Shahid Khan wasn’t looking to buy a hotel, let alone the Four Seasons Toronto — the vaunted flagship of the acclaimed global hotel chain. But when the sports and auto-parts magnate learned that Kingdom Holding Company was putting the 259-room property on the seller’s block, he immediately jumped at the opportunity. “I have a love for Toronto,” says the affable Pakistan-born owner of the Flex-N-Gate Group, a stable of auto-parts factories in North America, including 11 in Ontario, in addition to plants in Mexico, Argentina, China, Brazil and Spain. Khan also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars’ NFL football team and the England-based Fulham Football Club.
Certainly, the fact that the hotel was the flagship property of the respected Four Seasons’ brand, which was born and developed in Canada’s largest city, played into his decision to spend $225 million on the asset. “People take pride in it because it’s a homegrown product; you can have a number of luxury brands, but this is a breed apart and for all the right reasons. The asset, not only the location, has a really unique Four Seasons’, but also a real Toronto, feel to it.”
Khan says that “If it was a Four Seasons anywhere other than Toronto, I would have had no interest,” he states categorically. “With all candour, you name any brand in Toronto, except Four Seasons, I would have no interest.” Ironically, Khan admits that prior to buying the hotel, he had never even stayed at the property.
Apart from the bricks and mortar of the deal, Khan says “part of the magic of the deal was having Four Seasons manage it. “To me, it wouldn’t have made any sense not to have them. What gives it value, what gives it soul and [gives me] great comfort is that the corporate office, the brainpower, is 15 minutes [up] the road. Somebody is watching it locally. Globally, when they have people work on all their deals, or owners of other properties, they stay here. The founder of Four Seasons is here…If you wanted to hide from them, this is the worst place to be,” he quips. “If you want to have ownership interest, engagement; that’s something money can’t buy. If we’re not doing something right, other Four Seasons owners and managers are here, they are going to be quick to point it out — that’s going to be good.”
As for Four Seasons’ greatest strength, Khan is unequivocal “People; it’s so simple, so obvious, but so hard.” Having a solid management company at the helm means Khan doesn’t have to be very hands on. “There is a fine line between delegation and abdication,” he says, adding, “I don’t want to be micro-managing, but some things you don’t want to abdicate. A lot of times there might not be ROI, but you stay because this will maintain the business and enhance it and make it better. I want to come in at the level where you can see the big picture; you’ve got to be able to invest…obviously, that comes from the owner.”
Though the hotel is only four years old, the 66-year old self-made billionaire, who ranks 70 on the 2016 Forbes 400, has a few immediate plans for the property.
“You can maximize the potential here. This is a great property but, like anything else, it can serve the community better,” he says, pointing to imminent changes in dbar (the casual lobby restaurant/bar) and the spa. “We want to keep them fresh and on the leading edge. There are investment plans on those. As a matter of fact, I was at head office and the plans will be implemented very quickly — in the next six months.” He’s also planning to invest in room technology. “Some of the technology in the rooms is good but if there’s something better out there and you can make the experience better, you want to do that.” Additionally, dbar will benefit from improvements made to the exterior, including the addition of an outdoor patio. “This is an iconic corner, at Bay and Yorkville, but the way the building is, the winds come in. I’d like to see us have a world-class designer do a glass awning that can add to its signature status. It can be a civic asset, a gathering place for people to celebrate. There’s no reason this corner, with a world-class treatment, can’t be very recognizable. With all the new technology, such as LED lighting, whatever you’re celebrating, it’s a public space and people want to be part of it.” Khan is also looking to invest in signage. “I don’t know why, but there are no signs here. Where is Four Seasons? The first time I came, I couldn’t even find it.”
At $225 million, Khan’s purchase made history as the most expensive hotel sold in Canada. Asked what makes the hotel worth the $868,725-per-key price tag, Khan is quick to say “It has that intrinsic value to me and to anybody else. This is the purest, most luxurious, most desirable bricks and mortar in Toronto.”
According to Mark Sparrow of JLL Resorts, the realtor who oversaw the transaction, the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto had risen in value and the former owners, Kingdom Holding Company (KHC), believed it was a good time to sell. In a statement, the company said it made $17 million from the deal.
As for the future, now that he owns the gem in the Four Seasons crown, is Khan interested in purchasing more hotels? “In all candour, I have enough to do,” he says, pointing to his auto plants, his NFL franchise, as well as the soccer team he now owns in England. Does the novice hotel owner see similarities between the auto industry and the hotel industry? “Attention to detail, taking care of the customer and profitability,” he states emphatically. “If you don’t make money, you can’t take care of people.”