From army commander to leading Hydro charge to bring clean water to India
19 Aug 2015
According to the barrackroom ballad old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Rick Libbey is an old soldier who hasn't faded away but chosen to reinvent himself as the Indian representative of water purificationcompany, Hydro Industries. At the award-winning company's headquarters in Llangennech the former Commander 160 Wales Brigade talks about his association with his present employer and the circumstances that brought him there and eventually to India. When I headed the Prince's Trust Cymru I was asked by a Hydro director if the Prince of Wales might be interested in being involved in a project that was turning contaminated water into clean drinking water he said. In addition to this were the various capabilities Hydro was developing around separating contaminates from water to allow it to go back into the ground uncontaminated.
When the trust moved its office from the Llanelli Town Hall to Llangennech Business Park Mr Libbey was able to examine more closely the work Hydro, which was topped last year's Wales Fast Growth 50 project of the fastest growing indigenous firms on turnover, was doing. This, he recalls, involved experimenting with electric coagulation, a process where contaminated water is charged by releasing elements of the aluminium within an electrode. This reverses the charge around the contaminates within the water, causing them to coagulate. Then the water goes into a filter process and comes out the other end as clean drinking water. When the Prince of Wales opened Hydro's new office at Llangennech and saw what was being developed he expressed an interest having seen the potential offered in relation to his own estates. Having monitored the company's progress over the intervening years Mr Libby was invited by Hydro's directors to work on a project about to be launched in India. This was a joint venture which looked to locate purification units, that made clean drinking water at mobile telephone mast sites in that country, he explained. The idea was that the partner in this joint venture was going to provide sustainable energy to power these mast sites. In doing so they were looking for a third party at these sites to take up any surplus power they could produce for additional revenue and came across Hydro. So a joint feature was born with Hydro putting its Electro Coagulation 100 (EC 100) unit, that can produce 80,000 litres of clean drinking water a day, on mast sites around India. Following a briefing at Llangennech, where Mr Libbey became acquainted with the appalling statistic that 1.5 million children die every year in India due to disease related to the consumption of contaminated water, he accepted the post as director of operations, India. This would entail heading the joint venture project aimed at delivering clean, drinking water to all levels of society in the sub continent. I came to Llangennech where I did my basic training and developed an understanding of the systems involved in greater detail and the business side of the project. Then in early July I went to Bangalore where the joint ventures head office is located and began work with our partners Intelligent Energy. This is a UK company with an Indian subsidiary called Essential Energy, looking to provide power to mast sites and the power to water purification systems around India. Over the past four weeks Mr Libbey has been leading a small team and setting up the organisational structure which will lead to the provision of the first 60 units being in place by the end of September. He explained: Once that's happened we will be looking to grow at 30 additional units a month which is a challenging business target but very achievable. India is an interesting place to be and full of surprises. In terms of doing business there is a great deal of bureaucracy and for us it means knowing what the regulations are. We know what permissions and licences we need, which has been a challenge but we are on target and have a skilled workforce in place. The very nature of the work undertaken means there has been a great interest shown in Hydro's work. As Mr Libbey explained: Our electric coagulation system produces virtually no waste whereas the process most of India depends on for drinking water, provides at least 50% waste in the process. Consequently there is a lot of enthusiasm for Hydro's technology from an environmental standpoint. This also extends to our technology in relation to oil separation, sewage treatment and other requirements which are being looked at.
It's all a long way from his days in Brecon and an ordered military life but he admits to enjoying it. He said: In terms of my previous military experience that's very relevant and I've called on that in the last four weeks to provide some organisational framework in which we can think logically. This leads to people thinking on their feet and making decisions in a timely fashion. Overall its been useful and people are already using some military nomenclature already which is useful. As to the future Mr Libbey is all too aware of the size of the task before him and the vastness of the country he now operates in. There is, he said, a huge demand for water with current production meeting only about 25% of all its needs for clean drinking water. Much of what we do must be linked to education by working with government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to stop the drinking of contaminated water. But this is a commercial venture so we have to sell our water but we hope to sell it cheaper than anyone else and access subsidies from NGOs so they can give the water where it's needed. But it won't be easy because there are still those who will drink contaminated water. Finally his thoughts return to the methodology by which Hydro and its partner obtain the water they then purify. A hole can be bored in the ground and water extracted from that or, if there is an existing water supply, that can be purified directly from source. The concept at present is to place all our sites adjacent to telecommunication masts, which are on the edges of towns. In the compounds that surround these masts are generators which are used in the event of a power failure. We put our treatment plant in there and generate water either from a bore hole or one already sunk. Then we get a franchisee who will be our distributor and distribute it himself or sell it to a retailer. Within a wider context the Hydro operation has, Mr Libbey believes, growth potential. There are, he said, countless countries in the same position as India where they have water but not the right type. We think our capability is so agile it can be deployed really quickly and can be used in disaster relief operations like those going on in Nepal. Here we could have produced 70,000 litres of water from these units which are no bigger than two metres high and a metre-and-a-half wide. Hydro's Indian joint venture is set to run for some years and Mr Libbey's involvement will be intense in the initial period as recruitment gets underway. We have our eyes on other opportunities in the Far East where there is a demand for the work we do, he said. As to any comparison with his army career the team, he said with a smile, is smaller but in terms of organisation and structure it's about empowering people to make decisions. I have backup comprising all the experience that sits here in Llangennech in research, development, finance and legal advice, he said. So there are many military-like parallels.