John Fish on Mixing Family and Business
At 22, John Fish inherited half of a legacy—the shaky-legged, short-ended half—when he took over the newly founded Suffolk Construction from his father. Meanwhile, his brother, Ted, maintained control of Peabody Construction, the family’s long-standing crown jewel. Two brothers, two construction companies, one city: What could go wrong? After competing fiercely for years, John built his business into a $2.7 billion juggernaut, and has an estimated personal wealth of $425 million. As for Ted, the competition forced him to sell his family’s fourth-generation company, but the brothers have long since hugged it out and today share a greater respect for the importance of family.
How did you feel about having to start your business from scratch instead of building on the established family legacy?
I was given a wonderful opportunity. I didn’t have that history. Suffolk was a brand-new company. There was no white board out there to work off of. That created a lot of good and a lot of bad. I made some mistakes, but I learned from them. To me, having that clean white sheet of paper to build upon was wonderful.
Let’s talk about the brotherly divide.
Unfortunately, when you’re young and in your twenties, your perspective on life is a little different. It’s much more competitive and less looking at things holistically. There was a period of 10 years when we were fierce competitors. As I matured and realized the fundamental importance of family relationships—and I think my brother did the same thing—we were able to close that gap, thank God, about 10 or 15 years ago. That was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had and he’s had, because we were able to enjoy each other’s company going forward.
Older and wiser: What’s the takeaway?
Business and family sometimes don’t mix. Sometimes it’s not a good cocktail and doesn’t taste good. Unfortunately that’s the dynamic that you’ve got to be very careful of. Right now, I’ve got no family members working for Suffolk. That is helpful. You don’t have to talk about business over the Thanksgiving table. I think it’s important because you’ve got to have a break every once in a while.