UK: Thames Water makes waves. (4 of 4)

UK: Thames Water makes waves. (4 of 4) - Thames has clearly listened to the groundswell of criticism. Last year Watts announced a dividend of 10.07p for the period in which Thames was private. It was slightly above the industry norm and prompted more mut

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Thames has clearly listened to the groundswell of criticism. Last year Watts announced a dividend of 10.07p for the period in which Thames was private. It was slightly above the industry norm and prompted more muttered charges that he was rocking the boat once again. This year he has been more sensitive to Byatt's mood; the dividend, up 16% to 17.5p, was within the formal rules, though not entirely unprovocative. Moreover, when the results were announced last month, Watts was careful to stress the board's view that "the results strike the right balance between rewards to shareholders, customers, employees, and the community at large".

But if the largesse enjoyed by shareholders is one source of irritation, the chunky pay rises which top management has awarded itself may be another. Watts saw his salary rocket from £61,000 to £130,000 in the year after privatisation.

Such carping apart, he has undoubtedly effected a sea change in the business. Many at Thames Water were initially loath to leave the public sector. Now they speak enthusiastically of a new financial awareness. Winterbourne speaks for a lot of his colleagues in describing how he felt, and still feels "at an emotional level that natural resources should be in public ownership and that to go round selling that service is somehow not right". But he adds: "At the intellectual level I recognise that the real issue is how the resource can be made available to everyone."

Graham Causley, area drainage manager for West London, talks of the new energy that privatisation has brought. With infectious excitement - it is hard to get worked up about sewers but in his company you certainly want to - he explains how, as a public authority official, the quality of his work was no different. But privatisation has brought financial freedom as well as constraints. "In the last few years I've lost a lot of hair," he ruefully grins.

Inside the shop, then, everything is rosy. Outside the verdict is not yet in, either on privatisation or on Thames Water in particular. "The management is quite good," notes Hawkins, "but it's very difficult at present to make clearcut judgements." He is critical of mushrooming operating costs - they went from £370 million in 1989 to £453 million in 1990 - and wary about Thames Water's efforts to diversify. The loss-making PWT, which it acquired for some £30 million in 1989, "needs a turnround. Analysts like me will be expecting a significant improvement," Hawkins adds. He may be reassured by the news that, together with other non-core activities, PWT has broken even at the pre-tax line this year.

All in all, Hawkins concludes that "we do like the direction" in which Thames is going. So, with the qualified approval of the City and the commitment of their staff, there should be no stopping the Hoffman-Watts double act. When Hoffman sits in his office, with its old HMV gramophone tucked in the corner, he can feel confident that Thames Water plc is a long-term player. As for his master's voice, that has well and truly been heard.

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