It seems fitting that the boss of Hunter Water chooses Scratchleys on the harbour’s edge for our lunch. In that way, Jim Bentley and I have uninterrupted water views.
Although like in TheRime of the Ancient Mariner, it’s water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink. Apart from what’s in our glasses, that is.
Jim Bentley’s job is to ensure there is always water in the region’s glasses. And we presume there always will be. Most of us presume to the point where we don’t even think about it.
“We sort of take it for granted,” says Bentley, who believes that’s the attitude to water in urban environments the world over. “And you don’t think about it until it might not be there.”
That scenario is becoming frighteningly real for the people of Capetown. The South African city runs the risk of running dry by the middle of the year, and residents are on daily water rations of 50 litres per person.
The Hunter is half a world away from that crisis. However, we use water as though we’re a world removed from such a drastic shortage. Bentley explains the region’s average daily usage is 190 litres per person.
“Look, it’s high,” he says of that figure. “It shouldn’t carry on at that level now really. But actually people’s behaviour is quite hard to change around things like using water.
“When I first arrived here [in mid 2016], I was quite surprised we talked about Water Wise rules all the time. It sounds draconian, it sounds like, ‘This is the punishment you’ll get if you don’t comply with our rules’. And that’s going to wear thin after a period of time.”
Bentley doesn’t think even hitting the hip pocket with a strict user-pays approach to water billing is the way to go. Instead, he believes emphasising the “wise”, encouraging us to think about water usage, is more effective. If wisdom is about the head, Hunter Water has also been appealing to the heart.
It has launched a conservation campaign, Love Water. Hunter Water is hoping for a combined effort to avoid restrictions being put in place, if there is not enough rain to replenish dams. The total storage capacity is currently just under 70 per cent.
“We don’t have massive storage of water in the Hunter,” he explains. “We have enough water supply for demand under normal circumstances. What we don’t have is drought security.”
The organisation has been planning for prolonged dry times, and that includes considering costly, and often controversial, infrastructure. To build a dam, Bentley concedes, “wouldn’t be easy”, as was shown with the scuttled Tillegra dam proposal. Hunter Water is also going through the planning process for a temporary desalination plant, which would most likely be built at Belmont. But he’s emphatic we don’t need to panic.
“We’re not on a knife’s edge, it’s under control, it’s quite good,” he assures. “But it’s not the infinite resource that people seem to have the impression of.”
EARLY in his life, Jim Bentley was surrounded not by water but fields. He was born in 1966 in Surrey, the third of four children of a Baptist minister father.
When Jim was four, the family was transferred to the grittier environment of south-east London. He moved again when he was eight; his parents separated. While his siblings lived with their mother, Jim went with their father, a decision that surprises him “because I was the Mummy’s boy of the family”.
“I look back and I often wonder why was that?,” he says in his softly spoken voice. “It’s one of my big regrets in life that I know I hurt my Mum by not going to live with her. But one of the great joys of my life is she’s one of my best friends.”
Jim followed his father to Oxfordshire and Berkshire, as his dream for his future firmed. He had his heart set on being an actor.
But it was a dream that didn’t impress his mother’s new husband, an engineer, when the teenager told him.
Bentley says his stepfather hit him and told him he could be an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. The teenager asserted he wouldn’t be told what he could study. Despite that confrontation, he chose engineering.
“The smack didn’t do it,” Bentley says of why he made that decision. “I think deep down I respected his opinion. But as a 16-year-old I had to portray some kind of, ‘I’ll make my own mind up, you can’t tell me what to do’ sort of thing.”
He doesn’t regret not pursuing acting, “but I’ve often been curious about what life would have been like. I think it would have been really exciting. But I also have a sense of calling in what I do.”
That calling wasn’t apparent for some years, and his introduction to a career involving water was almost accidental. After completing his degree and then attaining a doctorate in chemical engineering, Bentley figured he would be an academic. He applied for a position and missed out.
Once he was told the disappointing news, he walked out of the office, picked up a chemical engineering magazine and saw an advertisement for a job at Thames Water.
“So at that point, whatever was in the Chemical Engineer that sounded interesting …,” he smiles.
Thames Water had been privatised and was expanding. So were Jim Bentley’s responsibilities. By his late 20s, he was a middle manager, and “I thought I was the cat that got the cream. I had this fabulous job, I was in charge of all of Thames Water’s London major water treatment plants.”
And, he reflects, what also came was arrogance: “I think early in my career, I was arrogant and cocky, and I think as I’ve grown up a bit, I’ve been wary of that. But I think more importantly, for an organisation, I don’t like organisational arrogance.”
He asserts that attitude is generally bad for business. If a company believes it’s so good it doesn’t have to change, change will overtake it. He doesn’t believe Hunter Water has that air but adds when you’re asking the community to be “water wise”, it is important to get away from the “arrogant” approach of educating and presuming “we know best”.
“We know what we’re talking about, but that doesn’t mean we know what the answer is to every problem,” he says. “So I want to get away from, ‘Shall we build a red one or a blue one?’ and call that consultation, and I want to get into learning with our community, rather than teaching our community.”
For Jim Bentley, life and ambition were knocked into perspective in Turkey in 1999. He had been appointed Thames Water’s operations director for a water supply project in the city of Izmit. A massive earthquake struck Izmit in the early hours of August 17. Bentley was in Egypt, because he had taken on the additional responsibility of being the company’s Middle East regional director.
“I think it was two nights before the earthquake we had a Thames Water Turkey family party up in the hills, eating fish and drinking raki, and Turkish dancing with my staff and their families,” Bentley says. “I remember dancing with this family; Mum, Dad, two twin sons, who both worked for us. That was one night. Went to Cairo the next day. Went to bed that night and I got a phone call at 4 o’clock that morning, ‘Put on the BBC’.”
It took Bentley almost two days to get back to the water plant in Izmit, as he negotiated the rubble and chaos: “And we drove through the gates of the plant, and I remember seeing the look of relief on people’s faces, because Jim Bey (like “Mr”) is back. And I remember thinking, ‘Jim Bey has no more experience in responding to this kind of thing than you do’. But my job was to get out of the car, look and sound confident, and to give these people a little bit of a boost.
“It was one of those moments where you have to decide, ‘Are you going to stand up and be a leader, or are you going to run away and hide?’ Fortunately, I decided to stand up and be a leader.
“It gave me a tremendous respect for the people I’m privileged to lead. They knew what they were doing, they just needed someone to tell them, ‘Yeah, that’s going to be fine’.”
More than 17,000 people were killed in the quake, and much of the city had been damaged. Bentley and his team had to locate missing employees, help find emergency housing for staff, and console those who had lost so much, including the family he had danced with.
“One of those two sons and the mother were killed when their house collapsed,” he says. “So the emotion of that will live with me forever really.”
After working back in England for a couple of years, Bentley followed a Kiwi woman he had met to New Zealand. The relationship ended, but his love for New Zealand blossomed. He was the chief executive of Auckland’s Metrowater for a few years, then worked in academia and as a consultant.
“I was learning new things, loved it, I didn’t imagine being anywhere else,” he says. “Then someone said to me there was a recruitment process for the MD of Hunter Water going on, was I interested.
“And I said, ‘yeah’.”
Bentley is not sure why he said that – “I surprised myself” – but he’s glad he did. He was ready to be back in a leadership role. He thought Newcastle was the right size to work with the university, government, and the community to bring together all those elements, which interested him. And he wanted to make a difference.
“If we get it right, we can improve the environment, help with sustainability and enable people to have a better quality of life, and the life they want to have,” he says. “And if we get it wrong, we can damage the environment, we can run up too much debt for society, we give people not enough green space and true liveability.”
Bentley, who is single, is getting to know Newcastle. He enjoys attending church, and he intends to play golf but has only got as far as buying a set of clubs. And he wonders how he can become a Novocastrian.
“Terry Lawler, my chairman, tells me it takes about three or four generations before you can be considered a Novocastrian,” Bentley explains. “He said if I marry a local, I can become a B- or C-rated Novocastrian. That’s the best I can aspire to!”