Then & Now: Utilities director finds his passion in public service

by Paul Gatling (pgatling@nwabj.com) 163 views 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story appeared in the June 26 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s  Forty Under 40 class.

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A little over four years ago, Heath Ward took to a significant career change like a duck to water.

Or, in his case, a chicken to water.

In April 2013, the Springdale Water and Sewer Commission chose Ward to be the new executive director of Springdale Water Utilities. He replaced Rene Langston, who’d been head of the utility for more than three decades before retiring in November 2012.

Before joining the utility, Ward, 48, spent the previous 17 years working in the poultry industry. He graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1991, then joined the U.S. Army. When his service ended five years later, Tyson Foods hired him as a maintenance supervisor for its plant in Sedalia, Mo. He returned to Northwest Arkansas in 1998 as a preventive maintenance manager for Cargill in Springdale.

Eight years later, he was recognized by the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal as a member of the 2006 Forty Under 40 class. At the time, he was responsible for management and oversight of further processing and retail packaging operations. He was promoted to plant operations manager in 2008 and complex engineer and maintenance manager in 2012, responsible for oversight of major capital projects and maintenance operations.

He said he first became intrigued with furthering his public service while a member of Leadership Springdale X, graduating in 2005.

“We were exposed to a lot of different things and how things happen with public entities,” Ward said. “I got fascinated with planning and how things happen and how they are made to happen.”

At the time he lived in Benton County, and when an opening came up on the Benton County Planning Board, he pursued the opportunity.

When the job at the utility came open, he was encouraged by others to pursue it because of his strong management skills, and the opportunity to work in public service on a greater scale.

“I was managing a plant with 900 employees and more than 35 salaried managers, using 40 million gallons of water a month,” he said. “I understood the value of water to this community. Working in industry was meaningful, but this has a little bit different feel to it. To me, it’s a bigger picture. The water and wastewater business is a very noble business.”

As executive director, Ward oversees the day-to-day operation of a utility that purchases roughly half a billion gallons of water a month from Beaver Water District, and serves about 100,000 people.

“We serve parts of Johnson and Lowell, do bulk wholesale to Tontitown and also serve Bethel Heights and Elm Springs,” Ward said.

The utility has 110 employees and roughly $50 million in capital projects that are either in planning or in progress. Those things, of course, take up most of Ward’s time, but in the back of his mind there’s always one overriding thought.

“Our No. 1 concern is public health and safety,” he said. “We have great people and there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”

Ward said his philosophy at Cargill was continuous improvement, and the same is true at the utility. He said he’s most proud of the fact that during the past four years, the department has modernized data collection to help drive business decisions.

“When I started, we were still using paper maps in the [utility] trucks,” he said. “We are all digital now, we have laptops in the field and we can now take that intelligence we gather and apply it to our master plan. We’re using the data to plan better and spend money wiser.”

Ward also noted that going digital has helped the utility serve more gallons per employee than any of the region’s largest cities.

“And we have the lowest rates and we have no debt,” he said.

Ward and his wife Natalya have three children ages 12, 9 and 4. When they aren’t spending time together, Ward indulges in pheasant hunting, highlighted by an annual trip to North Dakota with some of his military buddies.

“I don’t get to [hunt] often, so that is my once-a-year pleasure,” he said. “We’ve been going there for more than a decade, and it’s a great reunion.”

Ward is also a leader in several civic groups and industry organizations, including Springdale Rotary Club, the Arkansas Water/Wastewater Managers Association and American Water Works Association Southwest Section.

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