Episode 26: From Harvard Lawyer to Mobilizer in Water and Utilities with George Hawkins
This week on Masterminds in Maintenance, we are so excited to welcome George Hawkins, Founder of Moonshot LLC and former head of DC Water, to the show! George and Ryan discuss misperceptions of water in the utilities sector, how the utilities sector can save 80% of costs through condition based maintenance, and so much more! Listen today!
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00:06 Ryan Chan: Welcome to Masterminds in Maintenance, a podcast for those with new ideas in maintenance. I’m your host, Ryan, I’m the CEO and founder of UpKeep. Each week, I’ll be meeting with the guests who’s had an idea for how to shake things up in the maintenance and reliability industry. Sometimes the idea failed, sometimes it made their business more successful and other times, their idea revolutionized an entire industry. Today, I’m super excited, we’ve got George Hawkins on the show. George is the founder of Moonshot LLC, Moonshot Missions, and former head of DC Water. He’s well-known across the water sector for transforming DC Water into an innovative customer-driven enterprise while also tripling its investment in clean water. Not only that, but George also serves on the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, the board of NERC and the US Water Alliance and Xylem Inc. Above all, George is just an amazing, amazing individual who’s incredibly enthusiastic about inspiring public entities to change the culture and become more effective community partners and service providers. That’s a whole lot George, you do a lot. Welcome to the show, I’m super excited and honored to have you here today with us.
01:14 George Hawkins: Well, thank you, Ryan. I’m really glad to be here. I could be here on a subject that doesn’t get me more fired up than this one. You’re on the right topic at the right time and the right place, so I’m all in. I’m delighted to be on the call like any introduction that I have doesn’t have swear words in it is a very good day for me. So there’s a good start, let’s have at it.
01:33 RC: Alright. Hey, just like we do for all of our other guests, could you share a little bit more about yourself and your background and how you got into this interesting industry?
01:45 GH: Sure. I’m actually a lawyer by training and graduated from a law school a long time ago, but I wanted to do a kind of law that was related to issues that really mattered in the bigger picture. I stumbled upon environmental almost by accident, was a water discharge permit. But whenever you’re doing environmental issues, it affects issues on every side of every equation. What’s good for the ecology, what’s good for jobs, what’s good for a community, what’s good for the worker, what’s good for the species. It’s just every big issue is related to these questions of how to resolve and I became a believer early on that the most important measure of what we do in the environment is water good and bad. Drought and flooding water quality or otherwise, water reflects the health and well-being of the society around us just like blood reflects our health of our own bodies and by working on water, you really do touch everything.
02:41 GH: So over the years, worked at US CPA, then I run city agencies, non-profit organizations, and right before starting moonshot was running the water utility for the Washington DC area both drinking water… We don’t call it waste water, we called it enriched water and storm water. So it’s a one water utility, a pretty large scale over $1 billion of disbursements each year and that was a fascinating experience, I loved it. And actually, maintenance and all the aspects of that was the principal question that we had to face on a daily basis to deliver this life-giving resource to everybody in this region.
03:19 RC: George, what’s the biggest misconception that you think people have about water in the utility sector?
03:27 GH: I think the biggest misperception is really a lack of knowledge and it’s not anybody’s fault. For a long time, the water industry consider it sort of it was better part of valor that we did our job really well when you turned on the water at the tap and you had no idea where it came from, that is a miracle of modern civilization that there is clean water at the tap and the most important improvement to Public Health ever that eclipses Penicillin or anything else. When you don’t have clean water, people die constantly from pathogens in it and we’re delivering it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And we’ve gotten so good at it, it just seems normal and you don’t know where it comes from. But if you don’t know where it comes from or what it takes to deliver it, why would you pay a lot of money for it? So a lot of people have had a hard time getting their arms around paying a bill for water infrastructure because they don’t know what it is.
04:20 GH: And we say, “That’s not a surprise”. If someone came to you and asked you to pay for something and you didn’t know what it was, why would you pay for that? And so a big part of our job in Washington DC and then water utilities in the LA are fantastic is educating our customers about this gigantic system that they rely on every day that does take investment. Smart investment will save enormous amounts of money and improve performance. That is what was proven to me from maintenance professionals so that I became an enormous and still am. I think it’s the secret sauce that allows any utility in this country to perform is focusing on those questions. It’s not the sexy part, but it is the place where you can save money and improve performance for all your customers, and then reinvest those savings into the next generation of technology and service and protection and all the rest. But the biggest message to me is for people to learn and understand that that system that they depend on so that they know what they’re investing in and make smart investments.
05:26 RC: Absolutely. Thank you, George, for all the work that you do. I could just hear the passion in your voice when you talk about this topic. So I know that you spent several years in water. Tell us what Moonshot Missions is.
05:41 GH: Sure. Well it is very directly related to this mission of maintenance, it’s why I’m glad to be with you today, Ryan. My experience is that almost any water utility can be operated at lower cost than it is today. If they adopt really smart forward-looking maintenance practices, essentially maintenance. I’ll give you an example. If a water main breaks or needs to be fixed in LA… I’m looking at the blue sky and the building behind you on the video here. The cheapest part of replacing a water main is the pipe because think of what it takes in a city like LA, DC, Boston, New York, almost any city to dig up a city street, it’s incredibly expensive to run a pipe to failure and that’s what we’ve been doing in across the country. And I’m not blaming anyone because, as I said, these assets, when they were put in the ground, lasts for a very long time. So, we took it out of our mind that they needed to be maintained. When do we know they need to be maintained? When they break and water spurts up through the ground like you see on the news, and then you fix it at enormous cost. And every utility is facing those costs nationwide.
06:56 GH: If you go in and you use new diagnostic techniques to evaluate the condition of that pipe and only repair those places that are at risk of failure ahead of time, you will save your utility 80% of the money you have to set aside for emergency response, 80%. That’s money in your pocket that you don’t have to spend and that’s based on proactive utility maintenance and management.
07:22 GH: Now, what Moonshot does is the Moonshot that DC Water was transforming itself into a customer-oriented, doing a lot of innovative projects, thinking this way about the utility sector ’cause it was not common practice. And Moonshot is an organization designed to help communities that have lower resources, DC, LA, Boston. There’s a lot of cities that are growing and have an economic base but there’s thousands of communities in our fair land that don’t have that kind of economic base and some of the reasons they’re not doing the things that you and I would suggest is because they don’t have the resources at hand. They may be shrinking, they may have… From their industrial peak two decades ago, they may have lost population. There’s a lot of Rust Belt cities here in the East and Midwest that are in that category.
08:10 GH: And Moonshot is designed to provide help to those places, to help them identify and implement just these kinds of strategies that can improve… It’s a magical thing but it’s completely possible and probable with what we know in front of us which is we can deliver this service at a better level of performance and lower cost. That’s like magical. Better performance, lower cost. It can be done today. And I know your company is one of the ones that helps implement those strategies which is why I admire it and I’m glad to be on this program. That kind of ethic should sweep the country because then, the numbers that you always hear about how much it costs for infrastructure, they’re actually overblown. We can do this for less money if we’re smart about it and that’s what Moonshot is trying to help communities do all over the country.
09:05 RC: Amazing. George, from my understanding, it sounds like you’re very passionate about not just communication but also knowledge, knowledge that this problem exists. That’s what gets people mobilized to try to find solutions. I’m curious, what types of experiences made you such an amazing advocate for communication and knowledge sharing in the water industry?
09:30 GH: It’s a fascinating story. I started it, I was on… Reeling back in time, I ran the Environmental Agency for Washington DC that regulated DC Water. So, I was the regulator of the utility and I must say, back then, I didn’t really like them. It was sort of the old fashion view of utility. By the way, very good people but there was a lot of utilities that did not communicate with their customers. They felt it was a good day if they were not in the news ’cause the only reason you’d be in the news is if there was a water main break or a sewer back up, or some terrible thing like that. So, if there’s no news about us, that’s good news. And if our customers don’t know what is happening because the water is coming through safe and sound, that’s good news too.
10:16 GH: In my reaction, I came into the job in 2009 and we faced billions of dollars of infrastructure need. And when we looked at our customers and they would be, “Why would we wanna pay more for that?” And my reaction is, “If someone called you on the phone and asked you if you wanted to pay more money for your daily coffee or your hamburger that you were gonna have, your… What do they call it? The wonder burgers or whatever they are, your answer would be no. Why would you say that you wanna pay more for something unless you know a value proposition that matters to you?”
10:52 GH: So, to me, the entire viability of our ability to improve the water services in Washington DC depended on our customers’ understanding the value proposition for what we were doing, why it mattered to them. And now here’s where it gets back to maintenance ’cause I’m always gonna come back to this question of maintenance and operations. I get over 55 rate hearings in Washington, DC. We got every rate increase that we asked for but I felt there was two things I had to prove to our rate payers in every rate hearing that I did myself.
11:23 GH: So I’m the head of the agency, I come to your neighborhood, and I stand in front of you and have to explain what’s going on with our budget. The first thing I have to prove, and this is all about maintenance and proactive, and preventative, is that the money we are spending today is being spent more efficiently than it was last year. We are using your money smarter and I can prove it. We are now replacing water mains rather than having them burst. How long does it take us to ever fix a fire hydrant? Whatever the measures are, I need to prove to a rate payer that their money is being better used this year than last year ’cause you shouldn’t send me more money unless I can prove to you that the money I’ve already got is working more efficiently than it used to be. That’s Proof One.
12:13 GH: Then Proof Two is, “And by the way, I need more money because I’ve got these five projects that I want to do to improve your life here in Washington, DC, and here’s what they are. And if you don’t think they’re good projects, don’t fund us. But if I can prove to you that they are good projects, and that they do matter to you, and that you do want these in your city, the two work together. I have to be able to prove we’re becoming more efficient… That’s all about good maintenance… And being proactive and preventative in solving the problem that was going to flood your basement before it ever happens, saving you so much time and grief, saving us so much operational money. You need to hear that and know that it’s true.” That opens the door for me to present the case of what other investments are needed. And that is… And needing to do that transformed the way DC Water interacted with our customers because we had to make a relationship with our customers like they had a choice.
13:07 RC: That’s huge, George. And it also sounds like such a classic maintenance and reliability problem; like, “Hey, we have to invest in the today in order to set us up for long-term success in the future.” That’s a very, very classic maintenance reliability problem that a lot of our listeners are facing on a day-to-day basis. Like, “How can we get upper management to support us today, knowing that it’s not gonna make and impact today; it’s gonna have an impact over the next five, ten, years.” So I guess the question here, George, is; any tips, advice, for our listeners to gain that support like you did from all of your supporters?
13:48 GH: Sure. Well, I gotta tell you, I failed before I succeeded. We had a significant asset management program at DC Water, and we failed twice at it until we got it right. And that’s part of this is, you do learn a lot as you go along, and we’re not perfect, and being willing to try things is what was a key part of our success. The first time we did asset management and that kind of enhanced maintenance program, we failed because I didn’t know enough about it. I think your leadership does have to have a sense of what’s this all about, and I didn’t really understand what was going on, and so I couldn’t direct it; I didn’t know what to do in order to make it succeed. The second time we did it we relied too much on a very large consulting firm that did a lot of reports but didn’t devolve down to our staff. The third time, we succeeded because it came from both sides; it was built on the knowledge and experience of our operators, and it had the support and engagement from the top. And I guess your question is, how do you gain that? I think for us, what caught my attention ultimately and drove me to keep trying until we finally did succeed, was the sense of financial return. Someone in the upper echelon… It’s not better or worse, by the way, but in the management…
15:09 GH: I had to respond and answer to rate payers and the mayor and council members and the ANC commissioners. I’m sure you have all sorts of overlays like that in city of the scale of Los Angeles, or any of your customers across the country; and the pressures that we feel are financial. Can we afford? What can we afford? And maintenance is one of the largest components of an operating budget that’s driving your rates year after year after year. And frequently, and appropriately, maintenance proposals are presented as how they improve operations, and they should. But at least in my experience, as you go up in the organization… And again, I don’t mean better or worse, just up the hierarchy of an organization. Making sure you have a very clear statement of the financial consequence and the benefit it gains. If you can save me 20% on what I’m currently spending in the Year Two, that’s like if I got a 20% rate increase without needing to go to my rate payers. And what can I do with that kind of financial flexibility to invest in green infrastructure, or clean energy, or bio-solids, or biogas. All these things become topical when I gain some financial flexibility on existing expenditures, and what maintenance improved and proactive maintenance and asset management programs does is it gives you flexibility on existing expenditures. Not new rates; this is your existing revenue.
16:37 RC: What makes you the most excited about the future of water?
16:41 GH: I’ll tell you what makes me the most excited and it’s the… Ironically it’s the reverse of what you usually hear. So if you hear or read any story in the LA Times or the Washington Post or any of the other media outlets about the cost of infrastructure renewal, you hear these outrageously huge numbers that nobody knows and no one expects we’ll ever raise; hundreds of billions of dollars, even a trillion dollars over the next 25 years. And to me, that’s when you throw up your hands… If you didn’t know otherwise, you throw up your hands in despair and say, “We’re doomed. We’re absolutely doomed; we can’t do this.” The reason that I’m excited about the future of water infrastructure and water delivery is I absolutely believe the tools exist today that can deliver the services that people of this country and across the world rely on us for at lower costs on operating and capital; that the numbers are wrong. We can deliver improvements at a fraction of the cost if these new techniques are adopted. And the analogy that I use, by the way, it goes all the way back to the first urban, International Urban Planning Conference ever held was in 1897 in New York City, and it was planned for 10 days. And it disbanded in despair after 3, because the assembled experts in LA, New York, Paris, Tokyo, London, all these huge cities that sent representatives, could not solve the biggest problem of the day in 1897. You know what that was? Can you guess what that was?
18:22 RC: I don’t.
18:22 GH: I couldn’t either by the way. Don’t feel bad, I couldn’t be there. It was horse manure.
18:28 RC: What?
18:28 GH: Everything in every city was delivered and pulled by horses and in New York City, 2.5 million pounds of horse manure were deposited on city streets every single day and there was probably like snow. That’s why there’s stoops in New York City was to get people up and out of the horse manure. And no one could figure out a solution. We need horses to move things, we need horses for transport and when a horse dies, we need other horses to come in and pull all the horse carcass out, it was just a disaster. 20 years later, it was solved because of the combustion engine and there is new technologies changed the equation and I think that’s where we are with water technology. All the lamenting and the despair is because the trillion dollars and the hundreds of billions is looking backwards.
19:14 RC: Yeah.
19:15 GH: Doing what we’ve done with water using techniques that were great in their day. No criticism of what our forebears did, but that was their day. When today your company, so many companies offer these solutions that will offer you do the same work in a fraction of the cost and we can start delivering if we can use water more carefully, we can conserve water better, all maintenance allows the less water to be leaked into the ground. That’s precious drinking water leaking into the ground, maintenance can solve that. We can solve scarcity, we can help solve flooding, we can reduce cost, and that’s what’s possible today and that is something to be fired up about.
19:52 RC: That’s awesome, I’m excited too George. [chuckle] Working in this field can often feel thankless. What’s something you wish more people knew about the utility sector, and why does it matter so much right now?
20:05 GH: What’s interesting is that people who do… Yes, it is often thankless and mainly it’s thankless ’cause people don’t know and I don’t blame them, but if you don’t know what someone does, why would you be impressed with it? But what’s very interesting in the water sector is how long people stay. Most people who work in the utility world work for decades. It’s because to ourselves, we understand the value of the work. There is not a single business and not a single job in Los Angeles or in Washington DC or any other city in this country that could be viable without water services. It’s just every job requires water in one fashion or another. And water is the only substance that is fundamental to every life form. So when NASA’S looking for life in the universe, where they look for first it’s water.
20:56 GH: And when you’re in the utility world, you get to work on delivering a substance that supports every single job, and every single life form in the place where you exist which is everywhere. That is something to be incredibly proud of doing, and getting fired up about. And I wish more people and more people are getting to know what that takes and what a fantastic career it is, how fundamentally important and interesting it is. Now there’s [21:23] ____ and putting solar over its facilities and doing green infrastructure on city streets, and there’s just so much opportunity for new talent to come into the water world and really engage. And your company and you are exactly is the idea, young, bright, thoughtful ideas, helping us do the problems that we have faced for decades in a way that I call better, faster, cheaper and better faster cheaper is something that’s great for everyone and we can do that. And when you do it with something like water, which is so fundamental to life, then you can really get fired up.
21:58 RC: I love it George. It sounds like the utility sector is filled with incredibly mission-driven folks like yourself. Any resources that you’d point our listeners to? Where do you still find yourself going to to learn more about the industry and push yourself to get better and go for new ideas?
22:18 GH: That’s a great question, and where I typically… In the water field, this is the one that I know the best, there is a fair number of very good associations and it supports water utilities, the American Water Works association or AWWA, the water environment federation. Those really help on the technical and operational side, and there’s an organization called NACWA, which’s the National Association of Clean Water Agencies which helps more on legal and governance questions. The US Water Alliance is probably the best broad-based water organization. It’s trying to connect and make the connections between water and so many sectors of the society. I seek out those organizations and then get myself not all the time. Obviously, we all have work to do, but I make myself go to conferences, and when I’m at the conferences, I’m serious about it. Some folks are like, I’m not pointing a finger at anyone but there are people I know they go to conferences and so they think of them as an extended vacation. But to me, Conferences is where some of the best people in the world are presenting their best outlets ’cause everyone wants to impress everybody else.
23:29 GH: So if you go to those programs and listen, you’re gonna hear the best of the best from all around the country or all around the world about what’s going on out there, and that’s what I try to do on a regular basis. I take two or three Conferences a year and I take it like school. I’m not going there for the fun of it, I’m going there, I’m gonna go to these, I’m gonna take notes, I’m gonna hear from the best of the best and keep myself abreast of what’s out there and it’s been incredibly valuable to me. My staff always was worried ’cause I’d come back and say, “Oh I wanna do this and I wanna do that.” They’re like, “No more we’re doing too much already,” but I do always wanna keep up to date. The world is changing fast. There’s all sorts of smart folks like you inventing all these new techniques and practices and I wanna keep up on them. So I know what they are and I can implement them to the benefit of our customers and in this case our clients from Moonshot and help the good of the order. So that’s what I try to do.
24:20 RC: Amazing, thank you, George. And can you share with all of our listeners the different ways that they could connect with you and follow you along your journey in watering utilities.
24:20 GH: Thank you for asking that question. I do have a pretty active Twitter account @georgeHawkinsDC. I’m pretty active on LinkedIn. So those are the two best places. I have a blog page, which at the moment is having some problems. But georgehawkins.net, and shortly there will be a website at moonshotmissions.org that is in development, but I would say I’m probably most active on LinkedIn, and Twitter, and the websites coming and I’d love to be connected with any of your listeners or any of your customers. I like… Hopefully someone will be interested in what I’m doing and I’m always fascinated to see what else is going on out there, so I’d love to connect.
24:20 RC: Awesome, thank you again George and thank you for joining us, thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to today’s masterminds and maintenance. My name is Ryan Chan, I’m the CEO and founder of Upkeep. You can also connect with me, I’m very active on LinkedIn, or directly at [email protected] until next time, thanks again George.
25:27 GH: Thank you Ryan, have a great one.