Denis Kelleher, the son of a shoemaker, immigrated to New York in 1958, at age 18, with $1.50 in his pocket. He was in search of a better life and determined to provide for his widowed mother back home.
In a matter of days the bright young Kerry man charmed his way into a job in Merrill Lynch. In less than a month he went from messenger boy to payroll clerk.
Kelleher had excelled in math, economics and accounting at St. Brendan’s in Killarney and, determined to continue his education, he enrolled in St. John’s University at night as he worked his way up the ladder at Merrill Lynch.
Although it’s over half a century since Kelleher landed in New York, he still remembers how awestruck he was by the city. “It was early in the morning and all I remember is thinking how beautiful the city was. The sun was glistening off the snow on the ground and on the rooftops. It was magical,” he recalls as he briefly glances out the 11th floor window of his Wall Street office, which overlooks the Hudson River.
He first settled in Brooklyn with help from an uncle who had emigrated before him. After some time there, he moved to the Bronx where he enjoyed an Irish scene that felt “just like home.” After establishing himself in a house with friends, he rolled up his sleeves and began his quest to become successful.
But he was soon asked by the U.S. military to put the pause button on his accelerating career. Kelleher spent five plus years serving in the Army at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
He returned to New York when his time was served and continued his career track in the financial industry. He served in various high level positions, including a stint as president of Ruane Cunniff & Co., Inc. and as vice president and treasurer of the Sequoia Fund.
Kelleher says there is no big secret behind his achievements and happiness. “I’ve always had the motto: dream big, work hard, learn constantly and have fun while doing so,” he says.
In 1981, he founded his own firm, Wall Street Access, and some 30 years later, he continues, as chairman and CEO, to provide the vision for the firm, which specializes in institutional research, trading and money management.
One would expect the office of such a highly successful Wall Street executive to be adorned with finance books and various accolades, but portraits of family and friends, and pictures of Ireland provide warmth and atmosphere.
Kelleher, too, is warm and welcoming. Though he is reluctant to talk about himself, he mentions his family at every opportunity. “Family is very important to me,” he admits. He credits his wife Carol, his three children (two of whom work in the firm) and eight grandchildren as the driving forces behind his perseverance.
“I enjoy what I do, but they keep me motivated,” he says.
When times were tough in his industry, Kelleher met any challenges head on and did the best for his clients. “I’ve always had the attitude that in a cyclical business like this you must save for the bad days,” he says.
He also believes strongly in helping others. In an effort to pass on his good fortune, he and wife, Carol, set up an organization called the Good Deeds Foundation. One recent endeavor was to establish a middle charter school for Mexican children living on Staten Island. He and Carol are also committed to funding suicide prevention efforts in rural Ireland. And, although he keeps it quiet, Kelleher was instrumental in working behind the scenes in advancing the Northern Ireland Peace Process.
“I’ve been fortunate in my life so it’s important for me to give back to those in need. But I couldn’t do it without Carol,” he says. He speaks movingly of the companionship she has shown him through the years and her dedication to the various charities and trusts they have founded together.
Kelleher experienced the pain of emigration early in life when his father had to leave the family for short periods of time to work in England.
“He couldn’t get leather [for his shoe-making business] in Ireland during the war so he went to England and ran a factory,” Kelleher recalls. “Times were very tough back then, Ireland was a third world country, but we got through it because my dad was a great man.” He adds that without fail his father sent a check home every two weeks to feed the family and keep them well.
He is very much in touch with the current economic situation in Ireland and the fact that many young people are once again facing emigration. He cautions those who may be relocating to American shores not to be “arrogant” and to enjoy what they do. “Anyone who enjoys what they do and perseveres at it will be very successful, whatever the odds,” he says.
When not working, Kelleher tries his hand at golf. He is well read and he and his wife enjoy attending the theater.
He also keeps himself busy with various boards. He is the director of The New Ireland Fund, a member of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a member of the Staten Island Foundation. He serves on the board of trustees of St. John’s University, and served as the board’s chairman for eight years. In 1995, he was recognized with the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and in 2005 he led the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue serving as the Grand Marshal. He was honored by this magazine as one of the Wall Street 50, and Business 100 and is included in the book Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, compiled by Irish America editor by Patricia Harty.
Although he is a few years past the standard retiring age, Kelleher said he is going nowhere fast. “I’ll retire 10 years after I’m dead,” he laughs.