CEO combines a love of history and experiences as he brings a luxury brand into the 21st century.
James “Jim” Seuss, BA’85, has been surrounded by luxury throughout his career.
Holding positions of leadership with Tiffany and Co., Harry Winston Inc., Cole Haan, Stella McCartney Ltd., and currently, high-end watch retailer Tourneau, Seuss knows about the finer things. But to him, the most luxurious items of all don’t have much to do with expense. Luxury to Seuss is found instead in a home-cooked meal with quality ingredients (including, perhaps, a spice brought back from a trip to Morocco), time spent with Scarlet, his beloved Welsh springer spaniel puppy, or even just sleeping past 6 in the morning.
“For me,” he says, “it’s about the experience, not the cost.”
Looking back, he’s amassed a wealth of experiences since his days studying history in the College of Arts and Science.
Retail at Tiffany’s
Seuss took a job in a men’s haberdashery while a high school student in Memphis, Tenn. He was drawn to quality and branding even then, he says, and knew that later he would want to go to business school. He came to Vanderbilt with several friends, seeking a good, diverse liberal arts background that would offer a strong base for a future MBA. That came via George Washington University, but it was his time at Vanderbilt, he says, that opened doors to uncharted territory: an educational program that landed him in China.
“One of the professors from Vanderbilt put me in touch with the program since I was interested in international business,” Seuss says. “It was concentrated on Asia Pacific, or Far Eastern history, as it was called at the time. The program was geared toward archaeology and language, and gave me further exposure.”
It also lit a fire about business potential in that part of the globe; when Seuss took his first job in retail in New York City, it was with Tiffany’s international division. He began working on Japanese business for the luxury jeweler known by its iconic blue box, eventually opening some 50 stores for Tiffany throughout Asia.
“I stayed with Tiffany for 13 years and decided that would be what I would do: stay in higher-end retail,” Seuss says. “Then I just stuck with it.”
Appreciating the Timeless
His latest executive position is as CEO of Tourneau in New York, his first stint with a multibrand retailer rather than a monobrand company.
That offered new challenges and opportunities for growth, he says, and under his careful eye, Tourneau has implemented a wide-ranging plan to rebrand the more than 100-year-old retailer as “friendly, reliable and discreet.” The rebranding included the recent opening of a 3,000-square-foot, uniquely designed Madison Avenue location that is intended to eliminate the somewhat intimidating atmosphere of jewelry shops and make watch shopping fun.
Tourneau represents brands like Breitling, Cartier, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Panerai and Rolex. Typical customers, he says, are in their 30s to 50s, but a growing number of the youngest generation is becoming re-engaged with watches after Gen Y’s reliance on cell phones and other technology to track time instead.
“I’ve always thought there was so much to be learned from history.”
“There’s a sense of nostalgia about it,” he says. “Everything is so modern and automated now, and a watch can represent something else. It’s handmade, handcrafted and took six months to produce. That represents something unique to a generation that’s grown up with everything automated.”
Seuss’ own private watch collection features about 20 pieces, including a Jaeger-LeCoultre that was his grandfather’s. He also treasures a Panerai given him by fashion designer Stella McCartney at the second anniversary of their doing business together. “It’s engraved with the company and date, which makes it even more special to me,” he says. “There are many great pieces that I received at great moments.”
Life of Curiosity
Leading companies known for quality and excellence, Seuss has a passion for doing things to the best of his ability—and pushing others to do the same. Ask him what people would be surprised to know about him, and he responds that he’s not quite the perfectionist that some would believe. Not only that, but even with his haberdashery background, his own closet isn’t as organized as it could be, he admits.
For someone who has held so many high-profile positions—he was president and CEO of Cole Haan, president of Harry Winston and CEO of Stella McCartney—Seuss has kept a rather low-key media profile. It’s not that he seeks privacy, per se, but rather that he has aimed to put his employers first.
“I’ve always wanted the company to speak more than one person,” he says. “Whether that’s Harry Winston or Cole Haan, I’ve wanted to push the company first.”
Those companies have afforded him the chance to visit more than 60 countries—though not yet the Galapagos Islands, he laments—as well as enjoy his personal pursuits of waterskiing, snow skiing, scuba diving and playing the cello. He has studied a half-dozen languages and maintains the love of Chinese culture and archeology that deepened during his time in the College of Arts and Science—including being an avid collector of contemporary Chinese art and 17th century maps.
“I’ve always been very curious about other parts of the world, other cultures, other civilizations,” he says. “I’ve always thought there was so much to be learned from history.”
His own history has been a rewarding one, Seuss says, made all the richer by being curious, asking questions and continuing to dig a little deeper. His years at Vanderbilt encouraged him to care about others, to enjoy himself and to be smart with his time, he says, and it’s that last thing that’s most luxurious of all.
“Some things just have to fall by the wayside,” he says, admitting that his schedule has caused him to lose touch with friends and give up some activities he formerly enjoyed. All the same, he still encourages the pursuit of having as many different experiences as possible, including traveling, reading, learning and listening—not to mention, every so often, marking the time on a meaningful watch.
photo credit: Jeffrey Langlois/The Palm Beach Post, Victoria Pickering