From The Editor | March 22, 2016

Vote Of Confidence: A Q&A With NAWC's President-To-Be

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

As the preeminent trade group representing private water companies since 1895, the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC) has considerable influence over an industry that provides water service to some 70 million Americans. With a membership of over 150 companies, the organization has a long history of appointing leaders from the country’s biggest water suppliers to helm its own operations.

The latest in this pipeline is president-elect Martin A. Kropelnicki — Marty, as he’s referred to by staff at California Water Service Group. That’s where, as president and CEO, he oversees the fourth-largest private water utility in the country. Prior to his presidency at NAWC, which officially begins in October, Kropelnicki spent a decade working in the high-tech industry and then 17 years with electric, gas, and water utilities.

To welcome him to his new post, Water Online conducted a Q&A with Kropelnicki about where he’s been and where he hopes to take NAWC.

Can you give us a brief history of your career?

I joined California Water Service Group as vice president, chief financial officer, and treasurer in March of 2006, and was named president and chief executive officer in September 2012. Before coming to the group, I held executive and management level positions at PowerLight Corporation, Hall Kinion & Associates, Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group, and Pacific Gas & Electric Company. I began my career at Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals and Hewlett Packard, where I first learned the importance of brand marketing. This was particularly useful when I took Hall Kinion public; it is also very important now in the water industry. Our days of being the silent service provider are over.

How would you compare your time working with water utilities to your experiences in the tech, electricity, and gas sectors?

Gas and electric utilities are very similar to the water utility industry, but the tech world is very different and much more fast-paced. In the high-tech world, you make things happen, you don’t wait for them to happen to you.  You recognize the importance of selling your brand and the value your business provides. I think utilities are getting better, but we can learn from Silicon Valley.

How did you first arrive at NAWC?

I began attending the annual NAWC Water Summits when I was CFO at the California Water Service Group, and then I co-chaired the international financial reporting standards committee. Eventually I joined the NAWC board and I’m currently serving as president-elect.

How would you describe the current state of NAWC and what are your plans to position it for the future?

NAWC is an effective organization that achieves more than its size would suggest it could. As our environment continues to change, NAWC will need to be nimble enough to support its members’ continued success in the face of emerging challenges. And there’s no substitute for good planning.

Looking into the future, are there any pressing issues for NAWC that you imagine will persist into October and beyond?

Our environment is changing rapidly. The costs of providing safe, reliable water service are rising. Special interest groups are threatening our business by fomenting anti-private sentiment in the communities we serve. There are high-profile water quality failures, the most recent of which is in Flint, MI. The country is in dire need of infrastructure investment. Regulations are evolving. That’s why it’s critical that NAWC be strategic with its resources, and nimble, in order to support its members’ continuing success.

What do you admire most about the work of current NAWC board president Joe Gysel? What qualities do you hope to emulate?

Joe is calm, cool, and collected. He is very mature in his approach to leadership, and he thinks progressively about issues facing the industry. Under his leadership, we launched our “Truth from the Tap” initiative, and I think that has been effective and will continue to be important. 

Have you begun thinking about what you might change once your presidency begins?

We need to continually assess what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether it still makes sense. Are there organizational changes we can make to position ourselves to be more efficient and proactive?  Are we meeting the needs of our members? Again, long-range planning is key to success.

What do you point to as significant accomplishments in water infrastructure investment as championed by NAWC? How does NAWC plan to build on this legacy in the years to come?

The bottom line is this: You don’t hear about NAWC members having water quality problems. You don’t hear about NAWC members failing to meet service standards. You don’t hear about NAWC members failing to provide adequate supplies despite drought conditions. That’s because we invest diligently in our infrastructure. The regulated water utility model works, because it allows for necessary investment.  But what you do hear about is the cost of water utility services. So what NAWC must do to build on this legacy is continue to promote the value of the service we provide and the importance of infrastructure investment. 

As CEO and president of California Water Service Group, you work in one of the most water-stressed regions in the country. What gives you hope that this group will continue to thrive in the face of continued drought and all the water issues that come with it?

In California, the regulatory mechanisms we’ve developed that decouple sales from revenues are working. But more importantly, the fact is that drought-prone regions must develop alternative sources of supply, including recycled water and desalinated water, which is an opportunity for investment. And look, the silver lining of the black drought cloud is that it has attracted attention. People take water for granted, and yet its availability has a profound effect on quality of life. But the drought is causing people to take notice. They are recognizing the importance of water and the services we provide.

What would you want to accomplish in your upcoming presidency to consider it successful?

We need to continue to raise the profile of our industry, promote the value of the services we provide, and evolve the organization to meet members’ changing needs.