City Journal: Strong Silent Types

You’ve never heard of the most powerful club in Boston. And its members want to keep it that way—oh, and solve all our civic woes, too.

A secret cabal is supposed to have a cool, secret hangout—the legendary old-boy club the Vault famously got together in the basement of the Boston Safe Deposit & Trust Company. But this era’s most impressive Hub brain trust, the Breakfast Group, has a different mission, and more modest digs: a slightly cramped conference room at Meredith & Grew’s downtown offices.

For one evening this fall, these power brokers upgraded to the airy BC Club on the 36th floor of 100 Federal Street in order to celebrate their group’s 30th anniversary. Attorney Wayne Budd, developer Bob Beal, the Fed’s Cathy Minehan, and the Boston Foundation’s Paul Grogan were there, along with some 100 others. Mayor Menino gave a speech; so did healthcare exec Peter Meade. Group founder Kevin Phelan, an executive VP at Meredith & Grew, stood up to say a few words, and blew out the candles on a cake. But none of that made the papers—and that’s just fine with club members.

The Breakfast Group doesn’t like to draw attention to itself. Twice a month or so, Phelan gathers heavyweights from Boston’s business, academic, political, and civic communities for a strictly off-the-record 8 a.m. brainstorming session about the state of the city. “The confidentiality is why most people go,” says the mayor, who’s been a member for two decades. “We can have a frank and open discussion and not worry about retribution. It’s a special time.”

The press-shy Phelan has made only scant public reference to the network he oversees. “The less said, the better,” he tells CJ. What he will say is that the two dozen or so power brokers who show up to his meetings are intent on making Boston better. Where the Vault gave off an air of cigar smoke and world domination, the Breakfast Group has a friendlier mission, providing a quiet setting in which to make big decisions that won’t get bogged down in bureaucracy. Last summer, for example, member Dick Davis of BlackRock investments’ Boston office and Peter Boyce of the Casey & Hayes moving company sent 13 truckloads of office furniture to the police department’s new Family Justice Center after hearing through the group that the equipment was needed.

“To become a member, the person has to not just have a nice W-2,” Phelan says. “They have to contribute to the civic fabric of society.” The chance to tap into like-minded leaders and get things done quickly seems to be the draw for many members. It sure isn’t the food. Phelan’s thrifty menu has remained steadfastly unpretentious: It’s just coffee, orange juice, and Dunkin’ Donuts.