THE BLOG
10/02/2014 09:05 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

Rolling With the Punches: Heavy Hitter John Fish on How Early Challenges Shaped His Career

John Fish is chairman and CEO of Suffolk Construction, a nationally-ranked general building contractor based in Boston that pulls in about $2 billion of annual revenue, making it the largest building company in New England.

Fish reports a 3:30 AM rising time, which seems a necessity because in addition to his oversight duties as the longstanding head of a prestigious organization, Fish says he dedicates roughly a third of his time to boards and executive committees that support community, environmental, and social causes on the local, state, and national levels.

Although he was recently lauded by the Boston Globe as "arguably the most influential leader in Boston," Fish wasn't always the frontrunner he is today. During his childhood, he grappled with dyslexia. However, the learning difference proved a boon during his early career, pushing him to exceed people's expectations.

When Fish was 23, his father asked him to run Suffolk, then a fledgling enterprise. Fish says he used both "brain and brawn" to build Suffolk into the behemoth it is today, although he admits he may have leaned too heavily on the latter quality when first starting out.

Most recently, Fish has used his love of sports, which he sees as a common denominator for people from all walks of life, to champion a contentious bid to bring the 2024 summer Olympics to Boston, which is now on a short list of candidates to host the games.

Fish recently sat down with me to discuss how early defeats shaped him as a businessman, to offer advice for aspiring and established entrepreneurs, and to disclose his lofty goals for the future of Suffolk. Follow our conversation, which I have excerpted below.

Marc Wayshak: You obviously got started early running your business. What was it like being a young guy in an industry where there probably were a lot more gray hairs than twenty-somethings?

John Fish: I grew up in a family where my dad was very, very old fashioned, and he gave me enough rope to hang myself with as a young individual in everything I did, whether it was sports or whether it was school, because he thought you learn by making your mistakes. ... Early on, when I got involved in business I learned [by] defeat, by getting beaten up and by losing. ...

As a young person, I was a pretty good athlete, and I understood what teamwork was, and I tried to apply the same principles to business as to the team, and it was very, very similar, but it wasn't always a very level playing field.

As a young person, I didn't really understand what that meant. I didn't really understand how easily experience could un-level the playing field and how naive and immature that I was. ... At the end of the day, here I was 23, 24 years old finding [that] it didn't make a difference how hard you worked or how much preparation you put in before the game; it didn't necessarily equate to wining.

What are some of [the skills] you think you were missing [as a young entrepreneur] that you've developed over the years?

Getting involved at 22, 23 years old, running my own business, I lacked experience. I was playing in the league well above my head, which I enjoyed. I enjoyed the competition because I thought I could outwork everybody, but I also did not understand the importance of relationships as a young person.

It was more brawn than brain, and I thought that you could sort of achieve great successes by just working your ass off, and what I realized as I got a little older, [in] my thirties, was how valuable relationships were. ... I realized that one size doesn't fit all, but I thought that it did, and therefore, some of my actions and some of my approaches weren't necessarily conducive to productivity.

What are some pieces of advice you have for other entrepreneurs?

The first piece of advice I would say to any entrepreneur is never forget where you came from. ...

Second, follow your passion. I see so many people engage in an occupation, or a job, which is different from a career...and they're doing it in the short run; they're not doing it in the long run. When I get out of bed in the morning at 3:30, I don't need an alarm clock. My feet hit the floor. I'm excited and enthusiastic about going to work. ...

Even though [Suffolk] is a construction company, I don't run this anything like a construction company. ... We try to do our best to hire extremely well-educated people, people that have the core values that we have: passion, integrity, hard work, and professionalism, people that really care not just about the almighty dollar, but about being the greatest builder[s] in the history of this industry.

So what's next for John Fish? For Suffolk?

A few years ago, I would say to people that I want to build an iconic company in the construction industry, and we have built a very, very strong company to date, a very well respected company nationally. But as I got a little older, I sort of looked at the mirror of age, and I realize that we may not be able to build an iconic company during my [time] as CEO of this company, but I'm hoping I can pass the torches on to the next generation to watch them do that. ...

I really am hoping and praying in many respects that we can continue to preserve our culture, the core values that we have as a company, and continue this pursuit of excellence, of wanting to build an enduring organization that is not just a construction company, but is a company that [employees] deeply care about, are passionate about, and want to build something iconic. To me, it's like climbing a mountain you can't see the top of. I'm not sure we can ever get there, but knowing the opportunity is in front of us to me is half the battle.