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Aquarion CEO grows business

These days, Aquarion Water Co. Chief Executive Official Charles Firlotte is doing more with less.

Deanna Holgerson, Editor

July 29, 2004

Firlotte, an Easton resident, will have been on the job as CEO for a year this fall. Like many companies, Aquarion is charged with accomplishing more and performing better with fewer resources.

"Operating efficiency means keeping the prices down for our customers," said Firlotte, who's in the process of making changes in how the company runs its business.

These changes include improving computers and water treatment technology that Aquarion uses now to ensure better water quality and continuous improve­ment through­out the plant.

Aquarion, owned by Kelda Group of Yorkshire, England, is the top taxpayer in Easton and owns much of the watershed property in town. The company's real estate assessment was $27.74 million in 2003.

Since the company is investor-owned, Firlotte said he must look to grow the company and its returns as well. "Aquarion isn't expanding into other industries and utilities, which is where many companies make mistakes," Firlotte said. "We're sticking to the water supply and treatment business."

Unlike Connecticut, municipalities own and operate their water supply and treatment plants in many other parts of the United States. It's this market that Firlotte is trying to move Aquarion into.

"What we have to do is convince municipalities that we can run their water supply and treatment operations more effectively and better than they can," Firlotte said.

Aquarion recently began running Bridgeport's sewer system, an example of the efforts Firlotte has made to expand the company's business.

"Wastewater is another side of the water business that Aquarion is moving toward," Firlotte said. "The municipality still owns its assets and plants. Aquarion is only contracting to run it."

He said operating efficiency at the Easton Water Treatment Plant on Buck Hill Road is always a top priority.

Commissioned in 1996, the Easton water treatment plant isn't a pick-and-shovel operation but a highly automated treatment plant. Although many water tests are still done by hand, others are not.

The days of a water plant operator being "on watch" for 24 hours in case of an emergency are gone. Instead, the operators of the Easton Water Treatment Plant can access the plant's computer system via a laptop, if necessary, and turn on and shut off various plant operations.

Other Aquarion water plants are accessible to the plant operators at the Easton facility at the touch of a computer screen.

"This kind of technology is excellent for the business," Firlotte said. "It keeps costs down and results in better efficiency all-around."

Firlotte moved back to the United States with his family last year to take the helm at Aquarion after a four-year stint with the Kelda Group in England.

Being a businessman was not Firlotte's first line of work. After earning a Master's Degree in criminology, he worked for three years as a parole officer in Canada.

"I thought I'd enjoy that work, but I didn't," Firlotte said. "I decided to change my career and went back to business school."

Eventually he landed a job as a human resources director with Aquarion in 1987. Since then he has been a customer operations manager and chief of financial operations. In 2000 the company asked him to move his family to England to manage a Kelda Group water treatment facility with 3,000 employees.

Aquarion is the 10th largest investor-owner water supply company in the United States, supplying water to 80 percent of Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York. The company supplies water to about 50 to 60 municipalities.

Aquarion owns property in several towns, including Easton Lake, Trap Falls in Shelton and the Warner Treatment Plant in Fairfield. The company has wells in Westport and Litchfield Counties. Its customer service call center is in Monroe.

Firlotte said making the company more accessible to the public is another important aspect of expansion.

"We still allow fishermen to fish and hikers to hike the water company's 40 miles of trails on its Easton property," Firlotte said, "and we also participate in Earth Day."

Aquarion employees are encouraged to become involved in community organizations, such as local Chambers of Commerce and Rotary Clubs, Firlotte said.

The company invites students to visit the water plant in Easton to see how it works and participate in science experiments. The company offers similar programs to high school students, but the most popular ones are geared toward elementary-school children.

"These programs for children are tremendously effective," Firlotte said. "Not only is it good for public relations, but children leave here with the idea of how important conservation is, not just for our business but for the environment as well.

"Our customers want effective service at a reasonable price, which is something we're committed to. We're also committed to be stewards of the land and protect our product," he said.