The Boston Irish Honors 2019: John and Kathy Drew deal in relationships

Development Maestro John Drew and Kathy (Morley) Drew agree: “We’ve never forgotten how fortunate we are.”

The adage “geography is destiny” holds true for John and Kathy Drew. From South Boston and Dorchester to today’s local waterfront, geography has very much helped to shape the couple’s lives.
Take a look at the soaring Boston Seaport district, and you’ll see the literal impact of John Drew, founder and CEO of the eponymous Drew Company. Not so long ago, many local power players did not believe that the rundown waterfront’s polyglot scene of grimy warehouses, dingy parking lots, and shabby buildings could even be renovated, let alone renewed. John Drew, however, viewed the Seaport differently. He saw the potential for a major redevelopment of the site and made it happen in a major way.
Today, the ongoing transformation of the Seaport into one of Boston’s commercial and residential gems stands as testimony to Drew’s vision and talent, not to leave out his tenacity.
How tangible is the Drew Company’s presence in the Seaport District? The Seaport Hotel and World Trade Center Boston, Seaport East and Seaport West—all are testament to Drew’s and his company’s innovative public and private partnerships. Far beyond his Boston turf are Drew’s national and international projects such as the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington and, in Ireland, the World Trade Center Dublin.
The Drew Company was also the proverbial guiding hand in the former Tweeter Center for the Performing Arts (today’s Xfinity Center), the Bayside Exposition Center, and Boston’s Constitution Plaza. Recently, Drew can point to the 2014 opening of the Seaport’s glittering Waterside Place.
For many who garner immense affluence, a frequent push to turn away from, or simply forget where they came from, is all too common. John Drew and his wife Kathy have never fallen into that trap. To the contrary, they not only treasure their respective middle-class South Boston and Dorchester roots, but also prize their families’ immigrant Irish heritage. Most importantly, the Drews have always remained committed to giving back to the community. The developer’s success in business has offered the Drews the ideal conduit for helping others, which is exactly what the couple has done.
John Drew’s path to the Seaport’s renaissance began not so many blocks away from that very site. Born and raised in City Point, he was a member of St. Brigid parish and began his education at the parish grammar school. From there, he went on to graduate from BC High, earn his bachelor’s degree from Stonehill, and his master’s at Boston University.
Kathy Morley Drew grew up on Elm Street in Dorchester, a member of St. Ambrose Parish and was educated at the St. Ambrose parochial school and Gate of Heaven High School.
‘The other side
of the world’
Early in his career some 50 years ago, John Drew worked as chief of policy for Massachusetts Gov. Francis W. Sargent, and it was then that his development and redevelopment portfolio began to bloom. “I was responsible to find re-use for closed military bases and related sites such as the Charlestown and Southie Navy Yards,” Drew says. “I loved it, and my career took off from there.
“For Kevin White, I was involved in a lot of renovation projects, and to me, as I studied other cities’ urban-renewal projects, I came to see how the opportunity of so much neglected waterfront space in Boston was unparalleled.”
Drew believes that “the waterfront is therapeutic, it’s in our genes. I’ve always felt that intuitively and professionally about the Boston waterfront. Even when the area was so rundown and considered so remote from the city – ‘the other side of the world,’ critics said – I saw it as such a great opportunity, even after some early projects failed.”
His early career in local and state renewal projects stoked Drew’s passion for real-estate development that would benefit commerce and the community alike. “I was involved in the Lafayette Place project and others,” he notes, “and when Joe Corcoran invited me to join his projects at Columbia Point, I jumped at the opportunity. Joe, Frank Sargent, Ned Johnson [longtime Fidelity CEO] Kevin White, and Joe Moakley have been such big influences in my life. They all had such vision and such love for Boston.”
Drew adds: “In the early ‘80s, while I was working on the Bayside project, I wanted more and more to branch out on my own. That’s how and why the Drew Company came into being. It took about three years for my company to establish itself, and the Great Woods project was a huge one for me.
“One thing about the ‘80s was that many politicians and developers believed that Southie and the Seaport were two areas to steer clear of. I never saw it that way. Was there risk there? Sure, but, again, the opportunity I saw – the waterfront – always was in me. You have to be willing to take a risk you believe in.”
Discussing the many obstacles to redeveloping the Seaport, Drew says, “There’s always a ‘NIMBY’ (“Not in My Backyard”) factor that can come with big projects. With the Seaport, I had grown up in the neighborhood. I understood the importance of building trust by living up to what we promised we would do. We held extensive neighborhood and community meetings, emphasizing the help we would provide to schools, and the employment opportunities. We promised and delivered parks, public spaces, as well as underground parking for the high-rise buildings going up.
“Fidelity was a huge partner for us. They stuck with us. That’s so key in our business. Things don’t always go your way, sometimes through no fault on your part. For example, in 2008, when the economy nearly went down, we had a massive project on Summer and Congress Streets, with all the major retail pieces – Stop & Shop, Nordstrom, and others –almost in place. The retailers pulled out, and it was a lost opportunity.”
Not so with the Seaport. During the interview, Drew’s mind continued to churn with ideas to make the waterfront an even more resident and visitor friendly area. “People would love a public library here,” he said, “and I’d like that, as well as a new school. More than anything, we want to create even more reasons for people to come to the waterfront even if they don’t live or work here. I think that a hockey and ice-skating rink could do well and be a magnet for high school and college tournaments. It’s financially viable in hockey-mad Massachusetts and would open more doors to visitors.”
Opening doors to ventures funded through private and public partnerships is Drew’s true stock in trade, his ability to understand and negotiate with politicians, fellow CEOs, and community leaders alike nearly unparalleled locally. He again cites Kevin White, Ned Johnson, and Joe Moakley as mentors who taught him how to navigate often treacherous development currents.
Drew speaks from deep experience when he describes what it’s like to cultivate relationships among bottom-line businesspeople, politicians with their varying agendas, and, from both realms, genuine visionaries and risk-takers. In many ways, Drew embodies the saying “no risk, no reward. You have to be able to work with both the private and public sides to get a project off the ground,” he says. “You have to be able to get all the principals to buy in—not just financially. The thing is to get everyone on the same page with vision, trust, and, of course, a strong financial plan.”
Stopping for a moment to reflect, Drew says, “Not long ago, Kathy and I came across an old article in which Tom Menino is talking about the Seaport and saying, ‘Nothing happens.’ Well, something’s certainly happening here now, and we’ve had groups from China, Japan, and lots of other countries considering waterfront development projects and coming here to see how we’ve done it.”
Family and Community
Come First
The family histories of John Drew and Kathy Morley are classic “Southie” and “Dot” Irish. One of Edward and Theresa Drew’s two sons (brother Paul is deceased), John learned early on that three of his grandparents hailed from the “old sod” of Galway and Cork. Kathy’s parents both emigrated from Ireland, her father from Knock and her mother from Mayo. She was one of three children, with two brothers.
The couple look back with pride in their Irish roots and with fondness—actually, love—of their South Boston upbringing. “I had a great childhood in Southie,” John says. “Our parents and our neighbors were middle-class, hard-working people. My dad was a printer, and my mom was an operator at City Hall. We had neighbors who were cops, firefighters, IRS workers, contractors, laborers—you name it.
“One thing that always stood out was how tight and supportive our community and parish were. It sounds cliché, but people genuinely looked out for each other. If someone ran into financial or medical problems, the community helped. That’s simply the way it was. When you’re raised that way, the desire—the duty—to help those in need becomes ingrained. Our upbringing was very Catholic, and we’re proud of the community values that the church, our parents, and our grandparents brought us.”
For her part, Kathy says, “My upbringing was similar to John’s. It was a happy one, a full one with family friends, and our close-knit parish. John and I met the old-fashioned way – a friend of mine introduced us. We were both 17, and we got married in John’s senior year of college.”
John jokes, “For a city girl, Kathy had everything—a driveway and a backyard. I guess I married her for her driveway.” Chuckling, Kathy teases, “I brought John over the bridge.”
Four children – three girls, one boy – and twelve grandchildren, the rest is history, family history.
Three of John and Kathy’s children have followed their father into the family business. John is deeply involved in the operations of the Reagan Center and Maureen manages the Drew Company’s business-to-business software platform and oversees the Dublin office. In Boston, Carolyn holds crucial roles with the company’s marketing department and also the company’s and family’s charitable commitments.
“Johanne’s the only one who escaped the family business,” John jokes. “She’s a pre-school teacher.”
Charity begins at home
and also in the office
Throughout their lives, John and Kathy Drew have devoted themselves to a wide array of charities and community aid. They have been unflagging in their support of Catholic Charities and, in a nod to their Irish heritage, the Ireland Fund. These are but a few of their civic and religious endeavors to help “the least among us.” While John is not up to too much talk about the many business and civic awards he has won, he has no hesitation in elaborating about a charity that is especially meaningful to him.
“I’m deeply involved with the Adopt a Student Program, which supports Cathedral High School, right next to Holy Cross Cathedral. It pays deserving kids’ tuition and gives them a chance to achieve a great education and a path toward a great life and career that might otherwise be blocked for them. I tell anyone that it’s an example of how we can all help make things better one kid at a time.”
Once again, both John and Kathy emphasize that their Irish- American, “Southie,” and “Dot” upbringings instilled in them a determination to parley their success into community and charitable service.
“We’ve never forgotten where we came from and how fortunate we are,” says Kathy. With another chuckle, she adds, “I’m not sure how many sermons John really listened to at church, but there’s one I know he listened to.”
“Best sermon ever,” John responds. “The priest said that you help others not to be thanked, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
It seems altogether fitting that a developer who is a proud Boston-Irish son of Southie has so changed and renewed a once-moribund seaport space that lies so near to the streets of his youth. “Geography is destiny”—the words are apt for both John and Kathy Drew, whose charitable works stand as true testament to the values of their heritage.