“THE funny thing was I didn’t even see the drag queens,” recalls Paul Zahra as he sips on a skinny latte in Sydney’s “gaybourhood” of Potts Point.
“I went into the RHI with all the shows and that was just so packed and hot I didn’t last.
“I’m too used to air conditioning,” he grins.
“I went to Mardi Gras for the first time in five years because I would not have been able to afford the time out,” says Zahra, who took the helm at David Jones in 2010.
During his tenure, which ended late last year when the company was bought by South Africa’s Woolworths, Zahra steered the grande dame of Australian retailing into the internet age and turned down takeover talk from rival Myer.
He also took his partner of 25 years, Duncan Peerman, to the store’s famous fashion show so everyone knew their boss was gay.
Several months after leaving David Jones, Zahra is now settling into a routine of spending time with his family, sponsoring gay students through the Pinnacle Foundation, advising companies on LGBTI inclusion and, when he has a minute, catching up with the odd episode of Real Housewives.
Director of LGBTI workplace program Pride in Diversity, Dawn Hough, calls Zahra a trailblazer.
“I applaud him,” she says.
“People think it’s tough coming out in the workplace, imagine what it’s like being at the top of your game when you’re in a very public position.
“He might not even fully understand the impact he has had on people by coming out, but he has.”
Zahra’s parents emigrated from Malta to the working class Melbourne suburb of Sunshine where they brought up their four children.
The family trade was panel beating but it wasn’t for Zahra.
Instead, he became a sales assistant at the local Target and immediately realised retail was the career for him.
“I loved it because I saw the joy from women walking in and buying a dress and changing their mood and the joy, from a trading point of view, seeing someone walk in with a full wallet and walk out with an empty one.”
Zahra rose through the ranks, becoming a store manager at just 21, before moving to Officeworks and then to David Jones which he led a decade after joining.
“I have been told I am number one on the gAySX,” he laughs.
Although Australia now has a smattering of gay CEOs, Zahra says a significant number remain closeted.
“I know many and it makes me sad,” he says.
“I believe it’s every LGBTI person’s responsibility to come out in the work place.
“As difficult as this may sound for some, it’s the best way we can make a difference.
“That means being the same person at work as you are in your private life,” he adds.
“Anything else takes up too much time and energy.
“By being out and a CEO you demonstrate you can be gay in the public arena and most people will accept it and, to be honest, who cares if they don’t — that’s their problem.”
However, there were two people who had a very big problem with Zahra’s sexuality: his parents.
He was 24 and had recently met Peerman when he plucked up the courage to tell them he was gay.
It did not go down well.
“Their reaction was extreme at the time and that was very painful,” Zahra recalls.
As the decades passed the relationship remained distant with his parents chiefly finding out about their son’s life via the papers.
“Not to defend my parents but they come from a strict Catholic family — my mother goes to church every day,” he says.
“But in Catholicism you’re taught to forgive and forget and I love them regardless.”
Zahra says he has recently been able to rebuild a relationship with his parents and between them and his partner.
“He is not only my soul mate but my biggest love and support,” Zahra says of Peerman.
“Last week [Duncan and I] went to their place for dinner and it’s almost like we hadn’t had that issue.
“It’s like rediscovering them and it’s been a very enlightening process for me because I always imagined the day would come [but] I didn’t realise it would take this long.”
While at David Jones, Zahra revamped the company’s policies to reflect the workforce’s diversity, reconfigured the bridal registry so it didn’t assume couples were heterosexual and directed small talk in meetings away from football because he believes it excluded most women and gay people from the conversation.
Zahra also publicly backed same-sex marriage when he was CEO, the slow progress of which he says leaves him “bewildered”.
Nevertheless, retail has lagged behind other industries when it comes to proclaiming their commitment to LGBTI inclusion.
While every major bank has sponsored LGBTI initiatives or joined Pride in Diversity not one retailer — including David Jones — has done the same.
Zahra says such proposals “never came across his desk” and that he instead drove LGBTI inclusion from a visual and leadership perspective.
But if he were still CEO?
“Of course,” he says, “with the work I’m doing with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) I’m much more exposed to different thinking from a leadership point of view and it is something I would do today.”
He is now a member of PwC’s diversity advisory board, guiding the professional services firm on inclusion initiatives.
Zahra is working one-on-one with the company’s Australian chief executive Luke Sayers, who tells the Star Observer his meetings with the former David Jones boss are “one of his favourites” because he values the personal experience and honest feedback.
Zahra says diversity drives innovation and in turn, growth, but he is wary of firms paying lip service to inclusion: “The challenge is ensuring companies are not ticking boxes because it looks good, but are operating authentically knowing it is the right thing to do for their staff and makes good business sense.”
When it comes to making the workplace a better place for LGBTI people, the boy from Sunshine is hopeful of blue skies ahead.
**This article was first published in the May edition of the Star Observer, which is available to read in digital flip-book format. To obtain a physical copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.