the top scholarships to Auckland University were being offered in that degree. When I graduated I went to work for the Fijian Housing Authority where I was one of only three engineers. I had a lot of responsibility at age 23. We left Fiji in the wake of the first coup in 1987. My wife actually saw it happen. She rang me from her office in Government Buildings where she worked as a town planner. She could see soldiers in balaclavas pushing members of Parliament into the back of military trucks. She thought it must be some kind of exercise. A lot of overseas media took the view that the coup was a race issue. But I think it was rather a case of bad people doing bad things. Lots of Indians were behind that coup. Race relations in Fiji were actually good. Growing up, I never noticed ethnicity. Our family was very mixed, with members of Indian, Fijian, Chinese and English descent.

4. Was previous Watercare chief executive Mark Ford a mentor to you?

He was a mentor and a friend. I like to think that when I first came to Watercare in 1994 he saw me as someone who could get things done when Auckland was in a drought and it was my job to find another water source. We sandbagged a river in the Hunua Ranges and managed to pump enough water to meet the gap. My next project was to secure a permanent water source from the Waikato River. It took four years to get the consents and went all the way to the Environment Court. I was very proud of that project. It was my baby.

5. Mark Ford, who also created Auckland's "Super City", was a sometimes controversial leader. How would you describe his style?

Very autocratic. People were afraid of not meeting his expectations. I would even call it a culture of fear. He would listen but once he'd made his decision, that was it. You had to just get on and get it done without arguing. He was very confident. He said to me once that his confidence got confused by some as arrogance. He had a great talent for identifying the right people for the right job. I didn't agree with him all the time and he didn't expect me to. I do consider myself lucky to be with Watercare at the time he moved the organisation through some major challenges like upgrading the Mangere wastewater treatment plant. He's left Auckland with world-class water and wastewater infrastructure.

6. As Mark's successor, have you changed that "culture of fear"?

My style is very different to Mark's. I don't apologise for the fact that we need to have strong controls because that's the nature of our business. We're treating drinking water so we have to make sure people don't get sick. We're a monopoly using other people's money so we need to control how that's spent. That means a lot of accountability. We can get that through fear or through ownership and responsibility. I'm of the view that most people will do the right thing if they understand why we do what we do. If they only do something out of fear then if circumstances change, and they always change, they're not in a space to make good decisions.


7. What was the impact of the 2011 explosion that claimed the life of one staff member?

It was a traumatic experience. I can still remember that day like it's in slow motion. That phone call at 8.10am on a Saturday. Walking up to the site. These are things you don't forget. The first thing you ask is, "How could we have avoided this?" There's a strong sense of guilt, even if we were not guilty. A strong sense of "How can we rewind this?" Then you realise you can't change what's happened. You can only do all you can to make sure it doesn't happen again and look after all the people who were affected by it. Lots of staff were affected. Some are still.

8. Are you able to prevent it happening again?

In the industry we talk about the "Swiss cheese effect". We have lots of "slices of cheese", or controls, that prevent accidents. We can wear the right equipment, do the right monitoring, follow safety procedures but Swiss cheese has holes and occasionally all the holes line up. So we cannot guarantee it will never happen again. That's our fear every day. That's why we keep reinforcing to staff that if you have any doubt over safety, don't do it. One of the final safety layers is individuals applying good judgment to keep everyone safe.

9. Have you talked to staff about recent suggestions that Watercare should be privatised?

I've told them to just carry on with business as usual. There's legislation that prevents our privatisation. If we were sold, we'd have to pay dividends to our new owners which would mean increasing our water charges and maybe reducing quality targets like meeting NZ Drinking Water standards or our AA risk management grading.

10. How do Aucklanders know they're getting good value for money?

We've just finished benchmarking our efficiency with Australian water providers. When you compare your water bill to other utilities like power and phone, it's very good value. Many people still feel water's free and it is - our cost is in collecting, storing and treating it and providing a reliable service. Aucklanders can drink eight glasses of AA-graded water every day for a year for $1.

11. With El Nino and droughts on the way, should we be watching our water use this summer?

We should always watch our water use. At the moment, the lakes are 80 per cent full. We like them to be close to 100 per cent by the end of winter. So if we have a dry winter in 2016, it'll be a concern for us. Our website has tips such as putting mulch over the garden to retain water, don't do heavy watering during the day, don't leave the tap running while brushing your teeth and so on.

12. You head an organisation with assets of $8.7 billion, annual revenue of $500 million and 800 staff. Does that ever weigh on you?

No. I have staff and suppliers who believe in the importance of what we do. If I've had a really bad day, I go home and play Total War. It's a computer game like chess, more strategic than violent. I'm basically an optimist. I always say I'm a "cup half empty" person because I'm always looking to fill the glass to the top.