David Kohlasch

Off the Beaten Path

When David Kohlasch graduated from high school in 1978, he had no plans to go to college.  Instead, he wanted to see the world.  He had a friend living in Las Vegas at the time, which seemed as much a part of that “world” he wanted to experience as any other place, so he and three other friends decided to throw caution to the wind and set out on their own.  “I threw everything I owned into my Mazda,” he remembers today.  “I didn’t have more than $400 in my pocket.”

That $400 didn’t last long, and David soon landed a job at the front desk of a hotel called the Holiday Casino.  “School wasn’t even on my radar screen,” he explains.  “I was eighteen years old, working and having fun, living paycheck to paycheck and figuring out what I was going to do.”  After a few months, however, the answer seemed apparent to him.  His personality fit well with the fast-paced, service-oriented, 24-hours-a-day lifestyle of the hotel business, and for the first time, he felt a keen sense of certainty about his future.  “This is it,” he remembers thinking.  Now the general manager of Landsowne Resort, a 300-room, all-inclusive paradise nestled in Leesburg, Virginia, David couldn’t have been more right.

The thirty intervening years would be a long and winding path, but David never once questioned his commitment to the industry—even in those early years when he came face to face with the prospect of putting himself through school.  It just so happened that the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had a phenomenal hospitality program, but David was well aware that, if he wanted to go, it was up to him to make it happen.  Growing up as the youngest of eight children, his father was a fisherman who owned a boatyard, while his mother worked in a hospital as a nurse’s assistant.  “I didn’t have a silver spoon of any kind,” he laughs.  “My parents were putting two of my older brothers through school at the time, and I knew the resources just weren’t there to support me.”

His parents did, however, equip him with the most valuable resource of all: a work ethic strong enough to propel him through the five years it took to finish college while working full-time.  His father was an advocate of “the school of hard knocks” as the greatest learning tool around, and David recalls both parents working with unparalleled commitment to support the large family.  This work ethic was honed by the fact that young David had to contend with his seven older siblings for everything he wanted.  “We have a great family and love each other very much, but as the youngest, I was always the one who had to kick and scratch and fight for whatever I wanted,” he remembers.  “Soccer was the Kohlasch sport, and I was always the youngest one out on the field.”

Things changed a bit, however, when David was struck with a wave of independence and quit the soccer team after his sophomore year of high school.  “Everyone was upset that I had broken the family tradition, but I just realized that I didn’t enjoy it,” he concedes.  “I was good at it, but my heart wasn’t in it.”  With the extra time, he landed a job as a cook in a restaurant, supplementing that modest income by raking leaves, shoveling snow, and doing other odd-jobs around peoples’ houses.  Following his own interests and breaking with the beaten path in this manner lit a flame of confidence within the young man, laying the foundation of firm conviction and independence that compelled him to hop in that Mazda several years later.

His strength of character was certainly tested by that dramatic change of lifestyle after high school, yet his principles remained strong.  “I didn’t return to New York for several years, and there were certainly times I felt homesick sitting in the middle of that Las Vegas desert,” he muses.  “There were times, as well, when I questioned whether I should actually continue the pursuit of my degree or not.  I was working forty to fifty hours a week doing the overnight shift at the hotel while taking classes during the day, and I wondered every now and then if it was all worth it.  But I knew I loved the hotel business, and on those occasions when I wondered whether I actually needed that diploma, I’d call my mother and she would reaffirm the importance of sticking it through.”

Even after earning his degree, however, David continued to find that the hotel industry was not for the faint of heart.  “There were times I was working ninety to a hundred hours a week—it’s just the nature of the business,” he remarks.  “You get a lot of kids coming out of hospitality school these days who simply don’t understand the reality they’re about to enter.  Don’t get me wrong, book knowledge is great, but a 40-hour week will only be enough time to get your paperwork done in this business.  It’s the extra 25 hours you put in that will really make a difference in advancing your career and getting you where you want to go.”

David was willing to put in those extra 25 to 60 hours, and it did indeed launch him forward.  After earning his bachelor’s degree in hotel management, he accepted a position in a hotel in Dallas, Texas, where he acted as a management trainee for six months—the beginning of his management career.  After remaining in Dallas for two years, he moved to Boston and then to Orlando before transferring back to Boston.  “In the hotel business, you have to be mobile, and I was bouncing around from city to city for a while,” he points out.

After returning to Boston, however, life stabilized somewhat and he had the privilege of working with John Drew, a true visionary who saw the potential in David and offered avenues to cultivate that potential time and again.  Drew was the president of the World Trade Center, a convention center nestled in the heart of Boston Harbor.  “I would sit in meetings with him and hear his vision of things, half the time thinking it was impossible,” David recalls.  “But then, nine times out of ten, at some point perhaps two years down the line, those visions would come to fruition.”

One such vision was Drew’s dream to start a food company within the Center and with David at the helm, and it wasn’t long before Sebastian’s Catering was born.  Within six years, it was earning $30 million a year in revenue, employing 500 people, and servicing six states.  “John Drew gave me all the freedom and resources I needed to build that operation from the ground up, and we created an incredible company,” David reminisces.  “The experience really taught me that, when you have the right people working with you and with the right vision and support, you can do things you never thought you could do before.  We went through blood and sweat and tears to get there, but in the end we had a very successful business.”

Then, in 1999, Drew invited David to veer off the beaten path yet again by helping him launch a management company in Virginia.  David, who had started a family by that point, accepted the challenge, and the Kohlaschs moved south.  A full seventy percent of the job was real estate and asset management—something he had little previous experience in.  “One of the reasons I took the job was because I wanted a whole new business,” he remembers.  “I learned a lot and even got to manage the Ronald Reagan building here in DC, but after three years, I decided to return full-time to my passion, which was the hotel side of the business.”  With that, David accepted a position at Flik International, a subsidiary of the largest food service company in the world, Compass Group.  At that time, in 2002, they had just launched a hotel conference center management division, and David was there to guide the development of the practice from the ground up as he had done with Sebastian’s Catering.

There’s no question, then, that the common themes permeating David’s story are an entrepreneurial dexterity that is only paralleled by the other, his proficiency in service.  In fact, it was exactly this combination of tried-and-true business savvy coupled with that keen awareness of his customers’ every need that first compelled the Landsowne team to approach David for the general manager position in 2009.  The resort had been a pillar of support and pride for the surrounding community for over two decades, and its spas, golf courses, and fine dining options had won it renown as one of the Mid-Atlantic’s premier resort and event destinations.  David understood its allure to guests particularly well because, prior to assuming the position, he frequented the resort for ten years as a guest himself.  “I knew the terrain from both the customer angle and from the business angle,” he affirms.  “I had a good perspective of what the service was and what it could be, and the past several years have undoubtedly been a win-win for both the owners and for me.”

In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, David avows that, when it comes to seeking professional success, it’s all about heart.  “To this day, I firmly believe that life is way too short to not do what you love,” he says.  “I tell my kids everyday to forget about the money, because as long as you’re doing what you love, the money will come.  Go where your heart tells you to go, because that’s what life is all about.  That’s why I’ve been in the hotel business for thirty years and can still approach each day with the same thrill and enthusiasm I had when I first started.”

Indeed, by keeping his compass set to his greatest passion and letting it lead him along paths both familiar and new, David has led a life defined by jobs well done.  “It comes from being in the service industry my whole life, from that very first day I started as a restaurant cook,” he says.  “Everything you do, give it all you’ve got.  If you’re raking leaves, finish at the end of the day without a single leaf left in the yard.  Make sure it’s perfect.  Success is giving it all you’ve got and leaving it all on the battlefield, wherever that battlefield may be.”

David Kohlasch

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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