Joseph J. O'Donnell, MBA 1971
Founder, Chairman & CEO, Boston Culinary Group, Inc.
When Joe O'Donnell talks, people listen. Last spring, one magazine ranked him the most powerful person in Boston-head of a privately held, billion-dollar company he built practically from scratch; friend and advisor to politicians of both parties, from Boston's Democratic Mayor Tom Menino to the Bay State's Republican Governor Mitt Romney (MBA '74); member of Harvard's Board of Overseers; and benefactor to many good causes. Not bad for a "cop's kid" who grew up nearby in the blue-collar city of Everett.
O'Donnell's entrepreneurial streak started early. "I always wanted to have some degree of independence," he says. As a junior and senior in high school, he ran a tuxedo service at prom time. At Harvard College, where he starred in both football and baseball, he organized team meals and other activities at the Varsity Club. And at Harvard Business School, he started a housing agency to help entering students find apartments before they arrived on campus.
As his graduation from HBS approached, O'Donnell seemed poised to go to work for Ross Perot, who had already made a national name for himself as founder of Electronic Data Systems. Offer in hand, however, he decided against it. "As my wife, Kathy, advised me at the time," O'Donnell remembers, "Ross was a three-piece suit kind of guy, and I wasn't. I preferred Boston to New York. And I didn't like working with computers then any more than I do now. Despite the good money, it wasn't the right fit."
Instead, O'Donnell remained at HBS as associate dean of students, responsible for everything that affected students' lives outside the classroom and working closely with Dean Lawrence Fouraker and Associate Dean John McArthur (who would be named Dean in 1980 and whom O'Donnell still regards as his closest friend). In addition, he served as administrative director of one of the School's Executive Education programs.
However, when the first of his three children, Joey, was born with cystic fibrosis in 1974, O'Donnell knew he would soon have to move into the private sector. The initial medical bill alone, after all, was for $32,000. By 1976, he was considering his final options. One offer was from a publisher in Lowell whose products included Gideon Bibles. Another—which came his way via an Executive Education participant who was president of the Boston Bruins—was from a small company with about a million dollars in sales that supplied the likes of popcorn, candy, and soda to local drive-ins. "I wanted to join a small business where I had maximum opportunity for growth. Drive-In Concessions gave that to me," he explains.
Less than a year later, O'Donnell worked out a deal with Sportservice, the concessions giant that owned Drive-In Concessions, to buy 50 percent of the business. In 1977, he bought the rest of the stock and changed the name to Boston Concessions Group.
From the beginning, O'Donnell's vision of the company's future went far beyond the traditional parameters. "The way I looked at it," he says, "we were in the leisure and recreation business. And that broad view has guided me throughout the past three decades, as I've grown the company a little bit each year. In time, you end up with something a lot bigger and more diverse than you ever imagined."
Today, Boston Culinary Group (as it is now known) manages and owns 150 food-service operations throughout the country, including facilities in more than twenty arenas and stadiums, serving all kinds of snacks and comfort food in the stands and fine cuisine in the luxury boxes. It is also a major player in numerous convention and performing arts centers and airports.
The theater division owns and operates 35 movie theaters in the Northeast, responsible for everything from running the projectors to selling more than 1 million pounds of popcorn each year. To help Hollywood fill seats, O'Donnell bought Allied Advertising, which, with the clout befitting the nation's third-largest print advertiser, buys ad space in newspapers at enormous savings to national studios and local exhibitors. And skiers who have enjoyed winters at Jiminy Peak in western Massachusetts and Bromley Mountain in Vermont are schussing in resorts the company owns, while the food services it offers at fourteen other mountains makes Boston Culinary Group the largest ski area operator in the United States.
O'Donnell is happy to list the ingredients of his success. "I follow the golden rule in treating my customers and employees the way I want to be treated," he begins. "While other people in the company make the most of technology, I concentrate on the human element, calling people rather than e-mailing them, talking about their family as well as their business. We also set our salaries higher than our competitors, and then add to them with pay based on performance. In return for long-term contracts, I'm also willing to sweeten the pot by providing loans for large capital expenses. And finally, we have no debt. In a high-risk business like this, where things ranging from bad weather to national security concerns can wreak havoc with the best of plans, that puts us in the strongest financial position possible."
These days, O'Donnell spends almost half his time on philanthropic matters, especially The Joey Fund, which supports cystic fibrosis research and is named after his son, who died from the disease in 1986 at age 12. Although he is now chairman of the national Cystic Fibrosis Foundation's campaign to raise $200 million, his other efforts take place close to home. "I had a lot of breaks growing up—parents who emphasized the importance of a good education and scholarships at Malden Catholic High School, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Harvard that made it possible. I've always believed I needed to give something back to others in return." This "local boy" has made good in many ways.