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Business

John Fish went from struggling boy to Olympic bidder

Suffolk Construction chief executive worked his way to wealth, clout.

John Fish of Suffolk Construction says Boston’s bid to get the 2024 Olympics is an effort to add to the city’s legacy.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

John Fish of Suffolk Construction says Boston’s bid to get the 2024 Olympics is an effort to add to the city’s legacy.

He seems now an unstoppable force in town, a power almost without peer in construction, commerce, and charity, and the engine behind an idea that divides the city but which he thinks could define it — the 2024 Olympic bid.

But for what seemed to him the longest time, John Fish was the little boy who couldn’t, the boy who kept to the back of his Catholic school classroom in hopes that the nuns wouldn’t call his name.

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In third grade, he still struggled to read. He couldn’t spell and could barely write. What was easy for others was nearly impossible for him. Teachers, classmates, even his family thought he might not be all that bright. And Fish had to wonder whether they might be right.

Then, in fifth grade, Fish was diagnosed with severe dyslexia, a learning disorder. It was an assessment that could have devastated but instead liberated him. He knew intelligence wasn’t the problem. He would just have to work harder than everyone else.

And never back down from a fight.

That ferocious determination has driven Fish ever since, whether it meant memorizing lessons, spending long hours in the library, or, as the chief executive of Suffolk Construction Co., routinely getting into the office by 4:30 a.m.

Over 30 years, he built Suffolk from a new venture challenging the local industry’s status quo into Boston’s biggest construction firm, with more than 1,200 employees and $2 billion a year in revenues.

RELATED: John Fish went from struggling boy to Olympic bidder

‘John is the guy who, for whatever reason, wants to be extremely well known. He just wanted to be the biggest, and he’s pushed himself in that direction.’

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He won a reputation for getting jobs done on time and on budget, and he pushed Suffolk into new markets and new territories.

His taste for competitive combat is likewise legend. He often seemed to lead with his fists, getting into bitter fights with trade unions, disputes with subcontractors, and a long-running feud with his brother, who led a rival construction company.

He would learn one day that peacemaking — brokering consensus and building relationships — was also good for business. But that would take time.

Now he is applying his uncommon focus and hard-won clout to bringing to Boston one of the biggest undertakings the city might ever see: the summer Olympics. He has led the longshot bid past the first of many hurdles, with the US Olympic Committee recently placing Boston on a short list of candidates to compete for the games.

John Fish led a work meeting with his team at Suffolk Construction in May. Fish has grown from a child who had difficulty in school to a businessman leading Boston’s Olympic bid.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

John Fish led a work meeting with his team at Suffolk Construction in May. Fish has grown from a child who had difficulty in school to a businessman leading Boston’s Olympic bid.

A successful bid will mean a multibillion-dollar commitment — building stadiums, an Olympic village, and remaking Boston’s creaky transportation system.

To critics, it seems an impossible, maybe ruinous dream, a distraction from the work needed to make a better city for those who live and work here. But who exactly is going to say no to John Fish?

Already arguably the most influential business leader in Boston, his reach extends across the corporate world into politics, academia, and charities, where his activities often result in more business for Suffolk.

Known as former Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s favorite contractor, Fish and his company have nearly $6 billion in projects underway in Boston, including the 60-story Millennium Tower at the site of the former Filene’s Building downtown.

He is deputy chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, chairman of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and a founder of group of corporate leaders modeled after the Vault, the once-powerful organization of downtown business interests. He sits on a long list of university, hospital, and nonprofit boards.

“John is the guy who, for whatever reason, wants to be extremely well known,” said Paul Martini, who was president for 36 years of a rival construction firm, A.J. Martini of Winchester, which merged two years ago with Commodore Builders of Newton. “He just wanted to be the biggest, and he’s pushed himself in that direction.”

And at 54, he still has years ahead to broaden and deepen his stamp on Boston.

“He’s successful because he is doggedly hard-working,” said Ron Druker, a developer, “and his significant impact is yet to come because he’s still young.”

Fourth-generation builder

Fish is the fourth generation of his family in the construction business. His great grandfather, Manus, founded Peabody Construction in 1891. His late father, Edward, who ran the company from 1965 to 1987, became one of Boston’s most successful builders, completing projects such as the Dock Square Garage at Faneuil Hall, Admiral’s Hill in Chelsea, and the Mercantile Wharf building in the North End.

Fish grew up in Hingham, the third of five children in a competitive Irish-Catholic family that emphasized hard work and success. The first was second nature to Fish; the second came hard. His dyslexia set him apart, from his siblings and his peers. “It defined me,” Fish said. “People thought I couldn’t do what normal people could because I was dumb.”

After a summer at a language school, Fish was admitted to Tabor Academy in Marion, where he played football, hockey, and baseball. He began to figure out how to work past his disability, spending whatever free time he had studying. He graduated in 1978 with honors.

His dyslexia made it difficult to do well on the SATs, so he applied to Bowdoin College, a respected liberal arts college in Maine that didn’t require the standardized test. Sports continued as a major focus, but otherwise his social life was limited.

When friends were out partying, Fish was in his room or in the library, still struggling to keep up with his classes. “Handwritten exams were tough,’’ he said. “Professors couldn’t understand my spelling or read my handwriting. They didn’t know I had dyslexia, but I wanted to demonstrate I cared, and I wanted to graduate with dignity.”

And he did. After graduating in 1982, Fish went to work for his father’s company. At the time, the local construction industry was dominated by companies that relied on union labor. But nonunion, or open, shops were making inroads.

So Fish’s father decided to take the extraordinary step of going after both markets. He launched Suffolk as a nonnion company and asked Fish, then 23, to run it. Fish’s older brother, Ted, would run Peabody. The brothers would go head to head.

Fish’s father seeded Suffolk with an $80,000 loan, and Fish went to work. Paying workers as much as one-third less than in union projects and trading on his family’s connections, Fish and, Suffolk began winning contracts, including the modernization of the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Government Center, the Crown Colony Drive office park in Quincy, and the Norfolk County Jail and House of Correction in Dedham.

Within a decade, Suffolk had grown to a company with some $200 million in construction projects — often at the expense of union companies. Developers, architects, and designers that worked with Suffolk described it as company that got jobs done professionally with few delays and cost overruns.

But as the real estate bust of the late 1980s and early ’90s made construction jobs scarce, the unions went after Suffolk. Picket lines went up around Suffolk projects and Fish’s home in Milton. Union officials branded Fish as a cheat who paid substandard wages and squeezed subcontractors on prices to the point that they cut corners, permitted unsafe conditions, and hired immigrants who were in the US illegally to protect their profits.

“I believed people in the industry should be compensated fairly,” recalled Mark Erlich, executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Carpenters Union, “and John had a different business model.”

Fish fought back. He defended his nonunion operation as a “merit shop” and his dealings with subcontractors. When he had to, such as in the case of a subcontractor illegally burying debris at a job site, he fired them.

Meanwhile, Suffolk’s success at the expense of union companies, including Peabody, strained the relationship between Fish and his older brother to the breaking point. Neither will discuss the details. “We were competing head to head, and it’s the Irish Catholic thing, I guess, but in ’87, we stopped talking to one another,” Fish said.

Fish eventually made peace with the unions and his brother. As construction rebounded and boomed in the ’90s, tightening the supply of skilled labor, Suffolk signed contracts with the carpenters and other unions, agreeing to pay union wages and benefits.

Fish’s outlook evolved and matured as Suffolk grew, Erlich said. Early on, as he was building Suffolk, he could afford to be aggressive with workers and subcontractors, even to the point of alienating them, Erlich said.

But as the company took on more, bigger, and higher-profile jobs, Fish recognized that he needed a reliable supply of skilled labor and lasting relationships with subcontractors.

“At a certain point, he realized if he were going to grow, he needed a higher-caliber subcontractor to get the jobs he wanted and to perform at the level he wanted,” Erlich said. “He’s built his company into a powerhouse. He would not have achieved that without coming to terms with our organization.”

Fish himself describes the shift in more personal terms, saying it took him time to set his aside his bias that hard work and a fighter’s stance always marked the most profitable path. After one particularly ugly collision with the unions, Fish, then 34, decided he had to change.

“At an early age, to me, every solution was to take a hammer to a nail, and I didn’t understand relationships. . . . Sometimes in one’s career, a light goes on, and I thought, this is no way to live. I realized suddenly there was such a thing as compromise.”

“John is the guy who, for whatever reason, wants to be extremely well known. He just wanted to be the biggest, and he’s pushed himself in that direction,” said Paul Martini, who was president for 36 years of a rival construction firm.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

“John is the guy who, for whatever reason, wants to be extremely well known. He just wanted to be the biggest, and he’s pushed himself in that direction,” said Paul Martini, who was president for 36 years of a rival construction firm.

In 2007, after more than a century in business, Peabody shut down. Fish’s brother, Ted, is now president of Roundhill Interiors, a construction company in Boston. Both emphasize that the bitterness is behind them.

“I am not sure if there is anyone that appreciates John’s achievements and is more proud of his unparalleled success than I am,” Ted Fish said. “I profoundly know the family circumstances and dynamics we grew up in and the unrelenting challenges of the construction business. John has flat out found a way to beat whatever he was confronted with, through sheer will, discipline, and perseverance.”

Reflection of personality

With its five-story lobby of glass, red brick, rich wood, and elegant fabrics, Suffolk’s headquarters would be right at home on Newbury Street, but it is in fact plunked into an industrial neighborhood in Roxbury. It is a building that reflects Fish’s personality — modern, efficient, earnest and slightly corny.

The receptionist is called the director of first impressions. Guests sign in upon arrival and out at departure, and before they arrive at their car, they have an e-mail thanking them for visiting. A fifth-floor conference room is decorated with motivational signs that reflect the Fish philosophy and his core values — passion, integrity, hard work, and professionalism.

To get in and out of his office, Fish steps across a doormat that says “Passion.” Similar mats are spread around the building and Suffolk’s offices around the country. “Anybody who works for this company, if they’re not passionate, they don’t survive,” he said.

And to keep his workers upbeat and on task, his headquarters has something of the feel of a company town, offering fitness classes on site, hair grooming on Fridays, a laundry service, and an internal charity for those facing hardship.

At 6 foot 1 inch and 195 pounds, Fish might be in better shape than he was in college, when he bulked up to 265 pounds for football. His salt-and-pepper hair is trimmed, and his white shirt crisp and monogrammed. By jogging 4 or 5 miles every Saturday and Sunday, he controls his weight in spite of occasionally indulging his love of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, especially Phish Food and Chunky Monkey.

Fish admits that his aggressive, uncompromising style in the early days of Suffolk made enemies. He blames it on inexperience.

His rough edge might, he said, have come from a sense that he had to overcompensate for his disability, he says. But he found over the years that he no longer had to define himself by it.

“You realize, OK, there are things I cannot do that other people can, but I can do some things better than other people,’’ he said. “I can read a room. I can get a sense of people quickly.”

That skill, one attributed to the best politicians, has allowed Fish to build the connections that helped expand Suffolk’s business and his own influence.

During the Menino administration, many developers believed they could improve their chances of getting projects approved if they contracted with Suffolk.

Suffolk enjoyed a lucrative run during Menino’s 20 years as mayor. Of more than 50 major projects underway in Boston in 2013, Suffolk was building a quarter of them, worth $5.7 billion. Among them: the $650 million-story Millennium Tower/Burnham development in Downtown Crossing; the $325 million Brigham Building for the Future at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; a $120 million, 26-story residential tower at 120 Kingston Street; and Harvard University’s $150 million dual-tower Barry’s Corner complex in Allston.

Both Menino’s son, Thomas, and brother, David, worked for Suffolk. After leaving City Hall, two chiefs of staff under Menino — Peter Welsh and David Passafaro — also got jobs with Fish.

In an interview, Menino bristled at the suggestion that Fish received favored treatment from his administration. Menino said his son was hired for part-time work at Suffolk before Menino knew he was applying, and his brother was hired at Suffolk before Menino became mayor. Welsh and Passafaro, he added, are “talented individuals, and most companies would want them.”

Menino, who described Fish as a longtime friend, said Fish won contracts because he made the most competitive proposals to developers, not through any pressure from City Hall.

“Whoever has the best numbers, he gets picked, [and] John had the best numbers, the best project, the best product,” Menino said. “Given all the developers who hire him, he must be doing something right.”

Still, many in the business community wonder how Suffolk will fare under the new administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a former union leader. Welsh, Menino’s former chief of staff, helped secure approval of the Boston Redevelopment Authority for Suffolk projects, but in the recent campaign supported Walsh’s primary opponent, Charlotte Golar Richie, and sharply criticized the soon-to-be-mayor.

Welsh’s employment recently ended at Suffolk when it became known recently he was not welcome at Walsh’s City Hall. “It was his decision to leave,” Fish said, “and we were sorry to hear that he wanted to go.”

Fish says he likes Walsh for the same reason he liked Menino — they’re both underdogs. “How many people said two years ago that Marty would become mayor? Not many,” Fish said. “But he wouldn’t give up, and to see him blossom now is great.”

Won’t run for office

There will be no fifth generation of Fish progeny in the construction business, at least not at Suffolk, Fish says. His wife, Cyndy, isn’t enthused about their three daughters joining the firm. “Why — because you really have to love it to be satisfied,’’ he said.

As for himself, Fish puts only one boundary to his ambition — he has no plans to seek public office. Rather, he sees himself expanding his already spacious works in charity and the nonprofit sphere, “helping underprivileged kids in the inner city.”

Pressing the Olympic cause grows out of that side of him, he says, more than any commercial motive. Skeptics have noted that the construction industry would be among the biggest beneficiaries should the Games come to Boston. Fish has acknowledged as much but dismissed it as his motivation. He says simply that he doesn’t need the money.

He concedes the Boston bid is a long shot for success. But then again, once, long ago, so was he.

He frames the conversation about the Games in terms of legacy, the region’s more than his own. Even if Boston doesn’t win the competition, he said, the effort provides the platform to debate the direction and future of the state and an opportunity to promote the city to the world.

“Sure, it’s a huge dream,” Fish said, “but if you don’t dream big, you sell yourself short.”

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