Jim Quinn, President of Tiffany & Co., talks to Patricia Harty about business at Tiffany’s, his Irish heritage and family, and his commitment to New York.
On that famous strip of Fifth Avenue where all that glitters is gold and silver, and shoppers from the world over come to buy at Bergdorf Goodman, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci, the jewel in the crown — its alluring window displays of fine jewelry seducing the passerby — is Tiffany’s.
Already a New York institution when Truman Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was published in 1950, the subsequent movie starring Audrey Hepburn ensured that the Tiffany name would enter into the lexicon of popular culture and forever be linked with elegance, style, and fine jewels.
“When you receive a Tiffany box, you already know that it holds a promise of good things to come,” says Jim Quinn, president of Tiffany, and the man responsible for retail, corporate, and direct marketing sales in this $2.4 billion company.
Quinn gives a demonstration on tying the white bow on the distinctive blue box, which dates to 1837 when Charles Lewis Tiffany decreed that all of the packaging and advertising of his newly opened Manhattan store should be in exactly the same shade of blue.
A star football player in high school and college, Quinn, 54, still looks the part of an athlete, while his silver-framed glasses (removed for our photos) remind you that he was also a top student. He possesses an understated elegance that one would expect to find at Tiffany & Co.
We met recently at 600 Madison Avenue, one block from the Fifth Avenue store. The company moved its executive offices out of the Tiffany building to free up trading space six years ago. It has just completed a floor-by-floor renovation, which it is celebrating with a special exhibit of its most important jewelry.
Meanwhile, on the third floor, the faithful are thronging to see the jewelry collection designed by architect Frank Gehry. “Only Tiffany could transform these remarkable ideas into jewelry,” gushes one reviewer. “The result is astonishing. Each of these forms engages both our intellect and our deepest emotions.”
Business Is Good
The collaboration between the post-modern Gehry, known for his sculptural “architecture as art” approach to buildings such as the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, which is covered in titanium, and Tiffany’s tradition of glamour and luxury, is a stroke of genius.
“It’s a fabulous partnership,” Quinn acknowledges. “Frank had notions for designing on a smaller scale, and had been interested in designing jewelry for some time. We didn’t know that when we approached him. Our design team here worked with him over the course of a few years to come up with this collection.”
Gehry’s participation, which is ongoing, is an example of how Tiffany’s marketing team is bringing a new level of recognition to the brand without compromising its integrity. And it’s doing it in ways that appeal to the older Breakfast at Tiffany’s circle, and taps into the younger generation, too.
“We have a fabulous business and we’ve got an enormous opportunity to expand. We’ve had a very good second quarter, and we are very optimist about the holiday season coming up,” says Quinn, who joined the company 20 years ago when Tiffany’s, although an American institution for 150 years, was still very new outside of New York City.
The company is now in 17 countries. It has 53 boutiques in Japan, a number of businesses in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and Australia, and is about to open a fourth store in China. It also has a substantial e-commerce business in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Japan.
“It has been great to be part of the growth,” says Quinn, who credits the continuity of management as one of the company’s unique strengths.
“Our senior team has largely been working together for fifteen to twenty years. We instinctively understand the character and nuances of the Tiffany brand, and how to be a proper steward of it.”
Having mastered the Asia/Pacific market, Tiffany’s is now looking at further growth in Europe, and recently opened a store in Vienna.
“Vienna has, in many ways, become a gateway to Eastern Europe. It’s a bit of a banking center for some of the Eastern European new entries into the European Union like Romania and Bulgaria. So it’s a good place for us to be. We can intersect with that new emerging wealth and introduce them to the finer things.”
Tiffany’s Ireland is also a definite possibility. “We’re pretty close. We’ve had discussions on locations — just a matter of picking the right one. Hopefully we will be there soon,” Quinn says.
One more reason to visit Ireland is something that Quinn would relish. “It feels more like home every time I go,” he says.
Quinn has had plenty of opportunities to visit over the last couple of years.
He was appointed Chairman of the North American Advisory Board of University College Dublin Michael Smurfit School of Business in September 2003.
Tony Condon, Director of Development UCD College of Business & Law, calls Quinn “a superb chairman who brings outstanding business experience to the role. He expands and strengthens the board with high-caliber people, and drives them to ambitious but achievable goals.
“He is a great asset to the school on many levels -– helps us find students, helps our students find jobs, helps with financing, and helps with introductions to senior business people and academics.”
For his part, Quinn says that being associated with the leading business school in Ireland is a wonderful honor. “I really enjoy it. I’ve been on the North American board for eight or nine years now, and during that period the school has significantly raised its profile and its prospects, not only in Ireland, but in Europe and the United States.
“We have a board that has wonderful areas of accomplishment in the business world that the school can draw on for different programs and activities. The folks on the board are great fun to be with, too. They enjoy a pint and a round of golf once in a while,” he adds with a smile.
Quinn’s Irish heritage was one of the reasons he initially became involved with the Smurfit School.
“He is a true American but aware where his roots are, where his people come from,” Condon says of Quinn, whose “people” come from Offaly and Westmeath on his father’s side and Kerry on his mother’s.
“All four of my grandparents were from Ireland. They all passed away before I became an adult, but I remember thinking as a child that they talked funny,” Quinn recalls.
His parents grew up in Irish Catholic communities, one in the Bronx and one in Brooklyn, and when they married and moved to Staten Island it was into a similar community.
“It wasn’t until I went to Ireland –- almost 30 years ago — and saw all these people who looked like the people I grew up with, that I realized how Irish the guys in the neighborhood were.” Much to his surprise, he felt instantly at home in Ireland.
“Something about the use of the language and the sense of humor — it’s just so easy being there, because it’s a country you can get your arms around pretty easily. It is like going to the next parish,” he says.
Quinn’s wife, Diane, also has Irish roots — the Ahernes from Dromcollogher, Limerick, and the Brodericks from Milford, Cork — and she was with Jim on that first trip, a year after they got married.
The two had met in college. “She was a freshman and she didn’t take any notice of me for quite some time. She was very busy,” Quinn laughs. “We actually started dating after my sophomore year and got married as soon as I graduated. She was ahead of me in school, so she helped me finish up.”
It seems entirely appropriate that the president of Tiffany’s should be a romantic, and Quinn admits, after a little gentle prodding —“Yeah, I’m a romantic. I’m actually a surprisingly emotional person. I keep it well hidden most of the time, but I can look at my kids and get misty.”
The “kids,” Brendan, 22, and Jenna, 17, are young adults, and now that Jenna is getting ready to go away to college, Diane, who had a career in information technology before becoming a stay-at-home mom, has decided to earn a degree in marine biology. “She wants to help preserve the environment, particularly in South Jersey where we have a summer home,” Quinn says with admiration.
“We were all expected to be at the top of our class.” Quinn says of growing up with his two brothers and a sister. “There was no other place but first. It was pretty clear from the beginning.”
His father had changed his own life through education and it was something he wanted for his children.
“My father was a New York City cop and the sole provider for my grandmother because his older brother had gone away. Dad got drafted and when he came out, and this is true for a lot of that generation of Irish, the GI Bill changed his life.
“He went to Fordham and then Columbia and became a high school teacher. He was the first in his family to go to college. And when his younger brother graduated from high school there was no question but that he was going to college too. And then of course, all of us kids went to college, and in fact, we all went to graduate school.
“I think that’s a fairly typical Irish immigrant story, of the third generation standing on the shoulders of the two before and having the benefit of a great education,” Quinn concludes.
Quinn attended Monsignor Farrell High School on Staten Island, which had, and continues to have, an astounding reputation – 99 percent of graduating students go on to college. Farrell also has a reputation for having a powerhouse football squad.
Quinn was a star player. He was recruited by a number of leading universities, including Colgate, Williams, and Rensselaer, and he was a good enough student to be accepted by all of them.
Hofstra University, on Long Island, also wanted Quinn and they were resourceful enough to get him. “Hofstra recruited me as a football player but [the coach] encouraged the school to give me an academic scholarship, so between that and a New York Regents’ scholarship, I was able to go away to college.”
Quinn has not forgotten the opportunity afforded him, and through his role on the Smurfit board and his continuing connection to Hofstra, he is helping to ensure that other students have a chance to change their lives through education.
“Both Diane and I were very fortunate to get academic scholarships to Hofstra. We met there and built a life. A few years back we decided to endow a scholarship, and now a couple of students are benefiting. It’s become an important part of our lives.”
Quinn admits that when you are as busy as he is, “you have to pick your spots where you want to devote your time and attention outside of your family life.” One place that combines his love of his Irish Catholic heritage and his love of New York is the Museum of the City of New York.
“The museum is putting on an exhibition in 2008 called Catholics in New York in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the archdiocese of New York,” says Quinn, who is chairman of the committee for the exhibition.
“Catholics are having a pretty hard time of it now,” he admits, adding, “a lot of it is self-inflicted.” But “We’ve got to remind ourselves that there are many Catholic institutions doing wonderful work. I’m a big supporter of the Catholic Home Bureau [a children and family services organization], which does fabulous work. Catholic school education – I’m a product of that. We can’t lose sight of all the good things.”
The museum also commemorated the recent anniversary of 9/11 with a special exhibition.
“There was a wall in front of Bellevue Hospital where many of the injured went and many personal messages were posted, so we preserved that and built an exhibition around it for the fifth anniversary,” Quinn explains.
Love of Language
Quinn earned his degree in journalism from Hofstra, but with a wife and young children to support, he realized that he was unprepared for the business world, so he went to Pace University at night and earned an MBA.
Though his career didn’t take him down the road of the written word, he has a love of language that he says is his most Irish trait.
“I love language and theater and good fiction, and the Irish have a particular gift for using language in creative and surprising ways. I don’t think I use it as well as I hear it, but I may have a little bit of it.”
It was a love that was fostered when he was a young boy.
“There were books everywhere. You never left the house or took a subway ride without a book or a magazine in your pocket. That was part of the culture,” he recalls. “I always keep a bag next to my desk with books and magazines I want to read. I travel a fair bit. So I get to read quite a bit on those trips.”
One book he enjoyed is Peter Quinn’s (no relation) “phenomenal” Banished Children of Eve, about Civil War era New York, as seen through the eyes of the Famine Irish immigrants.
Though he has a soft spot in his heart for Ireland, Quinn is one hundred percent a New Yorker.
It’s been some time since he read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but he identifies with Capote’s opening lines: “I am always drawn back to the places I have lived, the houses and the neighborhoods.”
“I love the city. When I was in high school I used to work summers here. Later I was a postal clerk in the Chambers Street Station, downtown, and I worked as a janitor. I was a union member of 32D before I started wearing a suit to work.”
It was “in the stars” that Quinn would find work at a company that is so central to the heartbeat of the city. Unlike many companies which have moved their manufacturing out of the city, and in some cases, out of the country, Tiffany has workshops in Pelham and Westchester, New York, and still produces some of its most important pieces in its jewelry studio on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.
“Our jewelers have perhaps the nicest working space in the world, with northern light coming in and the view of Central Park,” says Quinn. “It’s really something to watch them produce these amazing pieces right in front of you.”
Who can forget that scene of Audrey Hepburn staring into the Tiffany window in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? The actress later wrote a letter to the company remarking, “Class doesn’t age.”
Now the company that is so much part of New York’s history will play its part in the renewal of lower Manhattan. Tiffany & Co. will soon open a store on Wall Street, and Quinn will be there for the ribbon-cutting.
As Holly Golightly said, “Nothing bad can happen to you at Tiffany’s.”