Power 2005: The Old Guard

YOU DON’T TYPICALLY SEE photographs of President George W. Bush walking his dogs. After all, who wants to watch a couple of Scottish terriers relieving themselves on the White House lawn? And that’s just fine with Joe O’Donnell.

[sidebar]It’s on these dog-walking jaunts that O’Donnell and the president catch up. The extremely low-profile Boston concessions king, whose net worth is believed to be just shy of $1 billion, is a big fund-raiser for Bush, to the tune of at least $200,000 in the last election. But he’s an equal-opportunity consigliere, also advising Mayor Tom Menino, Senate President Robert Travaglini, Attorney General Tom Reilly ― all Democrats ― Governor Mitt Romney, and Harvard president Lawrence Summers. “They don’t make a move without calling this guy,” one insider says, exaggerating only slightly.

They’d do well to listen. From blue-collar roots as the son of an Everett cop, O’Donnell was recruited to play baseball at Exeter and then at Harvard. Along with his diploma, Harvard Business School handed him the graduation present of a job there, where he met every whiz-kid entrepreneur who came through (not to mention Bush, a member of the Class of ’75). Finally O’Donnell quit to start his own company, now called Boston Culinary Group, which sells food services to stadiums and other venues. He has 12,000 employees and stakes in restaurants ― including Figs and John Harvard’s Brew House ― theaters, ski resorts, and hotels; he’s in the middle of building, with pal Steve Karp, the $200 million Westin at the new convention center. He’s the largest shareholder in Suffolk Downs, and his Allied Advertising makes him one of the biggest advertisers in New England. “Joe owns 4 percent of everything,” another friend, talk-show veteran Eddie Andelman, once joked of O’Donnell.

And he gives a lot of it back. His Joey Fund, named for his son who died at 12 of cystic fibrosis, raises some $2 million a year for research into that disease. O’Donnell gives millions to Harvard, where he’s on the lofty board of overseers. He’s also a director of Harvard Business School and on the boards of Children’s Hospital and the Winsor School. “He can afford to speak his mind,” another corporate executive on this list says: “He’s richer than all these other people.”

Only one entity has proven to have more clout than Joe O’Donnell: Major League Baseball. It reportedly put the fix in that prevented him, along with Karp and other wealthy partners, from realizing their lifelong dream of owning the Red Sox.

THE RANKS OF Boston’s Old Guard have been thinned, and some longtime power players seem worn out: Witness philanthropist David Mugar’s rant that he wouldn’t be around forever to underwrite the July 4 Pops celebration on the Esplanade and that somebody else needed to step up. (Somebody finally did ― Liberty Mutual chairman, president, and CEO Ted Kelly, part of the New Guard.) But they’re still around if you know where to look for them: at the hush-hush Breakfast Group run by Meredith & Grew executive VP Kevin Phelan (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston president Cathy Minehan, Harvard Pilgrim president and CEO Charles Baker, Channel 5 president and general manager Paul La Camera). On the Board of Governors of the Tournament Players Club in Norton (ad exec Jack Connors, Kelly). At the high-powered lunches run by Boston College’s Chief Executives’ Club. At the annual fall dinner of the American Ireland Fund. On the wall at the Palm.

Take Connors. After he handed over his responsibilities as president and CEO of Hill, Holliday (whose chairman he remains), the veteran go-to guy might have joined his fellow power-listers who had faded away. Instead, he helped raise the money needed to nab the Democratic National Convention. He chairs the board of BC, many of whose alumni form a local power network of their own, and of Partners HealthCare, which includes Brigham & Women’s and Mass General hospitals. One of the first important voices to call for Cardinal Bernard Law to quit, he was named by Law’s successor, Archbishop Sean O’Malley, to the panel that reviewed church closings.

Peter Meade is on that panel, too. Executive VP of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the former radio talk-show host remains a frequent and respected political analyst, chairman of the board of Catholic Charities, and a member of the Kennedy Greenway Conservancy Board, which has the power to remake Boston’s downtown.

There are other rocks of Boston’s power structure: the Patriots’ Bob and Myra Kraft. Amos and Barbara Hostetter, who run the city’s biggest (based on asset size) private foundation. Frank Doyle, president and CEO of Connell Limited Partnership, a $1 billion-a-year manufacturer of industrial equipment.

But there’s been a shift in the power business, too. A New Guard is marching in.


Photo by Charles Gauthier