DFS Group CEO Philippe Schaus on travel, multi-cultural environs and the progression of a global giant.

Thousands gathered in Waikiki earlier this year to catch a glimpse of the parade of celebrities who gathered to witness DFS Group embark on its newest retail journey, which included the current global rebranding of its Galleria stores.

Governor Neil Abercrombie and H.R.H. Marie-Chantal, The Crown Princess of Greece, were among the hundreds of honored guests at the private gala and community block party that drew confirmations from luxury circles all over the globe. Other big name stars included: Actor Daniel Dae Kim of Hawaii Five-O fame, British R&B icon Estelle, soap opera star Ingo Rademacher, Taiwanese actor Ethan Ruan, international fashion model Jessica Michibata, members of the Indie rock band, the Noisettes, and local performers Taimane and Starr Kalahiki. However, with a wave of his arms and well-choreographed poof of red smoke, Philippe Schaus, the chairman and CEO of DFS Group, unveiled the biggest star of the evening, a huge white letter “T.”

In this case, Schaus says the “T” in T Galleria stands for “travelers” and that it was chosen in part because it symbolically represents an airplane.

“Choosing a one-letter brand name is very bold and yet easy to remember and identify,” he says. “It’s literally the Galleria for Travelers.”

Waikiki, which occupies the second largest physical footprint behind DFS Galleria Macau, served as the launch site for the company’s move to differentiate its downtown stores from its more famous airport concessions. However, DFS will change the name of all of the company’s downtown stores to T Galleria between now and the end of next year, Schaus says.

In many ways, the company’s progression in Hawai’i is a microcosm of the company’s development as a global retail powerhouse, which now operates in 10 countries and across three continents and plays host to some 35 million world travelers a year. The move also represents a significant investment in the creative culture of the company, which prides itself on creating a shopping experience for travelers that’s not unlike the discovery of a new destination. To understand what it’s really all about, one only has to look to Schaus, who has adopted curiosity and the lifelong pursuit of learning, a.k.a. traveling and exploring, as his personal and corporate philosophies.

“I was born and raised in a very small country, Luxembourg, which only has 500,000 inhabitants and is located between Belgium, Germany and France,” Schaus says during an exclusive personal interview at the Sheraton Waikiki’s Leahi Club Lounge. “It very much shaped who I am. From an early age, I was used to traveling to neighboring countries and hearing people speaking different languages. I also was educated in German and French.”

While Schaus didn’t make it to Hawai’i until about 15 years ago when he was running Villeroy & Boch, he’s lived in a multi-cultural environment all of his life— first throughout Europe and now in Asia, where he is headquartered in Hong Kong. To be sure, the fresh-from-a-plane Schaus, looks to be the quintessential traveler. He’s seemingly undisturbed by his nearly half day of travel and an upcoming three-days of media blitzes, corporate meetings and launch parties in what to him is still a relatively unexplored destination.

“A love of travel and learning is something that was ingrained in me. My parents, Raymond and Monique Schaus, still travel today. When I call my mother, it’s highly likely that she’s not at home. She could be anywhere.”

Likewise, Schaus says his cardiologist father, who has continued working into his 80s, taught him the value of a strong work ethic and a passion for continuing education.

“Dad’s still practicing medicine. Although there has been a natural attrition of his patients, he’s still very on top of things. The best lesson in life is to never stop learning,” says Schaus, who explored careers in aerospace, banking and consulting prior to joining DFS and ascending to its top position in his late 40s.

Now, at just barely 50, Schaus is his own example of what someone who believes in pursuing lifelong educational opportunities can achieve.

“There’s one word that I use a lot at this company and that’s ‘curiosity.’ I believe that we should constantly be observing, listening, learning and inferring,” he says. “I learn every day in my job. I learn about myself and what I can do better.”

Travel is another way that people can continue to grow, Schaus says.

“When you travel, you should go to places where you can learn something and then go and do something that enriches you,” he says.

That’s kind of the philosophy behind the T Galleria renaming, which is a multimillion-dollar global effort that involves—among other things—changing signage and promoting the new brand to travel agents all over the world. Since it was founded in 1960, the Hong Kong-based company has been synonymous with duty-free shopping. But over the last few years, the company has invested more than $50 million in Hawai’i alone to evolve into a retailer that can compete with luxury stores like Harrods.

“Very often people first change the name of the concept and then change the service and product delivery, but really we’ve taken it the other way around,” Schaus says. “Really, we’re just naming what we’ve become.”

For some time, DFS has offered its top shoppers concierge and lounge services that aim to top the offerings that they are used to getting at luxury airlines and hotels. The company knows about the best travel perks worldwide because it routinely works with high-end tour international operators to make sure that they offer a dream shopping experience to clients, who are increasingly coming not only from Japan but also from China, Korea, Taiwan, Oceania and even Europe and Latin America. However, the rebranding brings a new Hawai’i and the rest of the world that they understand what constitutes a high-end luxury experience for travelers and that they aim to perfect this concept to a T.

Shoppers only have to look to the Waikiki store to understand how lofty the DFS makeover of its Galleria stores could soar. In the last several years, they’ve managed to turn a trip to the Kalakaua Avenue store into a full-on city experience that includes shopping, visiting museums and perusing the fashion catwalk. Ten years ago, the Waikiki Galleria was better known as the store with the big aquarium that sold macadamia nuts and Nina Ricci perfumes and served as a kind satellite for DFS airport stores. “If you look at DFS today they offer a much more balanced shopping experience,” says Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Improvement Association. “DFS has been a leader in the $3.5 billion revitalization of Waikiki. They’ve never let the grass grow under their feet. Their product is always fresh.”

Waikiki-based retail analyst Stephany Sofos says when DFS first came to Hawai’i in 1962 they were one of the few luxury retailers. Now, she says they’ve got oodles of competition from other high-end sellers, who are increasingly poised to take advantage of the growing segment of wealthy travelers from emerging markets.

“What they’ve done in Waikiki is absolutely gorgeous,” Sofos says. “It’s all about repackaging for the competition. Retailers, who want to draw luxury consumers, constantly have to set themselves apart.”

Schaus points with pride to the Waikiki Galleria’s large Dior, Ralph Lauren and Cartier stores and also draws attention to its beauty floor, which he says is one of the most luxurious in the Pacific Rim.

“We’ve completely changed the store. The naming change was the cherry, the cake was ready,” he says.

As for Schaus, don’t expect him or for that matter DFS to quit cooking up new ideas. “I would say that I’m glad by what life has offered to me so far and I’m thankful for where I’m at and what I’ve been able to do… But, I don’t consider that I’ve arrived somewhere,” he says.

On both a personal and a professional level, Schaus sees himself in about the middle of the trip.

“Some people might think that this is the end of the journey, but they are absolutely wrong. I’ve still got the longest part of the trip to do. ° e journey continues,” he says, finishing with a tagline straight from the Galleria’s new marketing glossies.