What do four members of Aqua America, Inc.’s senior leadership team have in common? They all completed the Villanova Executive MBA—and it’s not by chance. As President and CEO Christopher Franklin (’02 EMBA) explains: “One of the most important decisions a CEO can make is hiring the right people around him.” This led Franklin to seek out leaders who embodied the same values that the Villanova EMBA Program fosters—integrity, a tireless work ethic, and teamwork.
In 2000, Franklin joined the first-ever EMBA class at Villanova, deciding to enroll because of Villanova’s reputation for academic rigor, its unmatched facilities, and the values of the school.
“Having been out of school for some time, it was refreshing to be back in the stream of learning and current thought, and it was transformational to be able to immediately apply my knowledge at work the very next day,” says Franklin, who graduated from West Chester University in 1987. But perhaps the biggest benefits of the program were the social activities and networking opportunities—it was through this EMBA Program where he met fellow student Rick Fox (’02 EMBA).
Fox, now EVP and COO of Aqua America, enrolled in the same EBMA class when he and his family moved to Philadelphia in 2000. He worked in the chemical manufacturing industry for 17 years and wanted to become better connected in his new city with the hopes of changing careers. He liked the ‘start-up’ quality of the then newly offered EMBA Program, and he points to the EMBA Program for giving him the confidence to branch out into other industries.
He and Franklin quickly became friends and, after graduating, Franklin offered him a job as the vice president of customer operations. Reflecting on his time in the program, Fox says, “It was like a two-year interview with Chris.”
Throughout the years, Franklin and Fox relied on their EMBA experience to think differently about their business at Aqua America, the second largest U.S.-based, publicly traded water and wastewater utility company that serves nearly three million people in eight states. Their newly acquired business education encouraged them to look at their business in an innovative way—to focus more on metrics and measurement as well as their mission.
“There is no margin for error at Aqua America,” says Franklin. “Twenty-four hours a day, we have a tremendous responsibility to provide a basic need that people put into their bodies. So, we needed to hire and elevate our employees who are devoted to our core mission.”
As a senior leadership team, Franklin and Fox felt it was important to expose others at Aqua America to the Villanova EMBA experience. They selected Kim Joyce and Brian Dingerdissen, who both were familiar with Villanova from their undergraduate days.
Joyce (‘11 EMBA), who serves as regulatory counsel and director of public and legislative affairs, expressed interest in taking an accounting class to refresh her core business skills. But the senior management team had bigger plans for her and thought she would be an excellent candidate for the EMBA Program.
“I love to learn and there was a comfort level of going back to Villanova,” says Joyce. “The EMBA cohort is such an intimate and impressive group, and I learned just as much from my classmates as I did from the faculty.”
As part of her capstone project, Joyce traveled to Nicaragua to evaluate water resources in rural communities—an experience that would prepare her well for her future role at Aqua America. Joyce currently oversees communications, community relations, and the company’s charitable trust in addition to leading a team with responsibilities for all regulatory and legislative policy at the federal and state levels.
After graduating with a degree in finance from Villanova in 2005, Dingerdissen applied for a job at Aqua America with the help of Mike Pagano, Robert J. and Mary Ellen Darretta Endowed Chair in Finance.
“Brian has been a trusted advisor to my team for nearly a decade,” explains Franklin. “His counsel has played an important role in many of the decisions we’ve made, which made him the perfect candidate for the EMBA Program.”
Recently appointed chief of staff for Franklin, Dingerdissen (’13 EMBA) ensures that the company’s vision and core values—including an increased emphasis on people—are fully integrated throughout the organization and maintains a personal connection with each department throughout the company.
“My favorite part of the EMBA experience is the systems-thinking approach that encourages leaders to think broadly and strategically—outside their individual specialty or role,” says Dingerdissen. “It allowed me to get a high-level, broad-base of skills that I brought back to work every day and will continue to use as I advance throughout my career.”
Dingerdissen enjoyed his EMBA experience so much that he currently serves on the board of directors of the Villanova Executive MBA Alumni organization.
These four alumni also share another important characteristic: Giving back to the community.
“Each of us took away a strong sense of service from our time at Villanova because it is so deeply ingrained in the course work and the community,” says Franklin. “At Aqua America, we endeavor to match our management team with a civic association or community group for board service so we can help make a difference in the areas where we do business.”
He noted that they encourage each of the 1,700 employees at Aqua America to share in the company’s values and make an impact. Fox put it best, saying: “I spent most of my career at a large chemical company and never knew if what I did made a difference. At Aqua America, I can see the difference I make each day, and I applaud Chris for supporting each of us as we aim for this goal.”