Colin Skellett OBE
Doctor of Laws
Tuesday 19 February 2019 - Orator: Professor Nishan Canagarajah
Colin Skellett is a leading light in the water industry, a successful business leader and a major figure in British public life. All these achievements after a very humble beginning, having been raised on a council estate in Nottingham – making him, I think, an inspiration to anyone who grew up without great privilege.
From the very outset he was determined to develop valuable skills that prepared him for diverse situations and challenges. He also gained from his mentors. He is thankful, for example, to his teacher Mr Atkins, whose guidance – or, more appropriately, punishments, in a method which would not be acceptable nowadays – involved beating him on the head every time he got something wrong. Colin decided he couldn’t take the punishment anymore and worked hard to scrape entry into the local grammar school.
No one from his family had even been to university, so Colin naturally felt he should get a job and left school at the age of 16 after completing his GCEs. He was very pleased when he got his first job as a trainee chemist at Nottingham sewage farm. Colin was in charge of all the false teeth that were found in the sewage farm – he had a box full of teeth and had the honour of handing them back to their respective owners, who it turned out had often accidently flushed them after a weekend night out.
Colin always had a thirst for knowledge and soon realised he needed to go to university or college to get a degree. Of course, if he did, he was to be the first one in his family to go to a university. He decided to continue his studies on a part-time basis, attending classes for a day and 3 nights per week. Although it was difficult for Colin to work and study, he successfully completed his course and moved to Newcastle to complete his graduate qualification. This unfortunately meant he had to give up his job. Colin was determined to finish his graduate work, although by now he had some other landmark achievements under his belt: he was married with two children! He was also the breadwinner in the family, so he did the obvious and got a job in the local bakery. This way he could look after his family and finance his studies at the same time.
Colin soon realised that he could not spend his whole life looking after false teeth or working in a bakery and decided to look for suitable jobs for a trained chemist. He saw an opening for a senior chemist in the Bath Water and Sewage Treatment departments, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life. It was an inauspicious start though; Colin miscalculated the distance from Newcastle and arrived three hours late for his job interview. Fortunately for him, they still interviewed him and offered him the job.
He joined the company at an interesting juncture, as the industry was being reorganised into regional water authorities. To his surprise, he managed to get a middle management role. Colin is not one for giving up easily or taking no for an answer. He was in middle management when Wessex Water advertised for a new Chief Executive. Colin was interested in the role, but his Director of HR told him not to bother with the application as the Board was looking for an external candidate. This didn’t go do down well with Colin. He went ahead with his application and was eventually successful. Under his leadership, Wessex Water became one of the UK’s largest waste and recycling businesses. This success got worldwide attention and Wessex Water was acquired by Enron. Colin used to go to Houston once a month and enjoyed his trips on Concorde so much that he bought the airfield! However, his relationship with his Enron bosses was not so cordial and Colin was relieved when Enron collapsed. He was able to retain his job as CEO and is now the longest-serving Chief Executive in the water industry, and the only one still serving since privatisation.
Colin attributes his success to his single-mindedness and his ability to work with people. He doesn’t like it when someone says something is difficult; this only encourages him to take on the challenge. He acknowledges the contributions of the great many people he has worked with and was modest enough to tell me that he is good at implementing great ideas from other people. Colin epitomises the quality of great leaders who are not only good technically, but also good at getting along with people and being a team player.
Colin’s passion did not stop with Wessex Water. He is committed to business involvement within the public sector. Over the years he has chaired the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and served on the Board of the Regional Development Agency, and he was the founding Chair of the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership for five years. I had the privilege of getting to know Colin when he was the chair of the Local Enterprise partnership. His skills in navigating challenging issues, with business leaders with diverse interests and politicians with their own complex needs, has been immensely valuable for the region. During his tenure, he raised the profile of the West of England region in Whitehall, which has resulted in significant investment here. Colin is a strong advocate for business leaders engaging in public life and helped shape public discourse and create opportunities for all sections of our society. As Chair of Governors for Merchants’ Academy, Colin was instrumental in setting up a Ventures Trust Autism School which has created many opportunities for children from deprived parts of Bristol. In 2012, he was awarded an OBE for service to business and charity.
Graduates and honoured guests, you see on stage a man who is committed to excellence in his business, but who also demonstrates deep social conscience to do good for society. Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Colin Skellett, as eminently worthy of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.