Image of the Liverpool Cathedral

Dr John Roberts CBE

Oration

Presented by: Professor Frank Sanderson

John Roberts, Chief Executive of United Utilities, was born in Wallasey in 1946. 

His father, a joiner at Birkenhead Docks, and his mother were Welsh, leaving John with a strong affinity with the land of his forebears. 

He attended Oldenshaw Grammar School in Wallasey  and left School after A Levels to work for ManWeb. 

ManWeb provided him with a scholarship to study Electrical Engineering and Electronics at the University of Liverpool. In 1967, he graduated with a First Class Honours degree and went back to Manweb as a graduate trainee and stayed for the next 28 years, rising through the ranks of the company with sustained energy and commitment.

After a brief period as an engineer, he realised how powerful the company accountants were, and so he decided to become an accountant, gaining his qualifications as a Certified Accountant the hard way - through a correspondence course.

By 1984, he was Chief Accountant and by 1989, Finance Director. In 1991, he became Managing Director and in the following year, Chief Executive.

Three years later, Scottish Power's successful takeover bid for Manweb inevitably resulted in his departure from the company. There followed a short period of unemployment before he established a consultancy business and gained contracts with the likes of ICL and IBM. But it was not long before he was back in the utilities business, first joining Hyder plc, initially as Chief Executive of South Wales Electricity, and then as Chief Executive of Hyder Utilities in 1997.

Two years later, he was appointed Chief Executive of United Utilities plc. United Utilities is a FTSE100 company with global interests involving water services, electricity distribution, telecoms, call centres and renewable energy generation.

It is not difficult to see why John Roberts has been so successful in the business world. Not only does he have the technical competencies to operate at the highest levels, but he also has the necessary leadership qualities and personal values to inspire confidence and trust in those answerable to him. He also appears to have what might be described as a practical approach to decision-making; for example, he is a keen rugby supporter, and when asked recently, as someone who was English born but of recent Welsh ancestry, whether he supported the English or Welsh rugby team, he replied, "It depends who's winning at half time!" 

Perhaps he should have been a politician…

John is also a supporter of Lancashire County Cricket and, subject to his many other commitments, attends matches at what he describes as "the real Old Trafford".

But he's not only a sports fan - he loves gardening, walking, listening to opera, and, interestingly, swimming and scuba diving. In fact it's rumoured that he took up these water sports to enhance his credibility in the Water Industry… perhaps another example of his practical approach to business.

Not surprisingly, John's excellence in his field has led to many honours and appointments:

  • In the Queen's Birthday Honours List this year, he was awarded a CBE for his services to the utilities industry
  • He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering
  • A Fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers 
  • A Fellow of the Chartered Association of Certified and Corporate Accountants, and 
  • A Companion of the Chartered Management Institute 
  • He is a Non-Executive Director of Volex plc 
  • Chair of the Manchester Investment and Development Agency Services
  • Chair of the North West Energy Council 
  • He is a past President of the Electricity Association
  • Former Chairman of Electricity Pension Trustees Ltd
  • A Member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in the late 1990s

Earlier this year, he became Chair of the influential North West Business Leadership Team, a 'think tank' of the region's most senior business leaders. He sees graduate retention as a key issue for the Leadership Team, noting that the region is a net exporter of 21 year-olds. Accordingly, one of his top priorities is to work closely with the region's universities to ensure that more bright young graduates stay here rather than take their talents elsewhere.

John Roberts, who today lives with his wife Pam in Frodsham Cheshire - only a few miles from where he was born - is passionate about the Northwest. He said recently, "It is a great place to live and work but I still don't feel it punches its weight."

There's clearly a lot to be done but with the benefit of John's commitment and leadership over the next few years, it is safe to assume that the Northwest will be much closer to punching its weight and taking its place as the UK's premier region.

Thus I have pleasure in presenting John Roberts, CBE, Chief Executive of United Utilities plc and distinguished son of this region, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of this University.