Local Government Magazine

New Watercare chief – from air force to water

Watercare’s new CEO Jon Lamonte was so new to his role that when Mary Searle Bell spoke to him, he was still isolating in quarantine having just arrived from Australia.
Jon officially began work at the Auckland Council water entity on April 6, [2021) doing what he could by phone and Zoom from his hotel room.

Although new to the three water’s industry, he has built a career in operational management and spent the past few years at Sydney Metro where he was responsible for Australia’s first fully automated metro rail network and was in charge of the procurement, construction and delivery of the project. The first line opened in 2019 with a further line due to open in 2024, and two more beyond that.

It’s the connection to the public that made his job so enjoyable at Sydney Metro, and part of the attraction to his new role at Watercare. “When that first driverless metro opened in Sydney, 140,000 people came out to celebrate. I just sat on the train and listened to their excitement. That was a key moment in my career.”

Jon’s career began when he joined the Royal Air Force as a teenager. “As a kid at school, all I wanted to do was fly aeroplanes. I was a bookworm and would always be reading about planes.” As it turned out, about a year after learning to fly, he switched seats to become a navigator.

In his 32 years with the air force, he flew operationally and saw action in the Falklands, Yugoslavia and Iraq, before moving on to a logistics and procurement role with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD). Starting as a planner, he ended up as the director general of finance for defence equipment and support, which had him buying the likes of aircraft carriers, tanks and submarines as part of the organisation’s £17 billion a year procurement and logistics organisation.

“At the time, our purchasing was under scrutiny. It was a challenging time.”

For a number of years, Jon ran the largest airbase in the UK, Brize Norton, run by over 4500 people and features three fleets of transport and air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

“I was there for the repatriation of the first war dead from Iraq. There were 55 families there and I met them all. Dealing with this magnitude of bereavement affected me a lot, and really highlighted to me the importance of safety.”

His final role with the MOD was as chief of staff, strategy, policy and plans, which included co-leading the strategic defence and security review into the UK’s maritime programme.

In 2011, he made the move away from the military and into civil service, taking the role of CEO of Tube Lines – part of Transport for London. Tube Lines is responsible for the maintenance, renewal and upgrade of the underground infrastructure on the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines. Jon’s tenure covered the critical period of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Sticking with transport, his next move was to Greater Manchester. Here, he covered rail, bus, tram, highways, cycling and other forms of active transport.

“Then I got a call saying, ‘How do you fancy going for this job in Australia?’. I thought, if not now, when?

Success relies on every element of the council working together for the good of the people.
A strong customer focus is important.

“The Sydney Metro role was a great opportunity, and Australia has great weather. I had no real ties in the UK, besides my mother in London, and we keep in close touch by phone, so I went for it.

“Interestingly, although the language is the same, the culture is very different. Sydney was a great place to be – I found lots of people with a similar outlook to mine. We just wanted to get things done.

“I took time when I arrived to get to know the culture – particularly the aboriginal culture – something I’d not been exposed to before. I knew that taking a respectful and understanding approach to a new environment is the best.”

Jon says he was perfectly happy running Sydney Metro when a head hunter called him out of the blue about the CEO vacancy at Watercare that was left by the resignation of …, who had been in the role for … Years.

“I just had to look into it.

“It had everything I love in a job. A direct relationship with the customer; a number of exciting capital projects; an important relationship with the Auckland Council to maintain; and sector reform, which will provide stimulating challenges.

“And it’s New Zealand – who wouldn’t want to come here?”

Jon says he has experience of having worked in council-controlled organisations, with Greater Manchester being a similar set-up to Watercare.

“Success relies on every element of the council working together for the good of the people. A strong customer focus is important.

“There’s something about working with the customer to find out what they really want and need that I particularly enjoy.”

Jon believes he has the necessary skills and experience to lead Watercare going forward from what has been a tumultuous year for the service, after supply problems last year due to intense city infill, large scale commercial projects, and a mispredicted drought in the area of its dam reservoirs.

“I have had success in project delivery – the Sydney Metro project was the largest of its kind in Australia and we got it across the line safely, on time and on budget – and plenty of overall experience in leading a large organisation. Hopefully, I can bring a bit of fun too.

“I’ve spent many years working with shareholders and have the skills to influence and negotiate. My leadership style is collaborative. There’s a lot of experience in Watercare. I plan to bring the experts together and then give them the freedom to get on with it.

“I know how important it is to listen – I don’t jump too quickly to conclusions or take the first solution offered. Instead, I like to listen and learn. To be respectful.” LG

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