Chester County Leadership: Marc Lucca, President of Aqua Pennsylvania

Marc Lucca of Aqua Pennsylvania

Marc Lucca, the President of Aqua Pennsylvania and the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s VISTA Millennial Superstars Awards Reception & Celebration, spoke with VISTA Today about growing up in South Philly; being motivated to work at an early age; bussing tables at restaurants his father managed throughout the city; and the lessons he learned from the many part-time jobs he had when he was younger.

Lucca also discussed how he was an average student but began to take his studies more seriously in college; the people who saw potential in him; arriving at Aqua from California in 2007; and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the water utility.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I am the youngest of three boys and was raised in a South Philadelphia row home where I lived until my 20s.

Your family didn’t move to the suburbs?

My parents moved to South Jersey after my brothers and I married and moved out.

What did your parents do?

My father owned his own business for many years. He worked in the foodservice industry, managing restaurants in different places around the city. One restaurant was on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia where I would occasionally bus tables. One memory I have is being shushed by students while bussing tables as they watched President Nixon’s impeachment hearings.

My mother was a homemaker for most of my childhood. Later, she received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Rutgers University and worked as a social worker until she retired.

That was novel for a woman at that time to go back to school. 

That’s right! She was in her mid-50s when she went back to school. I recall she did well but struggled with her math courses. With my engineering background, I was able to help her with that portion of her studies.

How did your father feel about her going back to school?

He believed it was the right thing and was supportive. My two brothers and I are college-educated, so my parents greatly believed in the higher education system.

What memories stay with you from growing up in Philadelphia?

I had a typical childhood. I grew up on a small street in South Philadelphia, so neighborhood activities were always happening. There were a lot of kids, and we frequently played games together. Half-ball was a big game at the time. Many kids today probably do not know what is half-ball or how to cut it. Whatever we could do, we did it around the neighborhood, and that was a fun experience.

Those years taught me how to interact with many different people in different settings, which has helped in my life.

Sounds like you and your friends were resourceful?

We didn’t have many green, grassy fields or a lot of money. We had what we needed and were creative when we wanted to do more. We made games from whatever we had. I remember taking a broomstick and turning it into a half-ball bat which didn’t make my mother so happy.

Did you have any jobs growing up?

I have worked in some form or fashion since I was 14-years old.

My first job was working at an ice cream parlor and sandwich shop in South Philly where I was paid $2 an hour! I also worked with family friends who had their own businesses – electrician’s helper, plumber’s helper, restaurants, and a local caterer. I later used the money for my college tuition.

What motivated you to start working at such an early age?

It was expected in our household. My parents, and many adults at that time, believed that working gives a sense of belonging and an understanding of what it meant to have and spend a dollar. It gave me a sense of meaning and purpose. A lot of my life has been built around work and professional relationships.

Did you ever think about following in your father’s footsteps and making a career in the food business?

The food business is a rewarding industry where you get a true sense of customer service and creativity. I did not pursue my father’s work as I realized at a young age the hours he worked. He worked holidays like Mother’s Day and New Year’s Eve when others were home with their families, but seeing him work hard gave me a better understanding of the person who is my father.

What lessons did you learn growing up in the city and those part-time jobs that stick with you today?

I developed relationships with many people of different backgrounds. You come to understand how relationships develop and the perspective they give in life.

I learned my work ethic from my father. He would show, in different ways, that your job does not define who you are but how you do your work does.

Today, I enjoy the privilege of being President of Aqua Pennsylvania, but I will always remain the person I am with a strong connection to my roots. It’s helpful for me to think of life and career in those terms. If I were to share any advice with young people today, it would be to think about your work in that way. Never forget who you are or from where you came.

Growing up in the city must have toughed you up? 

Yes, sometimes it might come across that way. My wife reminds me of that from time to time, but I would say growing up in the city you develop an awareness of your surroundings and mindfulness of interactions with others.

That awareness helped me develop my preparedness and planning skills  – where I am aware of the here and now, but will look forward to what still needs to be done. Looking at the organization the size of Aqua Pennsylvania, and the essential services we provide I realize we need to be flexible but need to plan for what needs to be done.

In the city, you had a choice of public or parochial schools. Which path did your family take?

I was in a parochial system from grade to high school, where I went to St. John Neumann.

Were you a good student, Marc?

I was an average student.  I had to balance school, work, friends and other responsibilities.

Did you ever get serious about your studies?

I did, but it wasn’t until my second year of college when I was getting into the higher-level engineering courses. It was then that I realized a need to develop a study routine that helped prepare me for midterms and finals. This discipline has helped me greatly in my career.

Where did you end up going to college?

In my first two years of college, I attended what is now Penn State Brandywine in Media. It took a long time to drive to campus from South Philly. I went to school three days a week and worked three days. It was difficult – trying to work, get to class, study, and have some sort of social life.

For these reasons, I completed my final years at Temple University in Philadelphia where public transportation made it much easier to get to early class.  

Why Temple? You could have chosen any of the other city schools.

Temple University has a great reputation and was accessible. It provided my desired course of study and I could save enough money working to pay tuition without having to take out loans. When I graduated, I had very little debt.

Looking back, was Temple a good place for you?

It was a great fit. I met a lot of people who became friends, and I received a great education.

After graduation, who saw potential in you and opened doors for you?

I think back to high school and remember Fr. Richard Antonucci who was a family friend. There were many times he could have given me grief about schoolwork, but he saw something in me. He helped guide and develop me throughout my high school years and later married my wife and me.

Another mentor was Lee Petty, an engineer who I worked for early in my career. Lee taught me how to think through a problem. When you go to college as an engineering student, you learn the books, charts and so many formulas and you solve lots of problems. I recall vividly a lesson he taught me more than 30-years ago. He taught if you can break down what seems like a big problem into component parts, you can get to an answer much quicker and more clearly understand how to approach the problem as a whole.

Another mentor was Mike Armstrong, a retired Army Lt. Colonel. I worked for Mike in Marina, CA, and later replaced him as General Manager when he accepted another position. Mike saw things in black and white. He was frank in his assessment and his opinions were honest but he was quick to help guide when problems mounted and may have seemed insurmountable. I said Mike “was” a mentor, but he still is as I sometimes call him for his advice.

Nick DeNichilo, a CEO of a large engineering firm and friend helped me when I became President of Aqua Pennsylvania. Nick taught the importance of how to address people as a “president,” which may have different meanings when coming from the president. Nick’s advice created an awareness of the presence and how to deliver messages honestly, but in a way consistent with a president and still being true to myself.

Lastly, I must say my wife Yvonne also saw promise in me. We’ve been married since 1988. How can you have a life of happiness and success without a partner willing to see promise in you when life tugs at you? Throughout my career when I was worried about changes we faced, she never wavered and saw in me the ability to succeed. I rely so much on these experiences, and I challenge others to be mentors and to seek out mentors.

What do you think she saw in you way back when that drew her to you?

My wife is a nurse practitioner and recently started her own business. We met when I was in college. She always says that she would have married me no matter what – whether I graduated college or had a different job – because “you are the person you are.” Nurses are special people, and I’m very thankful for her role in my life.

What brought you to Aqua?

I came to Aqua in 2007. In 1999, my wife and I relocated with work and moved from South Jersey to Monterey, California where I worked in the water industry.

When our son was born, my wife and I decided that we wanted him to know and be with his extended family. I was offered a job as Vice President at Aqua, and we decided to return home. I’m thankful for this opportunity, but I am doubly blessed when I see my son spending time with his aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents, and I’m incredibly grateful for the move home.

A quarter into 2022, what are your priorities and challenges looking ahead?

I think a lot about the legacy that we will leave our children and our grandchildren. When they’re my age, I don’t want them to say, “What were they thinking? What were they doing? Didn’t they see these things coming?” Today, we see climate change and pollution. We see unrest and poverty. We see bias. These are things we must work on for our children and grandchildren.

I think about legacy in my personal life and in my business, especially America’s infrastructure and the poor condition that it’s in. You cannot have thriving communities without healthy utility services. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Report Card gave Pennsylvania water and wastewater infrastructure the grades of a D and a D-, respectively. The drinking water funding gap for Pennsylvania alone is $10.2 billion, and over $8 billion for wastewater. Even though money from the government may be available it’s not enough. We need to commit to improving our country’s infrastructure for future generations.

So, what are the challenges beyond that? Our scientific advancements are driving many improvements and new regulations. Thirty years ago, when I started in this industry, we measured in parts per million. Today, we measure in parts per trillion. We are faced with poor infrastructure, complicated science, and the need to provide safe drinking water and meet more stringent environmental regulations. As we identify problems we must commit to executing timely, corrective actions.  

The world Aqua works in is full of politics, misinformation, and competing interests. It’s a mess out there! How do you deal with that?

You just have to stay at it. You must be guided by what you know is correct. Things will always work out if you’re true to your word, approach problems and people with honesty and integrity, and understand things may not always turn out the way you planned. I try to remember that it doesn’t have to be my way every time – there are instances where other ideas bring about better solutions.  

What else is going on in Aqua? Are you acquiring new systems?

As a matter of fact, we recently closed on a wastewater system in Lower Makefield Township, Bucks County. It is almost 11,000 new customers that are now part of the Aqua family. It’s an excellent opportunity in so many ways as we now have the opportunity to serve more customers and improve system operations. We also hired five employees to support the acquisition. So, five families are benefiting from providing an essential service with good wages, benefits, and opportunities to grow professionally.

What do you do with your free time?

I don’t have much free time between work, home, my son’s ice hockey teams, and other activities. I spend a lot of time shuttling him around and I love it. I was blessed to have listened to many people who have been through this part of their lives say time goes by quickly. They’re right. The time I spend with my son in the car is invaluable and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The conversations we share likely would not happen otherwise. I think I’m taking as much from the conversations as I hope he is.

Do you read much, Marc?

I like to read. Right now, I find myself reading a lot of work documents. When I find the time to read, I like to read about U.S. presidents. When I cannot read, I’ll get an audiobook from the library. Not too long ago I listened to an audiobook titled “Five Presidents,”, written by Clint Hill, about his time as White House secret service detail for President Eisenhower to President Ford. He talks about his time with LBJ and Nixon and riding with the Kennedys when the President was shot. I just started “The President’s Man” by Dwight Chapin which was a gift from my son.

In a world full of doom and gloom, what gives you hope, Marc?

I don’t think in terms of doom and gloom. I like to see opportunities. I see the young people today as we exit the pandemic, teaching us what’s important about life. The world needs to listen. We need to listen. My generation, the Boomers, had an idea about our American Dream. Today’s youth have different ideas about their Dream. It would give me great hope if we listen and accept that their Dream is different and something from which we can learn.

Finally, Marc, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? 

You want to say there was that one a-ha moment, but life is full of people I’ve met and many a-ha moments. If you’re lucky, you remember something from every one of them.  Life is full of opportunities and lessons we can learn. Embrace each one. Remain honest about your intentions, and be sincere and respectful regardless of what you are doing or to whom you may be speaking. Life will deliver many opportunities to learn.  It really is up to you.


Publisher’s note: Laura Manion contributed to this profile.

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