This Man Is Building a $1 Billion Construction Empire
John Fish wants the job as badly as any other builder. Wants it more, actually, not because his construction company, Suffolk, needs it — — quite the opposite is true — — but because he has always hated, just hated, to lose. But John Fish is also too sophisticated for the hard sell. He woos the client on his own terms.
Other firms try unsuccessfully to ply the developer with blackjack in Vegas and ski trips to Sun Valley. They invite him to cast for salmon in Alaska and troll for marlin in the waters off the white beaches of Cabo. When the Patriots make the Super Bowl, one dangles a good seat for the game and nights of decadence in New Orleans. But Fish never offers so much as a Red Sox ticket or a steak dinner at the Capital Grille. “With him, it's all business,” the developer says.
For more than five years, Fish sends his people to call on the man, and for five years they come back with the same answer. The developer thinks Fish is a cowboy — — or at least that's what he saw as Fish's strictly suburban operation bullied its way downtown during the early 1990s. Now the developer is slowly changing his mind. Suffolk's familiar blue — and — red signs hang on construction fences all over the city, in front of modest condominium complexes and high — profile office towers. Clients gush about the hours Fish is willing to put in — — he wakes up every day at half past 3 — — and what an impressive figure he cuts.
He comes to every meeting prepared and looking polished: dark brown hair parted neatly down the middle, blue eyes ablaze, power tie cinched tight against his neck, a laminated card listing Suffolk's Harvard Business School-worthy strategic goals poking out of the pocket of his crisply pressed shirt. The developer, marveling at Fish's fervor, uses it to tweak him, repeating the reasons he won't hire Suffolk even after he's decided he will. “He's so intense, sometimes he doesn't realize you're playing around with him,” the developer says. “There's no way to say this without sounding like a jerk, but it was fun to get him wound up. He was foaming at the mouth.” About two and a half years ago, the developer tells Fish he'd finally won him over: Suffolk is the top candidate for a multimillion — dollar contract. But because construction guys gossip like high school cheerleaders and political consultants, Fish knows which other firms are also lining up for the project.
“We're shooting the breeze,” the developer recalls, “and he says, 'I hear Peabody is looking at this. And I just want you to know, we're not interested in bidding if they're involved.'” Fish doesn't mention Peabody Construction's owner, his older brother, Ted, by name. He doesn't have to. The developer, like everyone else in the industry, knows enough about the brothers' history to understand that it is bad enough to make John walk away from business he's been chasing since the Weld administration. He agrees not to consider Peabody. Because though it started the other way around, now it's the developer who wants Fish.
Monuments to John Fish's success stretch across this city. Robert and David Epstein were heralded for having the vision and brass to transform the long — shuttered Sears Building into the Landmark Center, but it was Fish's company that gutted the interior, assembled the floor plan, and meticulously buffed the limestone facade. As gentrification brought $1 million lofts to the South End's grittiest blocks, his trucks were pouring concrete on both sides of Washington Street, laying the foundations for Wilkes Passage and Rollins Square. The Nine Zero hotel drew raves for its contemporary style; Suffolk laid the beams that support the Frette — covered beds in its four — star rooms. While Charles Bulfinch will forever deserve credit for the grandeur of the State House, the capitol owes its refurbished luster to the hands of Fish's craftsmen.
When Fish took over Suffolk from his father, Ed, 20 years ago, he was working out of a hotel room and bringing home less than a good plumber. The 42 — year — old has since transformed his company from a small firm best known for working cheap into a diversified enterprise entrusted with fully wired corporate headquarters and delicate historic restorations. Today, the company has projects across the country and maintains busy satellite offices in California and Florida. By 2005, its annual revenues are projected to break $1 billion. With Modern Continental, lead builder of the Big Dig, weaning itself from the fat contracts handed out by the nearly completed highway system, Fish's firm is poised to supplant it as the biggest construction company in Massachusetts. No small accomplishment, considering that many of those it has eclipsed — — including Peabody, an outfit that's been in the Fish family for 112 years — — were doing business long before he was born.
John Fish, great — grandson of a prosperous millworker and one — time Boston buildings superintendent, belongs to the fourth generation of Fishes in the trade. He's proud of that. It's also one of the few carefully edited personal details he includes in the persona he's creating as he moves into a more prominent position among Boston's powers that be. John doesn't like to talk about his brother, Ted, because — — or so he will tell you — — their rivalry is a private matter that no longer influences his commercial affairs. But the more you look at what he has accomplished with Suffolk, the more you realize that story is impossible to untangle from the Fish's family business.
A scrawny 12 — year — old hunches over his desk at Hingham South Junior High, trying to make sense of his spelling textbook. He hopes he won't be called to the blackboard, to stand there again with the other kids' eyes boring through him as he scrawls gibberish with his chalk. He is eager and bright, but there's a glitch in the part of his brain that processes written information. It's 1972, and his teachers lack the training to help him overcome his learning disability. “People didn't understand dyslexia well back then. They thought you were kind of stupid,” Fish says.
So he pours himself into sports, finding an outlet for each season: baseball, football, hockey. Ted, born with only one good kidney but plenty of athletic talent, has to eschew tackling and checking in favor of basketball and cross — country, but he and John play on the same Little League team. Their dad coaches; both boys pitch, and both are fierce competitors — — with opponents and each other. When they graduate into the Babe Ruth system, they join different squads.
Ted heads off to Milton Academy. A year later, Ed pulls some strings and finds a boarding school willing to look past John's lackluster GPA. On his first day at Tabor Academy in Marion, he heads for the weight room. When the football team piles onto the bus for road games, he slides into a seat near the front and asks his coaches to tutor him. In his dorm, he stays up studying long after lights out.
“He just willed himself to improve,” says Dick Duffy, who coached Fish in football, taught his introductory economics class, and now works for his construction company during the summers. “He came from a comfortable background. He could have been the socialite type. But in everything he did, he worked hard. He looked at some of his teammates, the ones who had a lot of natural ability and only gave 50 percent, and I don't think that down deep he respected them.” The other players, however, seem to respect him. During his senior year, they elect Fish captain.
That season, before a game at Northfield Mount Hermon, he meets Cyndy Gelsthorpe, a pretty blonde who'd been in his eighth — grade homeroom. Before he leaves, she passes him a note. By now, he's magna cum laude, but his penmanship is still shaky. He enlists his friend, Mark Horan, to help craft a response. “She couldn't read my handwriting, so I subcontracted my letter — writing campaign out to Mark,” Fish says. “He was very good at taking dictation.” He pauses. “He also swore to secrecy.”
While Ted bolsters his application to Princeton with a postgrad year at Lawrenceville School, John (who says he “never had such delusions of grandeur”) enrolls at Bowdoin. His days are filled with classes and football practice. Nights find him holed up in the library; on weekends he often skips his fraternity's keg parties to visit Cyndy, who's attending Hobart and William Smith in upstate New York. “I wasn't boring,” Fish says. “I was one of the guys. But I couldn't afford to get away with what they did.” He maintains that mindset even during school vacations. When Horan takes Fish to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at the Cape Cod Coliseum, he bolts halfway through the show. “He couldn't sit still,” says Horan, who teases Fish — — still an aficionado of Motown — — for his outdated cultural tastes. “He's always been most comfortable working, doing something purposeful.”
During the off — season, Fish lifts weights like a machine. He packs muscle atop muscle, bulks up to 265 pounds, claims a starting spot on the offensive line. Then: Snap! A freak block lands him in the hospital with an injury to his 22 — inch neck. The doctors say he could be paralyzed if he hurts it again.
The following summer, John marches into his friend Mike Ryan's house holding a new piece of equipment. “He had gone out and invested in a kicking shoe. I had kicked at Tabor, and he wanted me to teach him,” Ryan says. “He was so determined to find a way to contribute, I have no doubt he would've learned how to kick in four weeks. But the reality was he shouldn't have been on the field at all.” Just before his senior year, after aborting his fevered training, Fish quit football for good. When Horan next saw him months later, he had lost 90 pounds. “It was as if he said, 'That part of my life is over,'” Horan says, “and didn't look back.”
At Bowdoin, Fish majored in government and dabbled in merchandising — — as a sophomore, he started peddling cut — rate sweatshirts emblazoned with the school's logo and polar bear mascot, warehousing the goods in his dorm room and conscripting his fraternity pledges for a sales force — — but there was never a question about what he'd do after college. In keeping with family tradition, his construction career had begun as soon as he was strong enough to dig holes and haul bricks. “My boys always worked during school vacations — — they had to, or they caught some wrath around the house,” says Ed Fish. “None of them had a cushy role. They got paid, but they didn't get paid much. And they weren't encouraged to spend it, I'll tell you that much.”
By the time he completed his studies at Bowdoin, John had progressed from grunt to superintendent. Ed thought he was ready to oversee an entire project for Peabody. So in the summer of 1982, while his friends indulged in postbaccalaureate bacchanalia on the Cape, he moved into a roadside motel in Northampton and put up a county jail. “I couldn't really read a profit — and — loss statement. I didn't understand anything about management,” Fish recalls. “And I was working with people double my age, who were looking at me and saying, 'Who the hell is this kid?'” He made a lot of mistakes. He pulled 20 — hour days. And somehow, he got the prison built. When it was finished, Ed sat his son down and offered him a new job.
“Peabody has always been a union company,” says Ed, “and at that time we were having a lot of trouble competing with the newfound merit shops” — — general contractors that kept their costs down by sometimes employing cheaper nonunionized laborers and tradesmen. “On any job under $8 or $9 million, I was just getting murdered. So I decided, if I can't beat them, I'm going to join them.” Ed had established Suffolk while John wrapped up his senior year. He'd since found the guy he'd put in charge of it asleep in his office — — twice. He needed a replacement. Ted was still in school; after transferring from Princeton to Trinity and back to Princeton again, he was a year behind his younger brother. John could start right away.
Unlike Lear, who parceled out his kingdom based on his daughters' professions of paternal love, Ed split his holdings along purely capitalist lines. “It was just a decision I made. I don't think I ever thought it out that deep,” he says. “It satisfied my ego, frankly, to see my two sons doing similar things. I was very proud of them both, as I still am.” If John, then just 23, initially felt at all apprehensive about the arrangement — — and it seemed to Ed he did — — his reluctance probably had to do with the fine print his father included. While Ed provided the initial capital to start Suffolk, the trickier task of making sure Suffolk never needed to be bailed out would be John's alone. “Because of the split between nonunion and union, he made it very, very clear that Suffolk had to have a complete separation from Peabody,” John says. “He told me 'Once you go, you really can't ever turn back.'”
In the beginning, the business plan Fish created for Suffolk was straightforward: the builder as wrecking ball. “When we encountered a brick wall, instead of trying to get around it, we'd just go right through it,” Fish says. He undercut rival firms by as much as 15 percent, making up the difference by squeezing it out of the carpenters, masons, and assorted specialists he hired to execute the blueprints. “He was the kind of guy who used to go after jobs and beat up subcontractors,” says Andris Silins, secretary — treasurer of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, who scrapped with Fish when he headed the organization's local affiliate. “Over time, he realized he couldn't operate like that. But John probably put a few guys out of business during those years.” Still, for every HVAC installer hauling him into court, there were several clients signing on as regular customers.
In just four years, he increased Suffolk's annual revenues from $300,000 to more than $66 million. Two years later, he banked nearly $125 million, topping the best billings his father ever had at Peabody, where Ted, now a dedicated triathlete, had assumed control. Almost all of that money came from outside Route 128, the unofficial boundary of Boston's formidable labor unions, so John and Ted weren't facing off. Yet.
In 1991 Suffolk outbid Peabody and a handful of other union firms for the $50 million restoration of the John F. Kennedy Federal Office Building in Government Center. The city's labor bosses, fearful that Suffolk's incursion was imperiling their grip on downtown construction, were unimpressed when Fish hired some of their members to work on the job. Picket lines went up. Fish was attacked in effigy. An inflatable rat, accompanied by a posse of menacing protesters, camped out on the front lawn of his house in Milton as Cyndy, pregnant with their first child, sneaked wary glances through shuttered windows.
After months of contentious negotiations, some of them moderated by then — Mayor Ray Flynn, Fish finally reached a two — year accord with his most vocal opponent, the carpenters' union. The pact called for Suffolk to pay higher wages and benefits at all of its Massachusetts job sites, clearing the way for the company to chase more big — budget projects. It also meant that John and Ted would joust more often from now on.
“I think that early on in my career, the relationship between Suffolk and Peabody was somewhat one of brinksmanship. But time has moved on,” John says, sitting at a small table in Suffolk's headquarters. The five — story building, which underwent a major expansion last year, is divided into wings, one accented by dark woods, rich fabrics, and conservative hues, and one that could pass for an installation at the ICA. Both look more like they belong to an ad agency than a construction company. In the soaring atrium lobby, a placard in front of the receptionist reads “Director of First Impressions.”
“Do we want to fight in the sandbox with my brother's company like we did 10 years ago, spit and spat, get involved in the whole game of I'm — going — to — beat — him, he's — going — to — beat — me? Or do you want to take a look at the whole thing and say, OK, let's put him aside — — God bless him, I wish him the best of luck.” Accompanied by his head of marketing, Fish has been talking about his business for an hour, as upbeat and on — message as a candidate pitching an editorial board. Now that the conversation has turned to Ted, an edge has crept into his voice. “I think that my respect and appreciation for what they're trying to accomplish is stronger today than it has ever been. I also recognize that we have a completely different agenda than they do. We're two different personalities. I think the healthiest way to leave this part of the dialogue is in that context.”
Indeed, the two brothers are almost comically dissimilar: Ted is backslaps and untucked shirttails; John, all handshakes and tailored suits. Those contrasts alone, however, fail to account for the vitriol that prompts John to occasionally refer to Peabody as “the evil empire” during Suffolk staff meetings. What could have caused so much bad blood? If the falling out was sparked by a single event, a business dispute turned shouting or shoving match, John won't talk about it. Neither will Ted, who says, “I think the competition was instigated when we ended up on competing teams and companies. It intensified the more frequently we competed for contracts.” Family friends are equally guarded. “I'm privy to some of the details,” says Mark Horan, “but I don't want to violate John's trust.”
But as the developer who denied Peabody the chance to bid on his building points out, the brothers didn't wind up running separate companies by accident. “Their father, whether inadvertently or not, definitely pitted these two kids against each other,” he says. In 1995, nearly a quarter century after buying out his own brother to gain sole ownership of Peabody, Ed Fish sold his remaining stake in the company to Ted. He now runs a real estate firm — — which sometimes works with Suffolk to build its developments — — out of John's offices. “I'm not exactly sure why he did what he did,” says Ted, “but I assume my father, being the intuitive genius that he is, thought I would perform better on my own.”
In the developer's view, the reason the Fishes continue to feud lies less with Ted (“I don't think he's capable of holding a grudge for as long,” the developer says) than it does with John — — who, it's worth noting, has done much better repairing other relationships. Fish concedes that when he took over at Suffolk, “People thought this place was a sweatshop.” While some suggest the generous wages he pays still come with expectations of superhuman effort, he now treats his close to 600 employees to lavish perks and pulls them away from their regular duties to attend classes in a training center as high — tech as any classroom at MIT. He has earned the respect of labor leaders, and, since 1994, has thrown a reception to thank the company's subcontractors. Fish has also put numerous poor kids through Tabor Academy — — though only the school and his small circle of friends have previously known about it — — and, despite a distaste for cocktail chatter, he's making a name for himself on the philanthropic circuit. Ted Benard — Cutler recruited him to join the board of directors of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center when the hospital was teetering toward meltdown. Developer Steve Weiner, who has picked Suffolk to build his glitzy new Mandarin hotel near the Prudential Center, says, “You're talking about one of the really terrific, well — rounded citizens in the Boston area.”
Yet while all that was happening, there was one relationship he was unable — — maybe unwilling — — to fix. “There have been attempts at reconciliation,” says Mark Horan, “but for various reasons it hasn't worked out.”
“I think for people of integrity, there are situations you can get into where you can't compromise, and you try all your life to avoid those situations,” says Tabor's headmaster, Jay Stroud. “John is such a good person from my point of view. And it's hard to be a good person and get along with everybody.”
It's only 11:30, too early for lunch, but two decades of waking up before dawn have made John Fish's body clock run fast. Besides, he won't be able to stop to eat later. He devours a turkey sub, gobbles some potato chips, grabs an oversize chocolate — chip cookie for the road. Time for a tour. He provides a guidebook, of course, a spiral — bound volume complete with fold — out map, color photos, and a brief description of the buildings he is about to show off. That's how Suffolk does things: Ask about key moments in the company's history and you get a computer — generated timeline, shaded to denote five distinct eras and illustrated with dozens of boxes and bubbles.
With one hand on the wheel of his black Mercedes coupe and another on his dessert, Fish maneuvers past the sleek Boston Water & Sewer Commission offices and the futuristic police department headquarters, on which Suffolk collaborated with another contractor. Then he heads in the direction of the Big Dig, a $14 billion siren whose charms he managed to ignore. There are rumors that Suffolk is in talks to merge with the embattled Modern Continental, but he shoots those down, saying any partnership between the two companies would be limited to individual jobs. Fish leads an uncomplicated life and likes it that way. Two years ago he joined his father as a member of the exclusive Oyster Harbors Club, but with the exception of charity tournaments, he's rarely seen on the golf course. A man of few hobbies, he has little patience for chasing errant drives.
After swinging by the Ladder District to check on Suffolk's progress on the Opera House, where craftsmen crawl through tiered scaffolding as intricate as the gold leaf paneling they're refurbishing, it's on to the old Saltonstall Building on Cambridge Street. Fish pulls up to the massive structure and slips his keys to a Suffolk employee. He ascends to an unfinished floor that will hold the cubicles of state bureaucrats and works his way down the $100 million facelift his company is giving the building, zigzagging across the marble — tiled lobby, and finally into one of the upscale townhouses that are being added at street level. When he leaves the building on the opposite side from where he entered, his car is waiting for him, Batmobile — style.
In South Boston, he detours past the future location of the new convention center hotel — — another prize — — and makes his way to the student center at UMass Boston in Dorchester, which should be ready in November, about six months ahead of schedule. As at the other sites, the superintendent is there to greet Fish when he arrives. He is wearing the Suffolk uniform: hakis, a short — sleeved white button — down, and a hard hat. Just like his boss, he has a laminated blue — and — red card, a copy of the company's goals, in his shirt pocket. The other field staffers all have them in their pockets, too. “See,” says Fish. “They drank the Kool — Aid!”
As he pulls away, it's pointed out that Ted originally won the student center contract, only to have to hand it over to John when a $1 million error was discovered in Peabody's bid. Is that why he included the facility on this sightseeing trip? Fish won't take the bait. He needs to hustle to another meeting. It's now past 1. He's just 43. It's still early for him.
He's got plenty of time to deal with that question. If he wants to.