John Fish: CEO of Suffolk Construction

| Boston Magazine |

Case Study: The Connors-Esque* Power

*A dizzyingly multifaceted approach to influence, as popularized by Jack Connors.

TIME WAS, JOHN FISH was just a hard-nosed construction brute whose pursuit of cheap labor meant pissing off unions and slapping around subcontractors. Then he got wise to a much better way to get ahead in this town — not merely with hard work, but also with equally relentless pleasantries. "To me, everybody’s a client," he tells a reporter, sitting in his Roxbury office. "What can we do to exceed people’s expectation? My hope today is to exceed your expectation — what did you expect when you came to see John Fish?"

The answer: a man diligently following the playbook of his mentor, Jack Connors, the preternaturally involved Hill, Holliday founder who now serves as chairman of Partners HealthCare and all-around éminence grise. Fish is on the board of 11 nonprofit community groups, and is known for giving his time and money zealously. And like any smart Boston operator, he uses relationships developed through those efforts to fatten his bottom line. While he talks about his charity work with conviction, he admits it’s part of a strategic plan. "There are three circles of influence: political, business, and nonprofit. We try to make sure we have a very good handle on the three."

Ask developers where they first met Fish, and it’s likely to have been at a board meeting or philanthropic event. That’s how he connected with real estate titan Steve Samuels, who was originally reluctant to go with Fish. The two sat down, and Fish, showing flashes of Connors-grade salesmanship, admitted it all: He’d made mistakes early on, and built his company on the lessons learned. "It was such an honest approach that I totally related to it," Samuels says. He’s since given Fish more than $350 million in business — some of which is part of the nearly $1.25 billion worth of projects Fish now has in motion in Boston alone. —Jason Feifer