A bridge over some very troubled water; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Brandon Gough

After a career in the gentle ponds of accountancy, Yorkshire's new chairman battens down for squalls
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The Independent Online
Sooner or later the question inevitably surfaces. After 32 years in the tranquil backwaters of accountancy, what on earth possessed Brandon Gough to take on the job of running Britain's most-hated company?

The new chairman of Yorkshire Water shifts slightly in his seat and then replies in equally candid fashion. "Having spent all my career in one business and with one firm I decided there was just enough time left to tackle something different. But there is no point saying you are available for jobs unless you are prepared to take on the challenging ones."

To describe the posting to Yorkshire Water as challenging may seem a trifle understated to some. The fiasco of last summer's drought and Yorkshire Water's inept response to it will take some beating in the annals of public relations disasters.

The fiasco did for Mr Gough's predecessor, Sir Gordon Jones, who led the entire water industry into privatisation seven years ago but left Yorkshire Water with his reputation all but destroyed. It did for the company's managing director, Trevor Newton, too - the man who famously refused to take a bath, at least inside the county, for three months.

Water companies seem to breed larger-than-life chairmen who treat their territories like fiefdoms. Sir Gordon was to Yorkshire what his counterpart at North West Water, Sir Desmond Pitcher, is to Lancashire.

Mr Gough, however, has no pretensions to grandeur, no great plan to become another king of the ridings. In any case he comes from completely the wrong side of the Pennines.

Indeed, he intends to stay firmly put in Sevenoaks, Kent, where he lives with his wife. He will put in about two days a week on Yorkshire Water business and travel up to Leeds perhaps once a week.

The rest of his time will be divided between his other non-executive directorships - at the security printers De La Rue, the construction group George Wimpey and National Power - and his public sector job as chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council.

Yet perhaps Mr Gough is just what Yorkshire needs. Born and brought up in the Wirral on Merseyside, he was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge, and joined Coopers & Lybrand in 1964 at the age of 26. There he stayed until 1994, becoming a partner by the time he was 30 and chairman at just 45.

He does not think his lack of industry knowledge, local presence or Yorkshire roots will be a disadvantage. "I see my role as being to understand the key elements of the business and to balance shareholders' and customer interests, not to run the day-to-day management of the company. We will be putting a lot of emphasis on local management. After all they live there and can see the level of the water in the reservoirs."

Ah yes, the reservoir levels. Since half the country's water needs are supplied from reservoirs, it is a matter of some interest. Last autumn the water supply system to West Yorkshire failed and supplies were only maintained through mass road tankering of water from neighbouring counties.

The cost to the company in financial terms will be laid bare next week (on 5 June) when Yorkshire Water announces its annual results. The drought cost it pounds 47m and is expected to have left pre-tax profits about 10 per cent lower at around pounds 140m.

But Yorkshire Water is still paying a bigger cost in terms of public mistrust. "In the short term we need to reassure our customers about security of supply," Mr Gough says. "While they were never cut off last year, people had an awful fright and I can see why they are apprehensive about this year."

The best estimates, he says, are that Yorkshire Water will be able to keep supplies flowing this summer, even if 1996 proves to be drier than 1995. Although hosepipe bans will remain in place there should be no need to tanker in water and certainly no need for rota cuts.

But these are short-term issues and what Mr Gough would really like to do is begin setting out a framework for how Yorkshire Water will improve the lot of its shareholders and customers over the longer term.

"The utilities are at the end of the first phase in their transition from public ownership," he says. "The interesting question is what happens next and what are the possibilities to develop the relationship between the utilities and their customers.

"Realistically there can only be one supplier of water - you get the services and the terms offered and that is it. But we have to look hard at whether that is the limit to the relationship."

He intends to start with Yorkshire's business customers, which should be interesting since the last time the company had contact with them it was to suggest that they might like to shift production out of the county to other sites in order to save water. The idea did not go down very well.

Mr Gough now says Yorkshire wants to work more closely with its commercial customers. One example is in the treatment of effluent. At the moment, Yorkshire simply charges on a sliding scale according to how harmful the effluent is or how difficult it is to treat. "But it might pay for companies to undertake some intermediate treatment on site or recycling more of their effluent. That is one area where we might work with customers and help them deal with a problem in a way which is beneficial for them and simplifies our waste treatment operations."

Developing a relationship with its 2 million household customers may take a little longer. Mr Gough concedes that no "magic developments" are likely in the near future. Instead the stress will be on making it easier for customers to get access to the company and make inquiries. Ultimately he would like to see all Yorkshire's customers have greater choice in what they pay and how they chose to use their water. By that is he referring to water metering? "Personally I like being metered. When I first moved into a house in Kent it saved me money."

Metering, of course, is not to everyone's liking. Mr Gough might do well not to put a new controversy at the top of the Yorkshire Water agenda.

Michael Harrison