Interview: Business Stream chief executive Jo Dow

ANY chief executive would be thrilled by the prospect of a hugely lucrative new market emerging on their doorstep, and Jo Dow is no exception. But the road to this happy hunting ground has also proven a two-way street as rivals have been roused into protecting their territory.

Busniess Stream's chief executive Jo Dow. Picture: Contributed
Busniess Stream's chief executive Jo Dow. Picture: Contributed

The incumbent in Scotland, Business Stream – the commercial arm of Scottish Water – has vied for custom on its home turf since 2008, when the market for supplying water to businesses was opened up to competition. This didn’t amount to much in the early years, with few rivals mounting any serious contention.

That has now changed, says Dow, who has been with Business Stream since its inception in 2007 and took over as chief executive last year.

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“In the last 12 to 18 months we have seen a huge spike in activity,” she says. “It started as it became clear that the non-domestic market in England will be fully opened up – it seems companies down there are looking to cut their teeth in the competitive environment in Scotland.”

Thames Water Commercial Services is just one example, having announced in April intentions to double its Scottish customer base from 130 businesses operating across 600 sites.

The shift has chipped away at Business Stream’s home market share, which in early 2013 – five full years after competition was introduced – still stood at more than 90 per cent. Dow says it now hovers at a bit more than 75 per cent, which is certainly still a dominant position, but illustrates the growing rivalry within the sector.

It also highlights the tricky conundrum faced by Dow and her team at Business Stream’s HQ in Edinburgh.

While keen to defend key markets in Scotland, new opportunities loom south of the Border, where non-domestic water supply will become fully competitive in April 2017. The market is about eight times the size of that in Scotland, which is compelling motivation to go on the attack.

“We have gone from a situation where we have been defending our patch to now going out and winning new customers in England, and that is a big shift for our business,” Dow says.

“It is difficult because you could fall one of two ways. We could go into the camp of saying we have got to do everything we can to defend our core customer base, or at the other extreme we could be totally lured by this great big new market out there. The trick is to get the balance right.”

Fortunately, some tactics apply on both sides. Like the major energy providers who have come under fire for soaring charges, one of Business Stream’s key platforms rests on helping customers reduce consumption, and therefore cut down on their bills.

Though businesses spend ten times more on electricity than water, this has proven a successful approach. Dow says there is “a clear link” between using less water and using less energy, as the cost of moving water around a system comes down to the price of the electricity running the pumps. In this way, Business Stream says it has saved “millions” for Scottish customers such as Glasgow City Council.

“It helped them tick their environmental box as well, because they were able to say they have reduced their carbon footprint,” she adds.

Similarly, Business Stream signed a deal earlier this year with House of Fraser which includes the installation of automated meter readers (AMRs) across ten stores in the retailer’s English estate. It followed successful trials at House of Fraser stores in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where the AMRs take readings every 15 minutes to quickly identify spikes in usage that could be down to underlying problems such as leaks.

Comparable agreements with other clients south of the Border are “in the pipeline”. Looking further ahead, Dow will draw on her background prior to joining Scottish Water in 2002 to tackle these new opportunities.

Raised in Shetland, she left at the age of 17 to become a trainee accountant in Perth with Turnbull Kemp. She achieved chartered accountancy at the age of 21, then went on to join Henderson Loggie in Dundee as an audit manager.

Dow joined what was then Scottish & Southern Energy in 1998, just as that business was being forged from the merger of Southern Electric and Scottish Hydro Electric. She would go on to hold a range of roles in SSE’s telecoms, transmission and distribution businesses, all during the early days of competition in the UK electricity market.

“I was used to competition, and used to that threat of losing customers,” Dow says. “That was unique coming into Scottish Water, which until then had always been a monopoly provider.”

About half of her working hours these days are spent helping to shape the new non-domestic market in England, where Dow has continuing concerns on key issues such as the separation of retail and wholesale operations, the level of profit margins allowed by regulators and the structure of the existing market.

On the latter, she points out that while Scotland has one wholesale provider, England has 18. Different levels of charges and service standards across these 18 regions will make it difficult for a retail supplier to properly serve business customers with outlets spanning the whole of England.

“All we can do is continue to raise our concerns,” Dow says. “For me, it is not that we have to have a carbon copy of the Scottish market, but what is essential is that we have an effective market.”


Job: Chief executive, Business Stream

Born: Shetland, 1974

First job: Trainee accountant, Turnbull Kemp, Perth

Ambition while at school: I didn’t have a real end‑game in mind, but to be honest, I never thought I would go into business.

Car: We have two – a BMW and Audi – so it depends on which one has more fuel in it

Favourite mode of transport: Bike

Kindle or book? I just quite like the feel of a book. A Kindle has its place, but sometimes, like on holiday by the pool, a book is the only thing that feels right

Can’t live without: My family

Favourite place: New York – it is just a real buzzy kind of place

What makes you angry? Dishonesty, and people over-promising and under-delivering

Best thing about your job: Variety, without a doubt.