It’s hard to imagine a world without a Four Seasons hotel in it, but thanks to Isadore Sharp, that’s not even a remote possibility. The 83-year-old founder and chairman of the perennial leader in the luxury hotel segment will undoubtedly go into the annals of the industry as one of its most important hoteliers. Perhaps no other has been as instrumental in changing the face of hotels in Canada, and around the world, while building a brand that is meant to stand the test of time.
Born in Toronto in 1931 to Polish immigrants, Sharp founded Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in 1960. It started with the opening of a motor hotel in 1961 on Toronto’s Jarvis Street— a less than desirable area at the time —then slowly more units were added in Canada, before the leap to the global stage. In between, Sharp has earned the respect of many by offering a quality product, consistent service and a culture where employees are as valued as the guests themselves. In between, he’s never lost sight of giving back to the community, becoming one of this country’s most generous philanthropists.
With close to 100 units in 38 countries, and a robust pipeline, including new units in Dubai, Johannesburg and Moscow, Four Seasons is a made-in-Canada success story. Though its beginnings were humble, today the hotel company has expanded into all the major markets of the world, including the Middle East, India and China. “Twenty-three hotels are under construction worldwide,” explains Sharp, “and we have business agreements, letters of intent or management contracts signed for another 50. So the company will reach 100 units shortly and 150 within eight to 10 years,” states the modest and charming Sharp. Yet ironically in Canada today, only three Four Seasons dot the landscape where once there were units in Montreal, Ottawa, Edmonton,
Calgary and even northern Ontario.
With every new hotel opening, the company’s brand equity grows stronger. The Four Seasons moniker is synonymous with quality, class and above all impeccable service, a mantra that clearly emanates from the top down. “Leadership must be earned,” says Sharp. “To truly be effective you must earn the trust and respect of the people you are empowered to lead by your influence. Through trust you then can get people to rise to their best, because you believe in them. And because you believe in them and trust them, they do not want to let you down. They go beyond what they thought they could do themselves.”
Anyone who has worked with Sharp can attest to that philosophy. “Issy is a natural leader who inspires all those around him with his positive energy, drive and attention to detail,” says Klaus Tenter, a former GM and VP, Eastern Region at Four Seasons, who worked with Sharp for almost three decades. “He has a knack for making people feel valued and important. Issy embodies The Four Seasons golden rule of treating guests and colleagues as they themselves would want to be treated.”
So, it’s no surprise that Four Seasons has consistently been ranked as one of Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” appearing on that list every year since its inception in 1998. It is also known to boast one of the industry’s lowest turnover rates.
For a man who never set out to be a hotelier, Sharp intimately knows what works and what doesn’t. Though he graduated from Ryerson’s Architecture program in Toronto, he never intended to be an architect; he always wanted to be a builder, having caught the bug by working at his father, Max’s, construction company. “I wanted to ensure I understood how plans were developed,” he explains.
“Going into the hotel industry was, as my wife calls [it], a ‘chance event.’ It’s like life; it’s what happens — a friend asked me to build a small hotel for him, I was surprised by its success, and that gave me an idea that maybe this might work downtown.”
Starting with that one motor hotel in 1961, Sharp built a chain of luxury properties by providing consistent service. “It’s not what you can do some of the time; it’s what you can do all of the time that really determines what you can hold out to the customer as their expectation,” he affirms. “The Four Seasons brand stands for the consistent quality of our service…. It’s the ability to deliver on the customers’ expectation of what they’ve heard and, in more cases, to try to exceed that. That’s quality service.”
Interestingly, Sharp says that even today’s focus groups reveal that service is the number-1 expectation when guests stay at a Four Seasons; the others are location, product and recognition. “That’s what we have focused on since day one. We always said that service is how we would compete in this industry.”
But apart from quality service, Sharp has an eye for innovation. A huge component of what makes him successful is that he understands what the market wants even before the customer knows it. “As a company we have grown to be what we are through innovation. Remember, this industry has been around for 500 years. We didn’t invent anything. What we’ve done is taken an industry and added and created value for the customers by doing things that would be appealing to the customer. Innovation versus being inventive is what we, Four Seasons, have done since day one.”
Innovation has come in the form of in-room amenities such as shampoos and conditioners in the bathroom, bigger bars of soap, large cotton towels, bathrobes; overnight laundry and shoeshine service; 24-hour personalized service; custom mattresses; hair dryers and padded hangers to appeal to women travellers; digital clocks; lighted mirrors; a guest history computerized system; full-service spas; hotel private residences; alternative cuisine (featuring healthier options and local foods) and Japanese breakfasts; business centres; and health centres. The company’s most recent offerings include a custom Four Seasons jet, which provides personalized itineraries and premium service in the sky, and this fall’s launch of the company’s second food-truck tour, this time down America’s East Coast.
For Sharp, innovation is driven by looking at everything through the customer’s eyes. “The innovations and ideas I came up with were based upon ‘would they be of value, and would they be appreciated and be of service to a person travelling away from their office or home?’ So those ideas we came up with over the years — most of them have been adopted by the industry, which have benefited the traveller. In that regard, we have had a positive impact on the industry. Most hotels have better service, better facilities and look after the customer in a way that is more conscious of what good service can do for their own business,” he says.
But through each step of a well-charted journey, Sharp has never lost sight of the value of giving back to the community. The loss of his son Christopher to cancer, in 1978, was pivotal in his decision to get involved with the Terry Fox Run. He has been instrumental in that charity’s growth, raising more than $650 million worldwide for cancer research. “Supporting Terry Fox was something everybody felt [good about], because so many people are touched by cancer,” he says.
The hotelier has also been active on the hospital front, donating significantly to Toronto’s Mount Sinai to create the Isadore Sharp Wing; he’s also been an active supporter of the arts through his hefty contribution to Toronto’s Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be successful, living in a part of the world that allows us to achieve more to allow us to contribute back to the community,” Sharp adds.
But it doesn’t stop there. Three years ago, for its 50th anniversary, Four Seasons committed to plant 10-million trees around the world, with each hotel in the chain actively involved. “Every corporation has something to give back, and what you find from that is you develop camaraderie of the people who then take pride in the company and therefore everybody benefits,” Sharp says.
Through countless contributions Sharp and the company have made to the industry and community, success is measured by how many people’s lives have been improved or touched.
“Today we have over 40,000 employees, and I would venture to say that each one of them has been affected, in a positive way, because of the success of the company,” he adds.
“You never accomplish everything on your own. The idea of a self-made man or woman is a myth. As a legacy I would like to be known as a person who has caused thousands upon thousands of people to have a better life because of the success of Four Seasons and that should continue, because one’s success is not really what one does but how many other people have risen with the tide.”
Moving forward, Sharp now owns a minority interest in the company, having sold it in 2007 to Cascade Investments (Bill Gates) and Kingdom Holdings (Prince Ali Waleed), but he’s confident the company’s guiding principles will remain intact. “People come and people go, step aside and move on. But the commitment to the company and the belief in the company and its values will not change. Its culture will be preserved indefinitely. The legacy will be a continuation of what the company has been built on: the four pillars — quality, service, culture and brand.”