Alumni Spotlights

D.J. Kiernan, '02: Selling Luxury

February 7, 2014 by Lisa M. McMahon, M.A.'09

D.J. Kiernan, '02, is in the business of fulfilling champagne wishes and caviar dreams. For the past seven years, he has worked in the yachting industry, on both the wholesale and retail sides of the business, an opportunity that enabled him to live in some of the most glamorous locations in the world and socialize with captains of industry and royalty. Today, he's using the knowledge he gained and the contacts he made to launch his own enterprise, Connect K3, a business development consultancy with a focus on wine and gourmet food.

D.J.'s interest in hospitality and tourism was ignited when he was a child taking familiarization tours with his mother, a Dallas-area travel agent. Early jobs selling caviar and fine foods and interning in product development and marketing with Adventure Tours, USA, solidified this desire. He began looking into four-year programs in travel and tourism and discovered what was then the Institute of Travel, Hotel and Restaurant Administration at Niagara University. It was a perfect fit for D.J.'s professional aspirations.

D.J.'s career got a jumpstart while he was still an undergraduate. Dr. Gary Praetzel, who was director of the institute at the time, introduced him to alumna Tamara (Jurkowski) Quilty, '89, manager of corporate incentives for the Plano, Texas-based Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc. That introduction opened the door for D.J. to take on several internships with the company's corporate incentives and meeting services department, during which he was given first-hand experience in every aspect of the department. When D.J. graduated, he was brought on as an independent contractor, working directly for the vice president.

In 2003, D.J. accepted the position of sales manager with the Broward County Convention Center and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The city is a major yachting center, and from the convention center's waterfront location, D.J. could watch megayachts sail up and down the Intracoastal Waterway. After three years, he decided to pursue a career in yachting, and “spent six months talking (his) way into the industry.”

D.J.'s tenacity earned him the brand-new position of marketing specialist for Merle Wood & Associates and the opportunity to work for Wood himself, arguably one of the most successful yacht brokers in the world. He spent more than a year learning about the marketing side of the industry before moving on to create the charter division for Feadship, the leading builder of megayachts worldwide. As manager, D.J. served both the wholesale and retail sides of the division, and met some of the wealthiest individuals in the world. One of his most memorable experiences was hosting a familiarization trip for charter brokers on the 214-foot motoryacht ”Trident.” D.J. occasionally lived on the boat while he conducted the tours in Italy, the south of France, and in the Bahamas. He even was able to take his parents on the yacht for a dinner prepared by the Michelin chef, one of the 15 crew members who worked and lived aboard full time.

“It was a special treat to be able to share that kind of experience with them,” he says.

While D.J. relished his work with Feadship and the outstanding experiences it afforded him, he wanted to expand both his management experience and his knowledge of the charter industry. When Camper and Nicholsons, the global leader in luxury yachting activities, offered him the position of director of charter marketing for the United States, he readily accepted. In only six months, D.J. was promoted to worldwide director of charter marketing, overseeing offices in both the United States and Europe.

The work was exciting and fast-paced. D.J. lived in Monte Carlo for the better part of a year, and spent a few more months in the south of France. He even had the opportunity to enjoy dinner with a baron on the baron's yacht. The two hit it off, and afterward, the baron sent D.J. an Alessi ballerina toothpick dispenser, identical to the one D.J. had admired while on the yacht.

“Of all the things I was ever given by my clients, I think that one was one of the most special because it represented the opportunity I got to have onboard his yacht and eat good food and taste good wine together and be able to relate to each other,” D.J. says.

Eventually, the extensive time and travel required to oversee offices in multiple time zones took a toll on D.J., and, after about 18 months, he requested, and was granted, a Fort Lauderdale-based position as a yacht charter broker.

It was what he considered to be his dream job, but he soon realized that it wasn't what he expected, and that “threw me for a loop,” he says. So he resigned and took some time to reevaluate his career goals.

Entrepreneurship had always intrigued D.J., and with the connections he had made in the yachting industry, he was well positioned to launch a consultancy to assist companies in the luxury industry. He is already helping Eten Food Company expand its wine business into yacht provisioning, and he brought in his certified sommelier business partner to offer educational activities and wine tasting experiences. On their first deal, they worked with a client to complete a vertical of Penfolds Grange in magnums. It's a job that brings him back to the caviar business and draws on his experience as a study-abroad student in Switzerland, where he studied oenology and traveled extensively around Europe during the summer before his junior year.

It's also an opportunity to practice the servant-leadership he learned while at Niagara.

“It all comes down to service to others,” D.J. says of the work he now does. “It just happens that I get to do it in a very luxurious circle.”