Earlier this month, we sat down for a conversation with Alex Harris, Senior Project Manager at J2H Partners. We talked about everything from what it’s like to work for the government versus the private sector, to how he started a lobster distribution company in college. Read on to learn more about this entrepreneur’s unique background and what led him to join the team at J2H.
How long have you been at J2H? What does your day-to-day look like?
I started in July of 2019 as a Senior Project Manager. I oversee, manage, and coordinate commercial construction projects — anything from design to permitting to land use, all the way from evaluation of bids from general contractors through construction and closeout.
Did you go to school for project management? Tell us about your evolution from college to the present day. How’d you land in this career path?
I went to the University of Maryland for Business and Economics. When I was there, I started a lobster company, and we sold to D.C.’s largest restaurants, wholesalers, and fish markets, so I made a lot of connections. I also had previous asset management experience with a large hotel ownership company. Between the combination of both of those things, I made some good contacts, and when I eventually sold 207 Lobster I was offered a position with a private firm, much like this one, doing SCIF construction (Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities) in the Northern Virginia area.
I did that for a few years, and bounced around a few companies in a few different roles, mostly in military, intelligence, and emergency response project management. I worked for FEMA for a bit. After a hurricane, tornado, or flood we’d travel to the disaster and find large parcels of land or abandoned facilities and basically convert them into emergency response command centers or large-scale tent cities.
So you started in the private sector, then made the jump to work for the government, and then transitioned back to the private sector. What were some of the most pivotal or interesting projects you’d worked on before J2H?
I did a BSL2 (Biosafety Level 2) lab for the U.S. Department of the Navy down in California, a medical research facility and rehabilitation center for marines who’ve been injured overseas. It was a complex dynamic between the Army Corps of Engineers, the General Services Administration, the Navy, and the CDC. It bridged a lot of different sectors of government — everyone came together to work on something that had high importance and it was a success and a lot of fun.
For the private sector, I really enjoyed a few hotel projects I worked on near where I grew up, in Portland, Maine. It was fun to be back in town working on seaside resorts and see how it impacted the community and brought jobs.
What was it like to grow up in Portland, and how’d you end up down in the D.C. area?
Growing up in Portland was a lot of fun, and it has changed a lot since I grew up. It was a small working town, and now it’s a huge tourism hub of the Northeast. Every time I go home and see all the construction I kind of wish I had been a bigger part of it. I love going back, and I love that a lot of other people are getting to appreciate it now, too. The food is amazing there!
I left because… the winters are long. It’s dark and it’s cold. I came down south to go to school and play more golf. Then I started 207 Lobster and ended up making this my home.
So, we have to ask, how exactly did you end up starting a lobster business?
I had a friend in Maine whose family lived in Cushing and owned a decent size seafood wharf where fishermen came to exclusively sell their daily catch. One day we were joking around, and one thing led to another and he ended up loading a bunch of lobsters in the back of a 1992 Suburban and driving it down to Maryland overnight. I worked in a restaurant at the time and contacted the chef. He got excited and told his buddies... and the next thing we know we’re in all these fine dining restaurants. We were even finalists in the University of Maryland Cupid’s Cup in 2010 and 2011 which was held by Kevin Plank, former CEO of Under Armour.
Nowadays, the industry is really saturated. When I did this in school in 2010, nobody was doing it. It was really exciting to have something shipped overnight and be here within 12 hours of when it was pulled out of the water.
You’ve been at J2H for about two-and-a-half years now. What first drew you to the firm?
I came to J2H because I always wanted to work for a smaller boutique firm. I was so used to being a cog in the wheel for the Government. But here it feels like every decision, everything you do, and all the effort you put in translates into real impact.
What really excited me was the three guys that run this place. I think a lot of the people who work here share this feeling. I thought having the chance to work hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm with them would be an invaluable experience. They’re well-regarded professionals in the industry so it seemed like a really unpassable opportunity.
As a project manager, I know you work with a lot of different people every day. What’s your management style?
I try to be pretty laid back and easygoing. I’m all about results and keeping everybody laughing. It’s important to me to have a good team dynamic — let’s hustle, let’s get it done, let’s laugh in between here and there, and then let’s go out for beers after.
I just want to get the job done and have a good time doing it. At the end of the day, it’s all about our client and their best interest.
What’s been your favorite or most memorable project at J2H so far?
Working on a gaming center for a large government contractor. It was basically a large auditorium with a bunch of breakout gaming rooms that all had an opaque frosting glass that could, at the flip of a switch, go from being opaque to see-through. There were eight or nine different scenario rooms, where they would run simulations, and everything was displayed on the main screen in the larger auditorium. It was a blast. It was a really cool operation.
That sounds like it! Can you tell us a little about new work with Holistic and cannabis? I’m curious how your experience is helping you navigate this brand-new frontier.
I’ve been able to take a lot of experience from previous jobs and make it relevant — especially working in Bio life safety labs. I’ve worked at many data centers, and a lot of the components for Holistic are built using a lot of electrical and HVAC, so that’s a similarity.
I will say that it’s a totally different business than I’m used to though. And everyone is a relatively new industry, so they’re constantly learning and needing to make changes to better their operation. You’ve got to be really flexible and figure out how to coordinate through the changes. They’re striving for excellence and there’s a lot to learn, being in a new industry, and they’re doing a really good job of it.
What are you up to when you’re not working?
I’m usually outdoors, golfing or boating. I have a boat on the eastern shore. It’s black, grey, and orange, so I’ve always wanted to name it the Orange Crush. But it doesn’t have an official name.
I live in downtown D.C., and it feels like a small town, but there’s always something going on. It’s a fun place to be.
"Alex’s attention to detail, focus on the client’s best interest, and project team building skills have made him an invaluable part of our team here at J2H Partners" - John Sadlik, Principal, J2H Partners