It’s safe to say John Fish already has a lot on his plate, running Suffolk Construction Co. and sitting on a long list of boards that direct Massachusetts business groups and nonprofits.
But that list is likely to grow a little longer soon. The executive committee of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce board is meeting Tuesday morning, and I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts it recommends Fish to succeed Hill Holliday chief executive Karen Kaplan as the chamber’s next chairman in the spring.
Fish owns a very big construction business that generates about $2 billion a year in revenue. He was one of Tom Menino’s favorite builders, a rain-making distinction that helped Suffolk secure work as contractor for a long list of high-profile Boston projects from the Opera House to Millennium Place, the 60-story tower under development at the old Filene’s site downtown.
Fish has been a prominent businessman about town for some time now, but his recent degree of activity blending civics and economics is something different.
Two weeks ago, Fish attended his first meeting of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston board as its vice chairman, a role that puts him in line to become chairman in two years. He recently became the chairman of a commission exploring the possibility of bringing the Olympics to Boston in 2024, a far-fetched idea he has promoted energetically.
Fish remains a founding member of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a small and very exclusive group of big-business chief executives working on economic issues statewide. He stepped down as the partnership’s first chairman last year.
All those roles, along with his involvement with lots of large nonprofits, including Boston College and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and small charities, like Boston Scholar Athletes, make Fish the most civically active and widely connected Boston businessman since Jack Connors, a comparison he dismisses. “There will never be another Jack Connors,” he says of someone who has clearly been a role model.
Still, there is this question: Why does John Fish want to be chairman of the Boston Chamber of Commerce? And, yes, he really does want the job.
I got two distinctly different answers when I talked to him about it. The first is a blend of civic altruism and commercial realism, aiming to do something worthy while acknowledging his involvement in everything from a Boston Olympics commission to the Chamber of Commerce benefits business at Suffolk.
Fish, 53, has been running his company for three decades now. He says that over the years he’s become interested in broader economic and social concerns. “I realize the world is not about building buildings,” says Fish.
The second answer is all about what Fish would like to accomplish at the Chamber. It’s a counterintuitive goal for an organization that, almost by definition, exists to promote local connections and parochial interests. The key to growth in Greater Boston, says Fish, is to help develop economic opportunities beyond Route 128.
“It’s almost impossible for us to continue to grow in population and job creation unless we take advantage of the resources outside 128,” says Fish. “If we don’t have an overall strategy for the Commonwealth, it’s never going to materialize and we’re going to be stuck where we are now. The heartbeat of Massachusetts is pumping well but I don’t think it’s sustainable.”
Fish insists he doesn’t want to dilute the things that draw most members to a chamber of commerce — those local relationships and advocacy. His pitch: Convince other business lobbies and regional chambers to deliver a consistent message on important statewide economic issues like transportation, whether that means repairing bridges or fixing the MBTA’s pathetic finances.
This is not a newly formed point of view. I talked to Fish four years ago about the creation of the statewide business partnership and he said very similar things. The voice of business was diluted and ineffective. Economic success for the state depended on growth to the west in Massachusetts, where real estate, labor, and many other things were abundant and much less expensive.
We’ll see if Fish can really convince a historically balkanized collection of business organizations to speak with one voice about anything.
I must say I have big doubts. But no one ever accused John Fish of lacking ambition.