Offering the right financial mix of products and services is a challenge to any business, but can be critical for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the water industry. The water utility regulator’s five-year Asset Management Period (AMP) cycles have unwittingly produced a well-documented cycle of ‘boom and bust’ for the supply chain.
This can mean few or no utility sales for three to four years, then one or two years worth of sales in six months, all with very tight delivery times and thin margins. The impact of exposure to this flux on cash flow can be catastrophic and has led to significant consolidation within the supply chain and subsequent reduction of competition over the years.
This is certainly the case with companies that are over-reliant on large capital plant sales. However, businesses relying too heavily on lower value, higher turnover parts and consumables can also get into difficulties. This is, firstly, because such provision is demanding on labour and administrative resources, but also because commoditisation can put prices under pressure and cause margins to shrink.
Maintaining the balance of sales and revenue between the plant, parts and service business components, which is never easy for companies, is the way to survive boom and bust. Historically, companies have often shied away from offering service and maintenance, particularly those that have historically been product focused.
Yes - service is labour intensive. Yes - service does not directly deliver the margins that capital plant can. However, an orientation towards service does have some genuine merits:
by Matthew Wheelock, Chief Executive of Wheelocks
Consolidation in the UK water industry is gathering apace. As reported by WWTonline last month, engineering consultancy Mott MacDonald has snapped up its design-and-build joint venture partner, Bentley Holdings, while Dutch consultant Arcadis is still pursuing a merger with London-based Hyder.
This comes in a year where global giant GE has bought out privately owned UK anaerobic digestion specialist Monsal in March, and a near miss saw the anticipated merger of contractors Balfour Beatty and Carillion fall through, at least for now.
But these examples are just the first whisperings of what analysts expect to become a boom in acquisitive activity. The utilities themselves are not immune, with Ofwat indicating that it is softening its stance on takeovers.
There is currently a downward acquisitive pressure on the UK water sector from both national and international forces. Without exception, every water-related company this author has spoken to in the last 12 months, with a turnover greater than £3M, has been approached to sell the business. Such offers are often being made on a monthly basis.
Once a business generates profits of £1M or more and/or turnover in excess of £10M then purchasers will emerge. Unsurprisingly, companies generating good sales - £5M and £10M being the magic markers - and that are growing or expanding, will fare best as buyers muscle in.
What is now being observed is that companies below this threshold are also being eyed for takeover. To profit from this window of opportunity, small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) need to be proactively marketing their businesses and making sure they are visible. By getting their house in order and raising their profile, companies give themselves the best chance of showing up on the radars of prospective purchasers.
Market analysts have been saying for some time that the UK water treatment sector currently has too many companies offering similar products and services. This has resulted in an erosion of overall margins, causing some less robust companies to fall by the wayside.
The indications are that the sector is ripe for a period of consolidation, much like the IT sector was 15 years ago. SMEs should be investing for the future, demonstrating that they are prepared to secure the best talent for their businesses and proving that they have robust management strategies in place.
Investors will be looking for companies that are not only creating growth, but that are able to demonstrate that their growth in sales is sustainable over the long-term.
At present, margins are getting thinner for all companies, but this will not continue indefinitely. Once the period of consolidation is over, utilities be warned, the remaining companies can expect to be in a position to demand higher prices and will be more profitable - the board at Carillion anticipated reducing the cost base of the proposed merged group by a healthy £175M per annum, had it gone ahead.
Companies surviving the consolidation period will be those with a solid unified approach. They will be stronger, leaner and will be in a stronger negotiating position than before.
The remaining companies will generally be larger, but those companies with a specialised or unique market offering will also be in a stronger negotiating position than before. International investors are looking for companies with technologies that are desirable, transferable and scalable to the global market, with the US$4B+ Indian water market currently attracting particular attention.
SMEs in the UK are in a unique position, being based in the country with the most privatised water sector in the world. Many of the owners of the privatised English water utilities, often overseas funds, are looking to benefit further from the low risk and predictable returns granted in this highly regulated market. Indications are that their horizons are broadening to explore additional opportunities in the sector.
The message for contractors, treatment companies, technology companies and anyone else looking to maximise the opportunities brought about by consolidation in the market is: act straight away. Adopt a scientific approach to sales with the aim of delivering compound growth, while putting in place a plan to get your business noticed.
Engaging the services of a specialist business development consultancy like Wheelocks can help in identifying suitable investment partners and maximising companies’ potential. Growth and greater visibility are accepted goals for any business, but at the moment, there are considerable additional benefits.
The message for utilities is – expect more change across the sector, keep a close eye on the market and plan for price rises across the supply chain in the medium to long term. The UK water industry is in for a turbulent time and will be a leaner place in which to operate once calm returns.
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Image: Portrait of Matthew Wheelock
About the author -
Matthew Wheelock is the Chief Executive of Wheelocks, a sales and business development consultancy that specialises in developing strategies for water sector businesses seeking to make acquisitions or be acquired.
He has a proven track record of delivering growth strategies for SME companies. By providing a valuable support role to companies throughout the water industry supply chain, including utilities, engineering, industrial, professional service and IT companies, Matthew helps clients achieve profitable compound sales growth.
With a background in financial services, advice Matthew has delivered has enabled clients to obtain significant returns on investment.
A training course from Suppy UK designed to help reduce surge effect in water networks has received a Certificate of Accreditation from the Institute of Water - a first for the Institute.
Recent research shows that human error in how hydrants, valves and pumps are operated is a major cause of surge effects in water supply networks. Surge is a major cause of leaks and bursts in pipe infrastructure. The good news is that much of this harm can be avoided by modifying the way the network is operated.
This can be achieved by ensuring operators are thoroughly trained, which utilities must do under their duty of care. Supply UK’s Calmer Networks Training, which can now be delivered on-site or online, ensures that candidates achieve an understanding of the causes of transient surge in the water network.
It also provides training and assessment of acceptable levels of competence when operating a range of valve technologies found in the water network. A licensed network operator itself, Supply UK is currently delivering 40 training sessions for approximately 600 employees of Thames Water and its partner companies. A permanent test rig has been set up at the utility’s facility at Kempton Park, Middlesex.
Fire authorities too have been keen to take advantage of Calm Network training. Poorly managed emergency use of standpipes can create bursts that cost millions to utilities and risk outing water supplies during critical fire incidents.
The benefits of this training go far beyond reducing surges though, they include:
A specialist laboratory that carries out quality tests on cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) lining installations has warned that some UK utilities are failing to carry out adequate assessments. IKT Institute for Underground Infrastructure, a not-for-profit sewerage research organisation headquartered in Germany, releases an annual report about the lining tests it carries out.
The LinerReport has been ranking the performance of both contractors and of individual lining systems for a decade and IKT is celebrating the report’s 10th anniversary this year. Germany is recognised as a global leader in liner technologies and the report has historically focused on German liners and contractors, recently extending to pipe liner specialists in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Managing Director Roland W Waniek says, “Over the past decade we have seen a significant improvement in the test results for the criteria of elasticity, flexural strength, wall thickness and water tightness of CIPP liners. The results are currently hitting 98% on most criteria and there has been an increase in the number of companies reaching 100%. All in all, pipe liner quality is improving year on year – showing a 10% improvement since 2004.
“However,” Waniek warns, “we still find that some contractors cannot provide evidence of their own testing and, more worryingly, some clients are not demanding evidence of the test results for the liners they purchase. Requirements for the taking of samples and testing should be built into every contract.”
Julian Britton, Critical Sewers Manager at Wessex Water, which regularly tests the liners it uses, agreed that testing CIPP liners was an important part of the process.
“With any cured-in-place product, including CIPP, the client should gain confirmation of adherence to the correct minimum standards, and thus longevity, by ensuring a fully auditable trail of design through to post-cure testing,” he says.
Waniek sees strong growth in CIPP liner installations: “We anticipate an increase in pipe lining during the AMP6 regulatory phase in England and Wales,” he says. “As capital expenditure on pipe replacement declines, maintenance and repair of existing assets will need to increase.
“Pipe lining is an effective way of delivering high quality pipe repair with minimal disruption to the general public. However, it is important for utilities to ensure that their investments in liners are meeting the required standard and that they will last.
“We recommend that utilities and industrial clients collect test samples from every lining installation they commission and have a significant proportion of those samples tested in a qualified laboratory.”
IKT Institute for Underground Infrastructure, which is headquartered in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, carries out assessments on cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) - glass-reinforced plastic and needle-felt liners used to rehabilitate sanitary sewers, storm drains and pressure pipelines for water and process effluents. The annual IKT LinerReport is designed to deliver transparency to the global market for pipe lining technologies by comparing products and techniques.
IKT Managing Director, Roland W Waniek, says, “IKT began publishing annual reports on the results of its pipe liner tests in 2004. Our aim has always been to raise the quality of the technologies on offer to the market. The LinerReports have driven an improvement both product and procedure. Transparency now prevails where clients were previously obliged to rely solely on suppliers’ promises.”
The LinerReport Research & Testing 2012-2014 can be downloaded at: http://www.ikt.de/website/down/english/2014_02.pdf
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