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DeBenedictis still pouring it on at Aqua America

For a man whose career advanced on a head-spinning trajectory for its first two decades, Nicholas DeBenedictis seems to have stayed put for an unnaturally long time.

For a man whose career advanced on a head-spinning trajectory for its first two decades, Nicholas DeBenedictis seems to have stayed put for an unnaturally long time.

DeBenedictis last month marked his 20th anniversary as the chief executive officer of Aqua America Inc., a remarkable achievement considering the average tenure of a CEO is about eight years, according to the Conference Board.

But DeBenedictis, 66, has hardly kept still during the last two decades. The "sleepy" Bryn Mawr water utility he took over in 1992 - then called Philadelphia Suburban Water Co. and its territory limited to four counties - now serves nearly a million customers in 12 states. The company, which had a market cap under $100 million when DeBenedictis assumed control, is now valued at $3.6 billion.

"When this job opened up, I thought it would be three to five years," said DeBenedictis, who served successive three-year stints as Pennsylvania's environment secretary, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and senior vice president at Philadelphia Electric Co. (now Peco Energy Co.) before he took over the water company in 1992.

But Philadelphia Suburban became a growth story, as DeBenedictis rode a wave of industry consolidation.

"You could run it without much controversy and probably have longevity as a utility executive," the Ardmore resident said Monday. "My risk factor was trying to build it." The company formally changed its name to Aqua America in 2004.

Aqua America's business model is essentially growth by acquisition followed by capital infusion - fixing plants and pipes, "and then getting a fair reward from a regulator for it," he said.

It financed the growth initially by selling stock at a discount to customers, and then reaching out to public markets. "We did it the old-fashioned way: Selling stock, investing that money, making money on that money, then going out and selling more stock," he said.

DeBenedictis has been richly rewarded for his labor. His salary last year was about $600,000, and total compensation, including stock awards, incentive plans and pensions, amounted to about $4.1 million. He owns about $11.4 million in Aqua stock.

DeBenedictis gets high marks from investors. "He brought a culture of performance and value to Aqua, and a unique culture of entrepreneurism, especially in the water utility business," said Gerard J. Sweeney, an analyst with Boenning & Scattergood Inc., the West Conshohocken brokerage.

Sweeney said that Aqua's recent investment in a pipeline system to deliver water to companies fracking the Marcellus Shale is an example of how he has transformed the company. The joint venture with Penn Virginia Resources will account for about 1 percent of Aqua's profits this year, DeBenedictis says, but could account for 10 percent in three years.

The reason for DeBenedictis' longevity is simple: steady returns to shareholders. A $1,000 investment 20 years would be worth $12,216 today, assuming dividends were reinvested, the company says. Last week, it announced its 22d dividend increase in 21 years.

"How many people in this area have sent their kids to college on Aqua America stock?" Sweeney said.

During his life's journey, DeBenedictis has picked up lots of political and business connections - he is a gregarious man who serves on numerous corporate and civic boards. The consummate politician, DeBenedictis credits his employees, board members and shareholders for his success.

Also a little luck.

The Lansdowne native earned a business degree at Drexel University and then a master's at Drexel in the emerging field of environmental engineering. The timing was perfect.

A position in the Army Corps of Engineers led to a top regional job at the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the early '70s. Gov. Richard Thornburgh, who met DeBenedictis during the Three Mile Island crisis in 1979, hired him to work in his administration. He became Thornburgh's head of the Department of Environmental Resources in 1983.

He ran the Chamber of Commerce until he moved to Philadelphia Electric, where he worked as senior vice president for regulatory issues.

Joseph C. Ladd, the retired head of Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Co., recruited him to leave Peco for the water utility. Ladd sat on both utilities' boards.

Joseph F. Paquette Jr., then chief executive of Peco, gave his blessings to the move, though he warned DeBenedictis that he would become bored at the sleepy little utility.

"I said to him, 'That's a challenge,' " recalled DeBenedictis. " 'I'm going to make it not a sleepy little company.' "

DeBenedictis hardly cut his ties to Peco. For the last 10 years, he has been a member of the board of Exelon Corp., Peco's parent company.

Aqua America Inc.: Financials