By Pete Kennedy
When Three Mile Island had a partial meltdown in March of 1979, Nicholas DeBenedictis got a call from Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh’s office. They needed his help with the nuclear cleanup.
“They asked if I would take a special assignment in Harrisburg for a year,” DeBenedictis said. “The threat was that the core had melted down and that was all going to be released.”
Fortunately, the danger turned out to be less than was feared. The incident was one pivotal moment in a remarkable, varied career at the vanguard of environmental and utility policy.
DeBenedictis, now 75, held leadership positions at PECO, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and, most notably, Aqua America, where he was chairman and CEO from 1993 until 2015.
With a master’s in environmental engineering from Drexel University – not to mention honorary doctorates from Drexel, Misericordia and Widener universities – he has spent decades thinking about things most people take for granted, like the thousands of miles of underground pipes that carry clean water to people’s faucets.
DeBenedictis grew up in Lansdowne, Delaware County, the son of Italian immigrants. His father had a car dealership and later got into vehicle appraisals, and his mother was a homemaker.
In high school, he enjoyed building things in wood shop and metal shop classes. He went through Drexel University’s five-year co-op program, alternating between classes and full-time employment every six months. When his father died, DeBenedictis paused his education to temporarily take over his business.
As an ROTC student, DeBenedictis entered the Army after college, just as U.S. troops were pulling out of Vietnam. In the Army Corps of Engineers, he helped with environmental projects like designing dams and preventing beach erosion.
“I’m a true believer that everybody should spend two years in the military. It teaches you humility,” he said.
After the Army, he joined the newly formed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for about 10 years.
“It taught me a lot about the geography of the Earth and the atmosphere, but also about public policy and how it’s driven by environmental issues,” he said.
Next came the Three Mile Island assignment, which was a bridge to the state government. In 1981, he became the director of the state Office of Economic Development. In 1983, he was named secretary of the Department of Environmental Resources, where he worked on issues like acid mine drainage, trash-to-steam operations, the mine fire in Centralia, and water quality initiatives.
From 1986 to 1989, he was president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber
of Commerce. The role connected him with major philanthropic entities in the region, including PECO (now called Exelon). In 1989, PECO hired him to be senior vice president of corporate and public affairs during the permitting process of the Limerick nuclear plant.
In 1993, DeBenedictis was selected through a nationwide search to take the helm of Philadelphia Suburban Corp. – the private water utility that would become Aqua America and, more recently, Essential Utilities.
By acquiring smaller water systems, exiting unfruitful markets and expanding into waste- water services, he helped grow the company from a market capitalization of about $100 million to about $5 billion when he retired in 2015.
The workdays were long and spent mostly in meetings – with employees, senior executives, investor-relations people, developers.
“There was always a crisis. I’d meet with strategic people about whether we’re buying this new system,” he said. “But the work went quickly, because I liked what I was doing.”
Jim Cramer, the influential host of “Mad Money” on CNBC, had been watching a stock with the symbol PST when he noticed Philadelphia Suburb Corp.’s – PSC’s – steady growth. He invited DeBenedictis on the show, which pushed the stock even higher.
“The harder I work, the luckier I get,” is one of DeBenedictis’ philosophies.
DeBenedictis lives in Ardmore with his wife, Eileen. They have two children and five grandchildren, and a beach house in Wildwood near the boardwalk where they first met.
“She was a pretty blond. I had a fraternity jacket on,” he recalled.
DeBenedictis is a 40-year member of the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy. He has twice been knighted by the Italian government – as a Cavaliere and a Commendatore.
He still serves on numerous corporateand civic boards – the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Independence Blue Cross and Exelon, to name a few. He’ll retire from the Aqua board this year, a “bittersweet” exit after a long, successful run.
“We brought better service to a lot of areas in the country. We grew the company and provided a lot of opportunity for young people who are now working in a profession that will be around for a while,” he said.
“What used to make me really happy is when we’d have annual meetings and people would come – from doctors to maintenance guys – saying ‘I bought the stock 10 years ago, and my kids are going to college now on the profits I made.’ That made me feel really good.”