After Olympics bid, John Fish is down but hardly out
As Boston 2024’s biggest donor and chairman for most of its short existence, John Fish risked his time and money on the once-crazy dream of bringing the Olympics to Boston. But he also staked his reputation on that quest, a much bigger gamble.
With one of the deepest Rolodexes in the city, Fish is the guy you call when you want something done quickly. His ambition and drive — he often shows up at his Roxbury office before the sun rises — made Suffolk Construction the city’s biggest contractor.
When Boston magazine picked the city’s most powerful person, it was Fish’s face smiling on the cover.
He parlayed all of this, his connections, his tenacity, his status, into a long-shot bid to land the 2024 Summer Games. So when the quest imploded, Boston’s business community was left wondering whether the 55-year-old construction magnate will remain a key power broker.
All signs point to yes.
Local business leaders acknowledge that the US Olympic Committee’s decision on Monday to ditch Boston is a setback that could prompt Fish to stay out of the public eye for a while as the Olympics bid fades into memory. But they expect him to bounce back.
“John’s stature in the community has been built and, in fact, earned over a long period of time,” said James Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
Fish, he said, deserves credit for tackling a bold idea, one that inherently came with a high chance of failure.
“It’s an interesting paradox . . . that we admire boldness and riskiness, but nonetheless we enjoy criticizing people who do it when they fail,” Rooney said.
Fish last year pulled together members of Boston’s business elite — people like Bain Capital managing director Steve Pagliuca, Bob Popeo, chairman of the law firm Mintz Levin, and architect David Manfredi —
The big press conference in January announcing the USOC’s decision to pick Boston was Fish’s party to host.
But Fish, who by then had become the face of Boston’s Olympics bid, quickly learned that running what essentially is a political campaign requires a different set of skills than those needed to run a company. He’s at ease at chamber events. Mingling with the average voter turned out to be a tougher task.
Fish made a number of missteps in the subsequent months, becoming a piñata for local Olympics critics amid Boston 2024’s languishing poll numbers. By mid-April, he had stopped speaking in public on behalf of the nonprofit group, after a comment he made that linked patriotism with the Olympic bid sparked outrage.
In May, Pagliuca took over as chairman.
Jack Connors, the former ad executive who is now one of the city’s most well-known philanthropists, reached out to Fish around that time and offered some friendly advice.
“I recommended to him quietly that he go back to being a very successful builder and a very charitable citizen of this community, and keep his head down and keep doing his really good work,” Connors said.
“A year from now, people will be knocking on his door, saying, ‘John, can you help us out?’ If you’re a successful person and you’re a charitable person, you’re always going to be in demand.”
By that point, Fish had already decided to step down as chairman of the Greater Boston Chamber’s board and to pull back from his role in vetting candidates for the chamber’s chief executive job to focus on the Olympic effort.
(Rooney, then in charge of the state’s convention center authority, won the job in March.)
But Fish has showed no signs of slowing down in many of his other civic efforts. He’s still chairman of the Scholar Athletes charity and Boston College’s board of trustees, and he’ll be named chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s board in November. He remains on a number of other prominent boards, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston and the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the high-powered group of Boston chief executives that Fish launched about five years ago.
“He is so networked [and] he brings a lot of things to the table,” said Josh Kraft, chief executive of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston. “There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll continue to be a . . . philanthropic leader for this city.”
If Fish was thinking of running for office some day, as some people have speculated, his experience with Boston 2024 represented a rough first start in public campaigning. But Eileen Donoghue, the state senator from Lowell who started the conversation at the State House about the Olympics about two years ago, said politics never seemed to be his goal.
“I didn’t get any sense that he had any political ambitions, actually the opposite,” Donoghue said. “In my view, [Fish is] someone who has been very successful in his business over the years . . . and has changed his focus in looking to civic commitment and engagement.”
As Fish’s arch-enemy in the debate over the Olympics, Chris Dempsey politely won’t speculate about what Fish’s well-publicized loss will mean for his standing in Boston.
But Dempsey, cochairman of the No Boston Olympics group, saw a different side of Fish this week: Fish called Dempsey on Tuesday, a day after learning his plan had been dashed.
“He said he understood where we were coming from,” Dempsey said. “He appreciated the voice that we brought to the debate. I thought that was very gracious of him to do that. . . . I said, ‘It’s a small town; I hope on the next issue we’re on the same side.’ He said, ‘I hope so, too.’ ”