Before George McManus III purchased J.J. McDonnell & Co. from his family friend William Owens in 1984, he drove a truck for the then-Baltimore-based seafood distribution company.
McManus grew up in Guilford, graduated from McDonogh School and worked for J.J. McDonnell as a teenager and as a Loyola College student. When the company moved its operation to the Maryland Seafood Market in Jessup, he broached the subject of buying it from Owens, who was nearing retirement and didn't have any children to take over the business.
"He said, 'You're gonna start out at the bottom,' which is where I was," McManus said.
Thirty years after that, McManus moved the company yet again last week to a new, 62,000-square-foot facility in Elkridge, more than doubling its footprint and adding the potential for new products and better fish processing.
"It's exciting. It's new," he said. "It's overwhelming somewhat."
J.J. McDonnell, which had been based in Baltimore since the 1930s, consisted of eight employees and four trucks when McManus bought it.
Employment has since swelled to 130 — about 60 drivers and warehouse workers, 25 sales and customer service employees, another 25 fish cutters, and the rest in administrative and executive roles, McManus said. The new facility has been a morale boost to them, he said.
It offers additional temperature controls and more efficient production operations, McManus said. The entire warehouse is a walk-in refrigerator, kept at a cool 34 degrees to maintain freshness. A new water system uses only chilled, ozone-treated water on the seafood to kill bacteria.
"That fish goes out with less bacteria on it, which means it lasts longer," McManus said.
He declined to say how much the company invested in the facility.
Talking about the move, the 59-year-old father of three, who lives in Glyndon, said it was time to upgrade from the old 25,000-square-foot facility the distributor was renting from the Maryland Food Center Authority.
"There weren't quick enough plans to renovate that building," he said. "We needed to get into a food facility where we could operate more efficiently."
The new facility also underscores a change in J.J. McDonnell's business model. The company used to deal mostly in frozen fish, but in the past three decades it pivoted to 60 percent fresh and 40 percent frozen. The shift came as larger wholesale distributors such as Sysco cornered the frozen market and local chefs demanded more fresh food.
For McManus, working in the seafood industry was a way for the avid boater and fisherman to incorporate his love of the outdoors into his career.
"Once you get it into your blood, it stays there," he said. "When I find something I like and enjoy, I stick with it."
George W. McManus III
The Evening Sun
Title: Owner, J.J. McDonnell & Co.
Education:McDonogh School, 1975; Loyola College, 1980
Family:Wife, Laura; children Madeline Claire, George "Will"IV, Finn