James N. Fernandez, GBA ’82, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Tiffany & Co., receives a GBA T-shirt from Ndeh Tawah, president of GBA’s Black and Hispanic MBA Association Photo by Bruce Gilbert

A Fordham alumnus who ascended the ranks at Tiffany & Co. returned to his alma mater on Feb. 15 to share his professional wisdom with current business students and alumni.

James N. Fernandez, GBA ’82, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Tiffany & Co., joined a group of more than 25 MBA students from the Graduate School of Business Administration (GBA) for the event, which was sponsored by GBA’s Black and Hispanic MBA Association and the Office of Alumni Relations.

Fernandez began by chronicling the history of Tiffany’s, which demonstrates the benefits of patience and perseverance. When the company’s founder, Charles Lewis Tiffany, began the business in 1837, his store did not bear any resemblance to the empire that exists today.

“The story is that he had five dollars in his pocket, so he went down to the docks in New York City, bought anything they had for sale from Europe, and brought it to his store and sold it,” Fernandez related. “He was a merchant in the true sense of the word.”

Tiffany’s remained a single-store company for more than a century, until it began to expand gradually in the 1960s. Twenty years later, however, the company was on the brink of bankruptcy, Fernandez said.

But a soaring fourth quarter in 1985 put the company back on the map. Since then, Tiffany’s has flourished. The company has stores in nearly 20 countries around the world, and in 2010 it was valued at over $3 billion.

Like Tiffany’s, Fernandez’s story is also one of patience and perseverance. He joined Tiffany’s in 1983 as manager of accounting, and then in 1986 assumed responsibility for the company’s financial planning. He became vice president of planning 1988 and only a year later was promoted to senior vice president of finance and chief financial officer. After serving as CFO for 22 years, he was promoted last June to executive vice president and chief operating officer.

“I’ve been in the right place at the right time,” he said, referring to his gradual ascension to a rank he hadn’t envisioned. “You get a little opportunity in your career that you might not recognize, that could go one way or the other. Sometimes it’s a matter of not over-thinking things. If it’s a challenging job that the company needs me to do, I’m going to do it. And if you do it well, you’ll get recognized.”

“Jim Fernandez has had a remarkable career,” said David A. Gautschi, Ph.D., dean of GBA. “He’s a terrific alum and a very good example of this school.”

For Fernandez, it’s a matter of following one’s passion.

“If you love what you’re doing, you’re going to be good at it,” he said.