When Yan Le Gouellec talks about water, it’s like listening to Willy Wonka talk about candy.
Le Gouellec is excited by water and all that it means to a city. Water is his passion, and he explains the process that delivers clean, clear quality water in the same way that Wonka so clearly described the making of his famous gobstoppers.
Le Gouellec, 51, has been director of Newport News Waterworks (NNW) since January. And he has loved every day he has spent on the job. “I was delighted to be selected,” he says. “I’m very, very happy.”
Before taking the reins, Le Gouellec was assistant director of NNW, and prior to that he managed Cincinnati’s water department. Le Gouellec has a master’s degree and doctorate in engineering from UCLA. He grew up in Paris and decided to pursue his education in the United States.
He has not looked back. In fact, his career has forged ahead. Hampton Roads was attractive to him and his wife because they have family in Northern Virginia.
As he sits in his office in City Center, looking out over the lake and fountain and the new Ferguson Enterprises building, Le Gouellec, the father of six, seems content and right at home. He is thrilled at the direction Newport News Waterworks is moving, making progress and maintaining the highest quality standards.
“Water is my specialty field,” he says. “Drinking water is fantastic from a generalist perspective.”
Le Gouellec is an engineer at heart. He likes to know how things work and why. Being head of NNW allows him to engage his brain and work through engineering challenges. Not only that, but Le Gouellec is also at the forefront of the effort to make the reading of water meters completely remote, making Newport News the largest city in the United States to embark on this effort.
“There are so many areas in Waterworks,” he says. “It’s like trying to run a business and utility and straddling the world of public health and the fact that water is a commodity, all at the same time.”
The work of NNW is both broad in scope and critical for the region. Without water, businesses cannot operate, fires cannot be extinguished and people cannot survive. It is key for the health of citizens and of industry.
Newport News Waterworks serves 400,000 paying customers who live and work in a huge swath of the Virginia Peninsula that includes Newport News, Hampton, Poquoson, York County and parts of James City County. Customers use a total of about 35 million gallons of water daily, which represents a little under 100 gallons per person per day. “That is a lot of water,” Le Gouellec says with a smile.
To make that happen, there are 300 employees, six reservoirs that serve as the area’s water supply, two treatment plants and a laboratory. The water that NNW pumps out is of the maximum quality, he says. “We take great pride in our water,” says Le Gouellec, who is a water connoisseur.
An avid reader, Le Gouellec is a people person who engages with his employees and often ventures out into the field. He is not one to hunker down in the office. He is hands on and interested in hearing input from employees
“Nothing beats face-to-face interaction to understand the issues at hand,” he says. “This kind of management style is difficult to do virtually. I prefer not being behind a desk. I like to walk around and take the pulse of the organization. I like to talk with people and foster a climate of innovation. I want us to help each other solve problems.”
The goal, Le Gouellec says, is to create an atmosphere of resilience and forward thinking. He wants to hear ideas from everyone about how to continue to improve the organization and its product.
“That just doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” he says. “People are who make it happen. We have to keep a mind to the future. It’s interaction with people that really generates the next idea.”
TO THE POINT”
Newport News Waterworks
Address: 700 Town Center Dr., Newport News, VA 23606
Contact: Yann A. Le Gouellec, PhD, PE