Go Fish: J.J. McDonnell’s owner chases seafood around the world

By Magazine Staff  |  Photos by Brian Schneider

As a college student, George McManus, III, ’80, drove a truck for J.J. McDonnell’s for his weekend and summer job. After a year at Randolph-Macon College, he worked his way through Loyola, earned a business degree, and went to work for the local seafood distributor full time.

“Little by little I learned the business,” said McManus, who has done almost every job there, including working in the warehouse and cutting and packing fish. “When there was an opportunity to buy the company, I was fortunate enough to have my father support it.”

When McManus became the owner of J.J. McDonnell’s in 1986, the company was about one-tenth the size it is today. Right now McManus is searching for a new location for the business, which has outgrown its current warehouse/office space in Jessup, Md.

“The past several years the retail sector has done much better than food service—meaning restaurants—because when the money gets tough, and the economy gets tough, people eat more at home,” he said.

Thirty percent of J.J. McDonnell’s business is retail—they are the supplier for the region’s Wegman’s, Eddie’s, and Graul’s supermarkets, as well as many Latino and Asian markets—while 70 percent is sold to restaurants. Diners find the company’s lobsters, oysters, crabs, fresh hand-cut fillets, and almost 40 other types of seafood served at restaurants such as Bluestone Restaurant in Baltimore and the Great American Restaurant Group in Virginia.

“The seafood business doesn’t allow you to be complacent because there’s an ever-changing nature,” McManus said. “It’s about chasing the product around the world, based on conservation and Mother Nature. We’re constantly chasing fish. Now the highly visible components to the industry are the regulatory and public issues that are becoming more and more critical—sustainability, traceability, safety, and sanitation. These are prerequisites to success today, requiring greater investments in educating people and improving plants, thus enabling us to partner with customers with similar values and beliefs. Freshness, quality, service, and price are a given.”

The original J.J. McDonnell company was started in the ’40s in a seafood market in downtown Baltimore. McDonnell was a man who rented a stall there. McManus is the company’s fourth owner.

Today, as McManus watches seafood travel from all over the world to his warehouse, where it’s cut and packed and trucked as quickly as possible, he reflects on the Jesuit education he, two of his sisters—Margaret McManus Moag, ’77, M.S. ’78, and Mary McManus Boney, ’76—his father, George, Jr., ’43, and wife, Laura Cederholm McManus, ’90, benefited from.

“Even though the school of hard knocks has certainly taught me to be successful, college and the business degree gave me depth and broad knowledge of so many subjects,” McManus said. “You learn through having to learn. It’s not just about the subject. It’s about the discipline you get through going through college.”

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