By Kevin Westerling,
Presidents and CEOs aren’t typically the types who get the “cool” label, or at least not in the James Dean sense. But when you rise through the ranks of your industry, challenge the status quo, protect everyday citizens, and ride a motorcycle, you have earned the distinction. This brief Q&A gives insight into the history, motivations, and aspirations of current AWWA President Jim Williams — a lifelong champion of the water industry … and a darn cool guy.
How did you get interested in the water business, and what was your path to your current position?
During the summers while in high school and college, I worked as a field hand for Peerless-Midwest in Mishawaka, IN, drilling wells and pulling and setting pumping equipment. Performing that work, I grew fascinated by the technology associated with water supply systems. When I graduated from Indiana University in 1980 with a bachelor’s in business management, my first job out of college was with the Floway Pump Co. in Fresno, CA. There, I was exposed to large-scale water treatment projects all over the country. When I learned the significant impact the water industry has on public health, I was hooked for life. At Floway, I was promoted to regional sales manager and relocated to Atlanta, GA. In 1985, I was invited to be a part of a team to buy Peerless-Midwest from the original owners and headed back home to Indiana. In 1997, I was appointed president and CEO. In 2016, I managed the sale and acquisition of the company to SUEZ, and I continue to serve as general manager. All along the way, involvement with AWWA was integral to my professional development and growth in the water industry.
"WATER PROFESSIONALS ARE CARETAKERS OF PUBLIC HEALTH, AND OURS IS TRULY A VOCATION OF DISTINCTION."
JIM WILLIAMS, AWWA President
Is the ongoing labor issue something you hope to tackle during your term as president?
AWWA has a robust and successful Young Professionals program, but much more work needs to be done. Together with the Water Environment Federation, we hosted a Transformative Issues Symposium in Washington, D.C. in August, focused directly on workforce issues. Water professionals are caretakers of public health, and ours is truly a vocation of distinction. This message needs to be sent loud and clear to the next generation, and AWWA will help lead that effort.
What are some other objectives and initiatives for your term?
Our aging infrastructure and financing capital projects continue to be the most pressing needs in the water sector. I am a strong advocate for true cost of service pricing, including consideration for future needs. To accomplish this, we must tell the story of the value of water and help everyone know that, in many cases, water is significantly underpriced. Effective communication strategy is integral to this process. Most of the challenges are local, where our elected officials need to have the political courage to insist on rates that allow proper management of our utilities. Many communities are accomplishing this while at the same time maintaining sensitivity to affordability issues for those in need.
How is AWWA approaching lead and PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances)?
Lead and PFAS are serious public health concerns, and AWWA has been and will continue to be heavily involved in the conversation. Of primary importance is that we consider all decisions based upon good science rather than politics or emotion. Cost-benefit analysis is critical to the discussion, with a sound basis in science. One of the AWWA core principles is protection of public health, and this is foundational to our mission.
How are new technologies impacting utility operations?
It’s exciting to see the strong emphasis the water industry is putting on innovation and technological advancement. We know that for us to tackle the issues facing the industry — now and in the future — innovative thinking will be absolutely necessary. The drivers are to have the safest water possible, while keeping the cost at a reasonable level.
Tell me about your involvement with the Water Buffalos and that organization’s mission.
The Water Buffalos are motorcycle enthusiasts from all over North America who ride to AWWA’s Annual Conference & Exposition (ACE) each year. We get sponsorships for the ride and raise money for Water For People and the Water Equation, which are the focus of AWWA’s philanthropic activities. I rode to 10 ACE conferences in a row and logged over 20,000 miles in the process. I served on the Water For People board of directors from 2009 to 2015 and have been to Bolivia, Honduras, and India to see the amazing work of Water For People firsthand. When I learned I could raise money for WFP and WE by riding to ACE, it was a no-brainer.
What kind of bike do you ride?
I ride a Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra, and I love it!