35 years ago, the Water Authority Cayman was founded. Offering meaningful connections with consumers through their consistent and reliable, not to mention affordable, water supply has set this Water Authority apart from other utility providers for many years. We spoke with company director, Dr Gelia Frederick-van Genderen, to find out more.
Given the intrinsic importance of maintaining a reliable supply of what the Water Authority – Cayman (WAC) refers to as “the world’s most popular drink”, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the most senior executives of the organisation were too busy with more pressing matters to speak with us. That is not the case with WAC, however, as Dr Gelia Frederick-van Genderen, Director of the company, was more than happy to offer an insight into what happens day to day and why. Moreover, she was able to explain just how central to the everyday operations consumer satisfaction and community development are, thanks to her many years with the authority:
“I initially started my career as an Environmental Health Technologist with the Department of Environmental Health here in the Cayman Islands. I was there from 1983 until 1988, when I joined the Water Authority as an Operations Scientist. In 1994 I was appointed Deputy Director and then, six years later, promoted to the position of Director. I was honoured to be promoted to Director of the Water Authority in October 2000, after being with the organisation since 1988.”
With a fundamental understanding of the science involved and a deep-seated dedication to the Authority already in place, Gelia was a natural choice for the role of Director and has brought a uniquely inclusive style of leadership into play, which has had far-reaching benefits:
“Two of the most consistent things you will hear from Water Authority staff is that they find their jobs meaningful and their colleagues are like family. When the Authority first started back in 1983, it was a much smaller organisation than it is now, but even though we have gone from a team of half a dozen to one of 133 employees, we still maintain that atmosphere. I have been a part of this organisation’s growth for 30 years, so I know first-hand how important it is to be able to recognise the strengths of each individual and develop a well-rounded team of senior managers and supervisors who are, in turn, able to motivate their staff to the betterment of the entire organisation.”
Any organisation that sits at the very epicentre of a community and provides a vital service, just as WAC does, needs to have a leader at the helm who not only recognises the critical nature of the work being done, but also the value of the staff that are physically doing it. Gelia is one such leader. She understands that the continued success of the Authority is measurable in terms of the sustained wellbeing of the local population and the development of talented team members. Moreover, she seeks to never lose sight of the mission and values that underpin the Authority as a whole:
“Our mission here at the Authority is four-fold: 1) to provide the Cayman Islands with pure, wholesome potable water; 2) to protect groundwater resources; 3) to provide sewerage services; and 4) to do all of these things in a financially sustainable manner. The mission guides everything we do, from maintaining our lab’s international accreditation to achieving unqualified financial audits. We know our values and we stick to them.”
Given that WAC currently services over 18,500 accounts, spread out over Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac, a clear focus on the founding principles of the Authority is vital, especially when expansion is on the cards. With plans to reach out to consumers on Little Cayman, the smallest of the islands, an objective understanding of the, forgive the overtly appropriate wording here, buoyancy of the sector is essential. Providing public water services, sewerage facilities and groundwater protection, all together, is no small feat and naturally, the stability of the wider industry and region will have a role to play.
“A great deal of development is occurring in the Cayman Islands at the moment and forward-planning is more important than ever to ensure that the Authority’s operations can keep pace. That being said, this is nothing new to us here at the Authority. Since the Cayman Islands started experiencing its development and population boom in the late 1960’s, there has been very little slowing down. Since the Authority began we have always worked with an eye on the future, to ensure our infrastructure can sustain the rate of socio-economic growth that the Cayman Islands has come to experience as routine.”
Gelia is, perhaps, being a little modest here, as there is a distinct adaptability to the Authority as a whole, with an open-minded approach to new technologies, innovations and supplier partnerships. Nothing here is reactive, but everything is proactive in a bid to never be forced to play catch-up with consumers’ expectations or competitors. It’s important to remember that while fresh technology is exciting and needs to be embraced, the strongest organisations place a much higher value on the human factor. with in excess of 60% of the WAC workforce having been in place for 10 years or more, there is certainly no underestimating how respected and valued they are:
“We have 133 staff and, during the last fiscal period alone, we spent approximately US$187,804 on staff training. Within any industry, but particularly in the essential service industries, succession planning is imperative. That’s why staff development and training is so important to us here at the Authority. In addition, we do our best to attract young Caymanians to the industry through a CI$30,000 Annual Scholarship and our popular Work Experience Programme, through which we take on summer interns. In fact, since 2006/7, the Authority has invested CI$445,000 (approximately US$542,682) in 11 scholarship recipients. We also recently announced the launch of a new scholarship that includes a monthly stipend for Caymanians to attend the local higher learning institute the University College of the Cayman Islands.”
Offering a vital product and having keen staff in place would be enough for some organisations, but not WAC, which looks to forge beneficial and strong relationships within its supply chain, for the wider benefit of the Cayman Islands as a whole. Looking to always support other local companies, wherever possible, there is a real sense of community within the supply chain, as Gelia explained:
“Given our status as a statutory authority here in the Cayman Islands, our relationship with the Cayman Islands Government is paramount to our continued success as an organisation. However, as public servants, our primary loyalty will always be to the Caymanian people whom we serve. Our customers and our community will always come first. Of course, we have many strategic business partners – vendors, suppliers, contractors, etc. – whose support is essential to our daily operations and we are very grateful for their continued partnership.”
One particularly noteworthy partner is Florida Aquastore; a specialist supplier of treatment services, systems and tanks that is as dedicated to giving back to local communities as the WAC itself. It’s said that you can tell a lot about a person by looking at who they are friends with and the same goes for business relationships. The WAC and Florida Aquastore are so similar in both outlook and commitment to consumers that working together makes perfect sense and benefits everybody, a critical element given the number of developments being embraced over at the WAC:
“The Authority is currently working with Florida Aquastore to construct a new factory-coated bolted steel water storage tank at our Red Gate Water Works facility. Once completed, this tank will add another 2 million US gallons (7,570 m3) to our current storage capacity of 14.2 million US gallons. In addition, the Authority has contracted Wharton-Smith, Inc. to install approximately 800 linear feet of HDPE pipe (6” nominal diameter) and ancillary works as part of the West Bay Beach Sewerage System. This project is currently on-going, and we expect completion on or before 20 May, 2018.”
Looking to also bring more freshwater supplies to Little Cayman, while adapting existing wastewater and water infrastructure, in line with new expansion projects on Grand Cayman, the future looks set to be very busy for the WAC, but Gelia is not worried; she is excited:
“This is a very exciting year for the Water Authority because it represents the 35th Anniversary of the Authority’s establishment in 1983. Over the last 35 years, the Authority has experienced huge growth in terms of its daily operations, staffing requirements and customer base. Even for someone who has been with the Authority for 30 years, it can be hard to explain the pace of development that the organisation has experienced. The fact that what started out as a small government department working out of a converted house is now a multimillion-dollar business with five reverse osmosis plants is staggering.”
She went on to conclude, “The projects we are embarking on now would have been absolutely inconceivable in 1983. Over the years, of course, we have also experienced inconceivable challenges – chief among them the devastation of Hurricane Ivan in 2004. As an essential service provider in the Caribbean, you are constantly striving to ensure your operations are resilient and your staff are prepared for the worst but the impact of that storm was bigger than any of us could have anticipated. Hurricane Ivan hit the Cayman Islands square on as a Category 5 storm and the damage was truly catastrophic. In the aftermath of that terrible storm, if you had asked us if we thought the Authority or even the country would be able to come back from that destruction, I doubt many of us would have been very optimistic. But we did. We came back stronger than ever both as a community and as a company. Now, as we prepare to go into yet another Atlantic hurricane season, the lessons learned from that catastrophic storm are once again at the front of our minds.”
If we’ve ever encountered an organisation that seems intrinsically able to weather a storm of any magnitude, it’s most certainly WAC and we’ll be keeping a close eye on future projects that look set to prove that point beyond any doubt.