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How Nick DeBenedictis grew Aqua America into a utility to be reckoned with

By Vincent Dajani

In “Where Are They Now?”, SmartCEO takes another look at companies and CEOs previously featured on our magazine cover. Nick DeBenedictis’ cover story appeared in October 2011. Read it here. If your company was featured on our cover and you’re interested in having us revisit your story, email vincent@smartceo.com.

Four years ago, Aqua America was already the country’s second largest publicly traded utility and celebrating more than a century in business. Under the tenure of president and CEO Nick DeBenedictis, Aqua America had more than quadrupled.

When SmartCEO caught up with DeBenedictis again in 2015, Aqua America was still growing, and DeBenedictis himself was ready to retire.

Nick Debenedictis

Nick Debenedictis

“The company has been around for 140-plus years,” he says. “Our shareholders are used to consistency, and that will continue.”

In fact, since 2011, DeBenedictis has ensured that Aqua America is not only consistent, but continuing to improve. “We’ve had 15 consecutive years of earnings increases,” he says. Aqua has quickly become the most cost-efficient utility in the U.S., charging less than a penny a gallon for water. “Compare that to a bottle of water,” DeBenedictis says.

But how did they do it? The economic pressure on small towns and cities would limit the amount of money they’d be able to spend on maintaining important infrastructure, and improving old waterlines probably wouldn’t make the top of the list. It seemed like even more growth would have been hard to achieve. DeBenedictis, however, has never been one to let the odds intimidate him, especially not when it comes to looking ahead.

“We decided to redeploy our portfolio,” he says. “We sold five of our operations that weren’t doing well, and it actually helped our core earnings.” This year, DeBenedictis anticipates another two or three municipality acquisitions.

Earnings are up — and so is customer count — but when pressed for the one thing that’s helped the company grow thus far, DeBenedictis points to company culture. “It’s people that really believe in their mission. [On employee surveys,] we consistently mark high in, ‘Do you know why you come to work? Is your job important for society?’” he says. “We’re responsible for the quality and the sustainability of the product.”

DeBenedictis’ passion for sustainability is in Aqua America’s DNA now, too. And he has surely left his mark on the company in other ways. But a man who has worked so hard and kept so busy growing a company surely can’t just walk away. “I’m sure I’ll be busy, and I don’t want to forget Aqua America,” he says. “It will be a little change, but I’m already [planning] to expand my board activity.”

DeBenedictis will certainly have his work cut out as he steps down from CEO to full-time chairman, continuing his work with legislators, investors and nonprofits. Keeping busy and working hard will forever be the force that drives both DeBenedictis and Aqua America’s growth.