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WATER-LINK

Value in the Pipeline

water-link is close to completing its evolution from commodity supplier to service provider, as the Flanders based entity looks to diversify its water operations, its client demographic and its technological solutions

Writer: Matthew Staff

Project Manager: Richard Thomas

Despite a history that can be traced back to 1881, it is very much the future that formulates water-link’s philosophy, outlook and operations, as Flanders’ primary producer of drinking water strives to stay ahead of the industry curve.

Servicing both the Port of Antwerp and indeed the rest of Belgium, its overriding reputation and focus revolves around the former in being the sole drinking water provider in the city and its surrounding region. And while more than 100 years of evolution is important to the company you see today, the change of name to water-link in the early 2000s has laid a more recent platform for a forward-thinking entity to thrive amid fluctuating conditions.

Diversification has been more of a necessity than a wish, as the Company looks to spread its business risk and apply its industry knowledge on a broader scale.

“Today the Company’s activities are divided into three markets: the delivery of drinking water to the public, the delivery of drinking water to other Flemish water companies, and the delivery of products and services to the industrial market,” introduces Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Franky Cosaert. “In the residential market we provide drinking water to both residential and professional clients but this initial core activity shows a trend of water consumption going down, even taking into account the population increase.

“Further, prices have risen strongly since 2008 due to the introduction of a uniform rate for drinking water, sewage services and wastewater treatment which is based on the ‘polluter-pays’ principle.”

A recent Flemish Government decree has subsequently ensured that a new ‘comfort rate’ will bring about uniformity but at an even higher rate, with the business now concerned about further market declines and heavy burdens on fixed costs ahead.

Franky Cosaert continues: “Water-link is in a challenging process of building renewed partnerships with the other three big water companies in Flanders that are now clients for the delivery of drinking water, including a new sewage service being operated in partnership with Aquafin. “These partnerships combine our infrastructure for production and transport and result in new, long-term agreements for the delivery of drinking water and shared infrastructure. 

“As of 2019, water-link shall be responsible for producing and transporting more than 40 percent of Flanders’ drinking water.”

Operational excellence

The Port of Antwerp has been an indispensible facilitator of world trade throughout history, and still today can boast the second largest concentration of chemical industry in the world. As such, water-link has once again showcased its ability to be flexible to industry climates and budding opportunities, by becoming the supplier of process water and demineralised water for industrial customers and partners.

Demonstrating turnkey services to take the pressure off clients, the Company’s eight local production sites and 26 kilometres of demineralised water pipelines - complemented by an ever-growing treatment plant capacity - epitomises water-link’s approach to project astuteness in all dedicated areas.

“Last year we took a new drinking water production plant into service in our Production Centre South, in Rumst to meet the growing demands  of the other water companies,  Farys and De Watergroep,” Franky Cosaert offers as a further example. “This fully automated unit with a capacity of 150,000 cubic metres a day is one of the biggest in Benelux at a cost of €40 million. The project is now the example of operational excellence we want to introduce across the other three production lines.”

A similarly pertinent project has seen the business deploy smart metering across a pilot 1,000 customers initially; bringing water-link, its loyal clients, and indeed the region as a whole into the digital era.

Franky Cosaert adds: “We are now finalising the evaluation of the pilot and will be rolling it out to all our customers in the next three years, making water-link one of the first companies in the world with a full digital water metering service.”

Smart solutions

Remaining entrepreneurial and flexible enough to not only foresee trends, but to quickly enact processes and structures in order to negotiate them, is a trait that has served water-link well over the years, and especially in recent times.

Franky Cosaert openly admits that the Company is vulnerable to changes in water consumption, especially in the residential segment, but by adding an industrial string to the company bow, business risk has been spread, and its positive reputation has expanded.

“These trends have driven us to become the service provider for the industry and in starting the new activity of sewage services for the municipalities as well,” the CEO notes. “We notice that our clients are searching for smart solutions to make their lives easier and to reduce their costs, and we are therefore able to leverage solutions from one area of our business, to these new ones.”

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a prime example to this end, initially working in the industrial arena, but now also allowing residential customers to become smarter.

“We also notice the desire to introduce circular water use as a way of coping with environmental stress and to reduce the water footprint,” Franky Cosaert adds.

To stay at the forefront of such enhancements, the CEO attributes three core strategic pillars which help to foster an internal framework that can offset all prospective challenges.

The first revolves around continuous innovation, as epitomised by the aforementioned digital water meters and adoption of concepts like IoT and circular treatment. The second then takes into account “smart partnerships” as seen through the recent partnership with Aquafin on the sewage side, and also with Pidpa, to cement both companies’ market-leading positions in the province of Antwerp.

The final pillar may be the most significant though, as Franky Cosaert details: “It’s all about building a team for the future, as none of the above mentioned goals can be reached without the full support of our personnel.

“So we are putting in place a new HR approach which places a lot of emphasis on personal growth and training, supported by a coaching style of leadership.”

A proven track record

Not only is each member of staff trained to best-in-class standards but an additional advantage comes from the sense of pride and loyalty that emanates from a workforce that derives mostly from the local area.

Interventions that help the wider community and save customers from the local region both money and time are objectives embedded into the motives of each employee, making water-link an extremely attractive, locally-enriching, employer.

Internal refinements are also evident on an ongoing basis from an investment perspective, as the Company makes sure that it keeps up with its own growth and the needs of the region.

“For the industry in Antwerp were are in the process of enhancing our capacity of delivering demineralised water to the chemical cluster on the right river bank, doubling it by the end of this year,” Franky Cosaert says. “We continue to deliver to our clients excellent water quality, compliant with the requirements of the newest generation of cogen installations.

“In Ghent the cluster is also in the process of upgrading to meet clients’ requirements. We are staying true to our commitment of delivering what we have promised via the careful selection of market-leading technological solutions with a proven track record of performance and sustainability.”

All new inceptions’ integration into the business are aided by a round-the-clock, manned control centre in Rumst, and this is recently being developed into an “intelligent control centre” where all dispatch and planning activities will be concentrated; once again leveraging leading technologies through the use of remote sensoring and predictive modelling across drinking water networks and sewage systems.

“This will allow us to evolve from a curative to a preventive approach of our asset management, and highlight our unique awareness of how to create value for our stakeholders in the market,” Franky Cosaert concludes in alluding to water-link’s ultimate differentiators. “We can leverage our historically solid reputation in the market as a trustworthy and reliable supplier, while making the switch to being more than just a commodity supplier; rather a provider of services, innovations and smart partnerships.

“We are inspired by the expectations of our clients, are not afraid to invest in new approaches, and now have the ambition to be the water company in Flanders that everyone wants to be part of.

“We have a dream to convince people to use the real force of water and we will do this by being the difference between the reality of today and the potential of the future.”