Face to face with an industry legend

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

 

Today I met a legend.

For the 25 years that I have been covering this sector, I, like many, have held Robert ‘Bob’ Miller, the Co-Founder of DFS, in the deepest respect.

His story is, quite simply, one of the most remarkable tales of business development you will ever encounter.

As has been well documented, Mr Miller and his partner, Charles ‘Chuck’ Feeney’, created an extraordinary retail empire out of edgy, risky, deeply entreprenuerial origins back in the early 60s.

From selling duty and tax free cars and liquor to the US military, Messrs Miller and Feeney subsequently went on to create an astonishingly influential travel shopping business. For years it was syonymous with Japanese travellers, but in recent times DFS has moved fast to capture the burgeoning Korean and, especially, Mainland Chinese markets with profound success.

Today the DFS business is in fantastic shape, riding high on the Chinese travel wave that has characterised the early 21st century.

Bob Miller, now in his late 70s, remains deeply committed to and deeply passionate about DFS. He’s here in Waikiki to celebrate the 50th anniversary of DFS Hawaii, a place where it all began with the company’s first airport concession bid back in 1962.

These are poignant times for him and during his interview with me today, the emotion was palpable.

Stop for a moment and think about it all. A young man, full of zest for life, travelling from New York to Spain in the 1950s in a quest for experience. A chance meeting with a fellow Cornell University student, Chuck Feeney; an edge of the envelope idea; and a realisation of and adaption to a global travel dynamic (the outbound Japanese travel explosion of the mid to late 1960s) that would establish the foundations of arguably the great luxury retail business of the early 21st century.

In a remarkably poignant interview with me today (to be published later this month), Mr Miller talked about the razor-sharp line between success and failure down the years; about the deep depression he fell into when his partners sold out to LVMH in 1996; about how from that unpromising beginning he built a fine relationship based on mutual respect with the French luxury giant; of how the company’s recent triple triumph at Hong Kong International Airport ranks as one of his all-time career highlights (the passion clearly still burns bright); and of the qualities that he thinks make a great entrepreneur.

To be in such company is to be humbled. How DID they do it? This is a man, make no mistake about it, who has truly shaped our industry – and, don’t forget, who still does.

Today I walked around the DFS Galleria in Waikiki in the simply great company of DFS President Stores and Business Development  Michael Schriver (below). It was an exhilirating, educational experience.

Any lover of fine retail should get on the next plane out here. Each department oozes class, of course, but what really entices you as you walk the store and its surrounds are the touches of retail theatre, both grand and subtle.

The sheer ambition and exuberance wows. It’s retail choreography, nothing less, on a dazzling scale. A few examples are pictured below.

It’s late night in Hawaii (well, early jet-lagged induced morning actually) so I’ll let the pictures rather than the words relate the story for now. What they tell you is that far-off, unlikely visions can come true. When you work 24/7, when you invest and create in equal measure; when you shoulder risk; when you dare – as Bob Miller did – to dream…

 

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