San Antonio Express-News Scott Huddleston column
March 12--Robert Richard Puente's first job was delivering newspapers to readers' homes. Now, he is responsible for delivering water and sewer service to 1.8 million customers as San Antonio Water System's president and CEO.
Puente, 59, holds one of San Antonio's most high-profile executive posts, appearing before the City Council to explain the utility's efforts to diversify the local water supply, and why rate increases are often needed to improve water and sewer infrastucture.
He was an influential politician before joining SAWS, serving as a state lawmaker for 17 years and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. He was instrumental in that role in creating the Edwards Aquifer Authority. The aquifer provides drinking water to some 2 million people in San Antonio and surrounding areas.
As the longest-serving CEO in SAWS' 26-year history, having held the role for nearly 10 years, Puente answers not only to city officials but business leaders, environmentalists and customers on fixed incomes.
The SAWS board last week increased his annual salary 1 percent to $472,876 starting April 1 and awarded him a $96,500 bonus. In an unusual move for a CEO, he refused to take the bonus, saying he wants to protect SAWS 1,700 employees.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg opposed his last bonus and pay raise in August when the board gave Puente a 5 percent bump in salary and a $99,286 bonus for his performance in 2016. Puente said rising water and sewer rates are a difficult sell, especially when executives are getting big raises.
Off duty, Puente enjoys time at home with his dogs and Japanese koi, an ornamental fish. His most influential mentor, having grown up as the second-youngest of six -- two boys and four girls -- is a sister, Linda Talbot.
Puente, who holds a bachelor's degree in political science from St. Mary's University and doctor of jurisprudence from The University of Texas School of Law, opened a private practice in 1983.
Puente recently sat down with the Express-News. Here's an edited transcript of the interview:
Q: What was your upbringing like?
A: I grew up in south San Antonio. I had maybe a normal upbringing, but the uniqueness of it was that my mother died when I was eight, and she left six children under 12. This was in the '60s, and almost every family was intact ... I went to Highlands High School. When I was younger I did the typical Little League baseball kind of stuff, but being in that situation where six siblings, all of us had to work, all of us had to do something to bring money into the family. I essentially tried to work as much as I could while I was going to high school.
Q: How did you get into elected service?
A: In the eighth grade...we were studying Texas history, and I saw a picture of the Capitol. That just inspired me to be a state representative, not a city councilman, not anything else.
Q: Any mentors?
A: Surprisingly, it's probably my sister (Linda Talbot). Although she's only four years older than me, she essentially raised me. I remember she was the one that disciplined me, she was the one that essentially made sure that I did my homework and stuff like that.
Q: When did you begin to focus on water?
A: When I was a freshman legislator, you don't necessarily get to pick the committees you're on, and I tried to get on some other committees, but it was almost like a default that I got on to the Water Committee. But as it turns out, I definitely did not want to get on and start a legislative career that dealt, with what I thought, a lot of minority individuals were doing at the time -- public education, civil rights, immigration. I wanted to get into something that a Mexican American really wasn't involved in.
Q: What experiences prior to becoming the President and CEO of SAWS best prepared you for this role?
A: I think it was my legislative role in the Texas House, not just with the water issues that would come up to the Legislature, but in dealing with all of the individuals ... At any given time you're talking and conversing with an urban legislator, and then two minutes later, you're talking to a West Texas panhandle cowboy about issues. So developing a good rapport with all kinds of people, I think translates into trying to be a good CEO.
Q: How is being the SAW CEO different than other CEO positions in terms of specific challenges, such as consideration and balancing things like the environment, drought management, and affordability and those other issues that you deal with?
A: Everything we do is public. My calendar, for example, at any given time we get open records requests as to how I'm spending my time. My salary, obviously, is open record, so it's very different, I think, being a CEO of a public entity. Some of it is more difficult. Some of it is easier. Some of the easier parts, for example, is I don't have to worry about a third quarter earnings statement. So we can have very legitimate long-term planning, doing things that will help the system out and therefore the customers out in the long term, and not have to be making short term, immediate decisions to placate somebody that wants to have a good earnings statement.
Q: What else does SAWS do that is outside of water and sewer?
A: People don't understand that we actually do have an education department at SAWS, and when we were created we were given the mission to educate our community about what we do. We're in first grade. We're in high school. We help teachers with their lesson plans. We have, also, the role of being an economic generator for the city...to be involved in how our city grows, how our city attracts businesses, what types of businesses.
Q: Greatest accomplishment at SAWS?
A: We built on time, on budget a state-of-the-art desalination plant. We have put online the Aquifer Storage and Recovery system. It was online before I got here, but I changed it from essentially an in-and-out type of reservoir to a long-term savings reservoir, to where we now have about half of the amount of water that we use on a yearly basis stored underground for future use. All of this is done through the ability to go to our City Council and go to the public and ask for the rates associated with that. None of what we do can be done without the partnership with our ratepayers.
Q: Any regrets?
A: There's always an issue of wanting our customers to take us for granted, because I don't want our customers to think about us, whether or not they're going to get water when they wake up. But at the same time, we want to be appreciated for what we do. So it's one of those things where we always want to do the outreach necessary to take in the accolades that I think we deserve because of what we do on a day-to-day basis...I guess the regrets are...the inability of getting our public to appreciate what we do on a day-to-day basis.
Q: Of your predecessors at SAWS, who did you admire most?
A: Probably Joe Aceves. Joe was the initial CEO at this organization ... I thought so much of him that I picked him out of retirement and put him back under our roof when we took over Bexar Met.
Q: How will Vista Ridge affect SAWS?
A: Vista Ridge will be online in 2020, and this is going to provide water security for us for the next 50 years. It's a 60-year water supply ... We will be maintaining after that, as opposed to seeking additional water sources. And that mission change, that culture change, will be something that we have to adjust to.
Q: Have you ever had to fire someone directly or do lay-offs? How did you handle it and what did that feel like?
A: Every single individual, whether it's a utility worker, I know about, I know that that individual is going to be dismissed. But the higher up you go in the command structure, the more involved I get. I've had vice presidents that I've had to let go. I've had directors that we've had to let go. And so even those individuals, I sit down at the table with the supporting people from SAWS to deliver that news. It never feels good. It feels like a failure, especially if you were very instrumental in hiring that individual.
Q: Were you ever fired? How did you recover?
A: I've never been fired. I've been laid off. It feels awful. It essentially is telling you "we can function without you." The way you bounce back is keep an open mind, keep an open heart, you work hard, and you show the entity that let you go that maybe they should not have.
Q: What do you look for when you're interviewing people?
A: When I get very involved in hiring it's usually at the vice president level, and our other vice presidents are in that panel. I allow them to do all the questioning, and I sit back and I just observe. We have a set script of questions we're going to ask that we worked on, but the same time I like to just do some follow-up questions based on the question that was already asked and based on the applicant's response. That gives me the opportunity to see how they interact with the other vice presidents.
Q: How do you, as CEO and overseeing SAWS, ensure equality for women and minorities in promotion, hiring and the workplace environment?
A: If you see our structure here, you'll see there's an integration of women and minorities. But what I like to do is make sure that what we hire really fits what SAWS is, and what SAWS is is this community...If you take the ten highest paid employees at SAWS, half of them are women. The overall structure of SAWS is male-based, just because of the type of the work that we do. But here in headquarters, not necessarily out in the field, you see a very good mix of women and minorities.
Q: What do you do at home to conserve water?
A: I'm lucky in the sense that I have the conservation ideas at my beck and call. I'm told about them as they're being developed, so I'm able to be a guinea pig at home. We have the best water conservation programs in the nation, and so I feel that I want to to know about them, and I want to see if they work at home.
Q: What do you think water in Texas will look like ten years from now?
A: There is not a water shortage in Texas. There's a political water shortage in Texas. It's a political issue of how to move water from where it is to where it's needed. East Texas has a lot of the water through reservoirs, through weather patterns. On each side of I-35 there's been tremendous growth, and so it's just a matter of moving that water, the political will to move that water.
Q: What do you want your legacy to be as a legislator and the longest serving SAWS CEO?
A: One of the great and rewarding things I experience here at SAWS is knowing something I did 15 years ago in the Legislature is helping SAWS today. My legacy here at SAWS is hopefully something that people recognize that I put SAWS really at the cutting-edge of innovation, of respect, of responsiveness to our community.
Scott Huddleston is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer. Read more of his stories here. -- email@example.com -- @shuddlestonSA