DFS Director’s long road to the top

DAVID CHARLES LEFT HIS WORKING-CLASS NEIGHBORHOOD IN ADELAIDE, Australia at 23 hoping his band Midnight would strike it big at the Brisbane Expo.

“I quit my job as a bank teller just on the wisp of dreams that our band would be wildly successful,” Charles says. “The expo was fabulous. The band was an absolute disaster.”

Charles’ stint as a keyboard and trumpet player fell short of his goals; however, he went on to hit greater career highs than he could ever have imagined. Now, the managing director of DFS Hawaii, Charles remembers what it was like as a struggling youth trying to catch a break.

“By the night before the expo, I was still living in a tent and down to my last $10,” he shares. “It got down to sheer desperation. I remember thinking, “What on earth will we do? What have we done?”

Peter O’Leary, Charles’ high school friend and fellow band member, remembers the journey from Adelaide to Brisbane as a turning point. The experience transformed the boy who O’Leary said thrived largely on a diet of iced coffee (Farmers Union) and chocolate donuts (Balfours) into a man.

“In tough times it is the strength of character that shines through. David has that in spades,” O’ Leary says. “David grew stronger and perhaps more resilient as result, but in reality he has always been a man on mission.

Though Hawai‘i is thousands of miles from Brisbane and Charles is years beyond the youth who was willing to risk everything to pursue a dream, not that much has changed.

“The experience is still with me. One of the things that still really annoys me is when someone says that you can’t do that,” he says. “It’s like a red flag to a bull. To me, there’s always a solution.”

Charles said he gets his drive from his mom, Tricia, who worked her way up from cleaning to running events and city hall functions. His dad, Colin, was a plumber who taught him how to keep tinkering until he got it right.

O’Leary says Charles has an intuitive ability to see what others don’t.

“This sets him apart,” he adds. “He can find solutions to challenges that show great insight. To him it is clearly obvious, to others it can be a revelation.”

Perhaps going through those trying times in Brisbane was fate, O’Leary reflects; it was during the Midnight phase that Charles’ first discovered retail. The band didn’t get a gig, but Charles’ got an expo job doing banking for TNT, a large international conglomerate.

“If we hadn’t had to persevere through epic failure, we wouldn’t have seen outside the box and it wouldn’t have given us the aspect that there was so much more,” Charles says. “People look at me and see a corporate guy. They don’t see a guy who played in a band and lived in a tent.”

After the expo ended, Charles returned home to a brief stint as a wedding singer and pub entertainer.

“Just like Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer (movie). It was awful,” says the only child who played “retail store owner” as a kid to entertain himself. “The band split up and I decided to move to Sydney to find work.”

O’Leary, who also settled into Sydney, was there to see his friend chose his career at DFS and his wife Jenina, who was introduced to him by a work colleague. The couple has been married for 14 years and has two children, Ben, 12, and Kate, 9.

DFS has helped them build a good life, Charles says. “I was drawn to the company and the people,” he says. “I talked DFS into hiring me in 1989.”

Despite the fact that Charles’ wasn’t a qualified accountant, DFS gave him a shot as an entry-level reconciliation clerk.

“I spent the next five years working and going to school. It was tough, but it was worth it.”

Charles earned a dual degree in finance and marketing and in 1998 was promoted to director of business development overseeing store design and retail developments for DFS’ Oceania Division.

In 2000, he relocated to Singapore as vice president of business development managing store design for the Asia Group, culminating in the development of a new liquor and tobacco retail concept for Changi Airport and Okinawa Galleria.

Charles transferred to Hong Kong in 2005 as Managing Director to oversee the operations for Asia North, assuming responsibility for the Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan and Hainan stores as well as setting up the DFS Macau Galleria developments.

As DFS Country Manager and then Managing Director for Asia North, Charles impressed his then-supervisor Tim DeLessio, DFS president of global strategic store operations.

“He believes deeply in DFS and it shows in all of his thoughts, statements and actions,” DeLessio says. “I can’t think of anyone who lives and breathes DFS like David.”

DeLessio recalls how Charles’ efforts turned an airport bid into one of the best submissions that DFS had ever made.

“Win, lose or draw, he was there because it meant supporting DFS and its growth strategy,” he said.

Charles brings passion and personal ownership to DFS, DeLessio said.

“David believes greatly in the values of DFS, those articulated in the past and those created and demonstrated in the present,” he said. “He is a staunch believer that living them starts with him.”

In 2010, Charles was transferred to Hawai‘i, where he now supervises 770 employees. After a rather spiritual sunrise hike along the coast with his wife, the pair moved to Kailua. An avid cycler, Charles arises every morning he can muster it for a sunrise peddle to Makapu‘u before heading over the hill to work.

“As his roles have changed over the years I still hear the same sense of excitement and challenge when we talk about DFS now, as it was back then,” O’Leary says. “It’s far more than a job or just a company. It’s very much a team and a family.”