Retired Navy captain overseeing Merrimack Valley recovery lauded as a good fit for a complex task
Joe Albanese has launched a construction company from scratch and led thousands of Navy engineers in Kuwait after the second Gulf War. Now he’s in charge of helping Lawrence and Andover rebuild from last week’s gas explosions.
The founder of Waltham-based Commodore Builders and a retired Navy captain, Albanese on Friday was named chief recovery officer followoing the explosions that killed a Lawrence man and damaged dozens of homes in the Merrimack Valley. He’ll have “command and control” responsibilities not just over rebuilding 48 miles of gas lines, but over services, logistics, and communications in a project that’s expected to last months.
It’s a huge job, but Columbia Gas — which was ordered by Governor Charlie Baker to bring in outside help — said Albanese’s hands-on background in construction and large-scale military operations made him a good choice.
“Captain Albanese has deep experience running big construction projects under difficult circumstances,” said Columbia spokesman Scott Ferson. “The governor identified him and we see him as a perfect fit for this mammoth task that must be carried out fast and well.”
A Newton native and University of Massachusetts Lowell graduate, Albanese launched Commodore in 2002 after having worked for several other construction companies. He has expanded it from a small office into a 140-person operation with $350 million in annual revenue, managing projects that range from suburban office buildings to luxury downtown condos to the 2014 restoration of the Old State House.
Along the way, he served 28 years in the Navy and Navy Reserve, retiring in 2009 as a captain in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. He spent 10 months in Kuwait in 2007, leading a Navy construction crew, the Seabees — helping to rebuild after the second Gulf War. He has said that experience, and his long service in the military, shaped his views on complex business challenges.
“I learned things are never as good or as bad as they seem, and how important it is to instill purpose in every mission,” he said in a 2014 interview with Boston.com. “The Navy also taught me that the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut is about three days.”
That military background and Albanese’s no-nonsense bearing cheered Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, who has been sharply critical of Columbia’s response since the Sept. 13 explosions.
“I think we have a Norman Schwarzkopf figure dealing with a Gulf War situation here,” he said Friday.
Albanese knows how to build a team, said Bob Petrucelli, the chief executive of Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts. Albanese has long been a board member for the trade group, and served as board chairman for two years earlier this decade, helping often fiercely independent construction executives to pull in the same direction.
“He’s a natural, charismatic leader,” Petrucelli said. “These guys, they all have their own opinions, and Joe was able to harness their energy in a positive manner and do some good things.”
Albanese, 56, will be taking a leave from Commodore to oversee the recovery effort.
He and a team he put together in Boston for a construction project have a way with complex operations, said Lee Goodman, owner of WaterMark Development. WaterMark hired Commodore to build a $40 million social services building in Jackson Square, and Goodman said they have been impressed with how Albanese and his team have carefully worked through all the details ahead of construction.
“They understand this is a nonprofit building, and they’ve been doing the predevelopment work kind of on the house,” said Goodman, whose firm is co-developing the 139,000-square-foot building with Horizons for Homeless Children. “They’ve sat with us every Wednesday morning for the last eight months planning all this out.”
The building broke ground Friday morning, with Albanese scheduled to speak alongside Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and other dignitaries. He couldn’t make it, though, and sent his chief operating officer instead.
Albanese was in Lawrence, being introduced by Baker and getting ready for his next complicated job.