Business

A man for all seasons - how Issy Sharp built his hotel chain

Isadore Sharp Image copyright Four Seasons Hotels

Looking back on his more than 50 years in the hotels business, Isadore "Issy" Sharp is modest about his achievements.

"I've been fortunate to be a reasonable success," says the 85-year-old Canadian.

Mr Sharp's definition of "reasonable success" must be different to most people's, because he is the founder of the Four Seasons Hotels chain.

Starting with just one hotel in Toronto in 1960, the company he grew today runs 99 hotels in 33 countries, and enjoys annual revenues of more than $4bn (£3.1bn).

And despite Mr Sharp being halfway through his ninth decade, he remains the company's hands-on chairman.

"I still participate in the approval process of the hotels we're building, aesthetics and architectural concepts, and changes occurring in the company - they still come across my desk for final approval," he says.

In establishing a global network of hotels that have become a household name, Mr Sharp has never made his formula for success a secret. He says it is all down to offering the best possible service, which - crucially - he says is only possible if staff are happy.

Image copyright Four Seasons Hotels
Image caption Mr Sharp opened his first hotel in 1960

"It comes down to one principle that transcends time and geography, religion and culture," he says. "It's the golden rule - do unto others as you would want done to you.

"It is the simple idea that if you treat people well, the way you would like to be treated, they will do the same."

Easy to say but harder to implement, cynics might say. But Fortune magazine has named Four Seasons as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For every year since its list began in 1998.

Four Seasons is also well known for having one of the lowest staff turnover rates in the hotel industry.

Perseverance

Born in Toronto in 1931 to Polish parents who had emigrated to Canada via the then British Mandate for Palestine, Mr Sharp gained a degree in architecture, and started his working life in his father's construction business.

After building a hotel for a client, and noting its swift success, Mr Sharp decided to construct his own.

Image copyright Four Seasons Hotels
Image caption Four Seasons is renowned for its "outstanding guest service"

But with no experience of the hotel industry, he couldn't find anyone to lend him the money he needed.

He says: "I just couldn't understand why people didn't see it as a good idea.

"In the evenings after work I'd be promoting and talking to people, to buy into this idea. It took five years to find all the investors.

"When you have a passion, a belief about something, it allows you to persevere."

Even with backers on board, Mr Sharp couldn't afford a posh address, instead he built the first Four Seasons hotel in a down-at-heel part of downtown Toronto.

He says: "I needed a lot of land, and that seedy area where prostitutes plied their trade was the only part of town where I could buy a lot of land that was quite cheap."

Despite its location, the hotel - which opened in 1960 - was quickly a success, and soon Mr Sharp opened a second.

Within a decade the company was expanding overseas, growing at an average pace of two hotels per year. Aimed at the luxurious top of the market, the hotels remain not cheap to stay in, but Mr Sharp says people will always pay more for luxurious surroundings, and better service.

Image copyright Four Seasons Hotels
Image caption Four Seasons says it was one of the first hotel groups to introduce 24-hour room service

Adding that he is always looking at additional things to offer guests, Four Seasons was among the first hotel companies to introduce complimentary shampoo, 24-hour room service, and same-day clothes cleaning and pressing.

"From day one until today, it was about being innovative," says Mr Sharp.

'Keeping moving'

It wasn't all plain sailing for the business though, as the firm found itself in some financial difficulty during the mid-1970s recession that followed the 1973 oil crisis.

The resulting high inflation meant that Four Seasons couldn't afford to pay back the money it had borrowed to build a hotel in Vancouver.

Mr Sharp was ultimately able to renegotiate the deal, but the scare meant that he changed the company's financial model.

Whereas previously it paid for and built its own hotels, from that point on it switched to operating hotels that had been funded and constructed by real estate owners and developers. Under the agreements, Four Seasons leads the design of the new property, and runs it with near total control.

Image copyright Four Seasons Hotels
Image caption Mr Sharp has more than five decades of experience in the hotel industry

The next big change came in 1986 when the business floated on the stock market, until in 2007 it was bought by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia.

They paid $3.8bn for 95% of the company, split equally, while Mr Sharp maintained a 5% stake.

Mr Sharp continued as chief executive until 2010, when he switched to the role of chairman.

According to Tony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada, "Four Seasons' success is attributed to one factor and one factor only, and that is Isadore Sharp.

"He has always been exceedingly attentive to detail, namely guest wishes and desires. This has translated over the years into outstanding guest service which the world has come to appreciate and expect at Four Seasons."

Image copyright Frazer Harrison
Image caption The company provides luxury accommodation but it does come at a price

'The choices we make'

Mr Sharp says he could not have achieved anything without the support of his wife of 60 years, Rosalie.

"Over the years I was working six, seven days a week, very long hours," says Mr Sharp. "I married someone who did a good job picking up on things I slipped up on.

"In dealing with personal life, time with family, I wasn't always there when I should have been. But these are the choices we make, and at the time I didn't have the maturity or option."

Looking ahead, Mr Sharp admits that he is more able to enjoy the fruits of his labours, stealing away a little time for tennis or a game of bridge with his wife.

But he says he still cares as much as he always did about Four Seasons.

"I help in keeping the company moving in a direction that is developing the brand, preserving our existing partnerships, and making sure our new partners can elevate the business."

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