COVER

SHARP’S LUXURY EMPIRE

A CANADIAN'S INTERNATIONAL HOTEL CHAIN SUCCEEDS WITH QUIET ELEGANCE

JOHN DeMONT June 5 1989
COVER

SHARP’S LUXURY EMPIRE

A CANADIAN'S INTERNATIONAL HOTEL CHAIN SUCCEEDS WITH QUIET ELEGANCE

JOHN DeMONT June 5 1989

Isadore (Issy) Sharp, chairman and president of Four Seasons Inc.—the world’s largest luxury hotel chain—stood, arms folded, lips slightly pursed, in the polished teak-panelled elevator as it glided quietly between floors in the chain’s flagship Toronto hotel. His attention, like a parent’s on a troublesome child, was fixed squarely on the elevator’s gleaming doors. “They close too quickly,” he said finally. While an embarrassed aide said that the maintenance crew had just given the elevator a clean bill of health, Sharp was unimpressed: “Let’s do something about this. We can’t go around closing doors on our guests.” And with that, Sharp again put his emphatic stamp on the Four Seasons’ own particular brand of understated elegance—a style that is redefining hotel luxury around the world.

In 29 years, Sharp, a first-generation Canadian, built his multimillion-dollar hotel chain by winning a single high-stakes gamble—on whether the rich of the world would pay to be surrounded by opulence as they travel, both for business and recreation. They would, and since Sharp opened his first luxury hotel in downtown Toronto in 1961, he has perfected the art of attracting the world’s elite. Now, his staff members painstakingly record their guests’ every whim and feed them into a computer to ensure that their special preferences are met on every return visit. And almost anything the rich and powerful want at Sharp’s 22 inns is granted: even rock star Rod Stewart’s midnight call earlier this year for someone to play the bagpipes in his suite.

Big: By linking small details, and the needs of moneyed clients, to his own spectacular ambition, Sharp has succeeded in outdrawing the competition, despite charging some of the highest room rates in the business—including an astounding $1,980 a night for a suite as big as a three-bedroom house in The Pierre in New York City (page 38). And his firm has never been more successful. Four Seasons, which already owns or runs 22 hotels in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, has just recorded a $13.1-million profit for 1988—a 16.4-per-cent increase over 1987 and the largest in its history—and is embarking on a multimillion-dollar expansion plan that will bring Sharp-styled plushness to some of the world’s most powerful cities and romantic hideaways.

Over the next five years, Four Seasons plans is to open new hotels in such huge—and highly competitive—urban centres as Paris, Tokyo, Singapore and Mexico City. At the same time, Four Seasons plans six to eight luxurious resorts in the next few years—including one on the island of Maui, Hawaii, and on a small island off Nevis, in the West Indies, where pampered guests will have to be ferried to the resort (page 34). Said Sharp: “It is a natural progression for us. We feel we can set a new standard in the resort field in the same way that we have done in the luxury hotel business.” He added, “It is a myth that quality and growth are incompatible.”

Buffer: But there are attendant risks. The looming problem: other firms are crowding into the corporate market (page 41). But Sharp has built a buffer to reduce any risk to Four Seasons: he plans to use other people’s money to finance construction of the new hotels and collect a tidy management fee to operate the luxury facilities.

But for now, Sharp, who holds an 83-per-cent voting interest in the booming Four Seasons chain, is the undisputed king of the upscale market, and many wealthy travellers say that Sharp has earned that reputation. He has also made a considerable fortune for himself—his investment in Four Seasons alone is worth more than $100 million. He has accomplished that by building hotels that are by industry standards small, averaging 320 rooms. And the buildings often appear deceptively plain in exterior design. But whether they are visting The Pierre in New York City, the Inn on the Park in London or one of the Canadian Four Seasons hotels in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, Sharp’s guests—they have ranged from Arab sheiks and European royalty to pop music stars including Sting, Stewart and Michael Jackson—can be assured of personalized, European-style service in a casual North American setting. In fact, a 1988 poll of widely travelled international businessmen, conducted by the U.S. financial monthly Institutional Investor, ranked five Four Seasons hotels, including ones in Toronto and Montreal, among the top eight in North America. And Fortune, the U.S. business biweekly, recently called Four Seasons “a textbook example of senior management commitment and unwavering vision.”

Sharp, who also recently received the 1988 Corporate Hotelier of the World award from Hotels & Restaurants International magazine, even evokes comparisons to César Ritz, the legendary French hotelier who in the 1920s immortalized the Ritz-Carlton chain as the world’s most exclusive hotel address. Sharp, in fact, says that he defers to no one in his drive to make the Four Seasons name as synonymous with studied, carefully crafted elegance and service as Ritz did in the past. Charles Suddaby, a leisure-industries expert for Toronto management consultants Laventhol & Horwath, says that the goal is within reach. Said Suddaby: “Four Seasons hotels are consistently among the best in the industry. They have managed to raise the standards of the entire hotel business.”

The luxurious Four Seasons touch reflects the personality and individual style of its founder—a perfectionist who stays fit by playing tennis whenever time permits and bouncing through daily aerobic sessions at the Parkview Club, an executive health club in his own Inn on the Park hotel in the Toronto suburb of North York. And the $1,000 suits covering his lean, athletic body are so elegant that the glitzy bible of men’s fashion, GQ magazine, did a feature on the stylish tycoon in 1988.

Boy: Sharp, whose hotels regularly host world leaders including French President François Mitterrand and royalty (Prince Charles), is not a child of luxury. His Polish father, Max, emigrated from Palestine in 1925 where he had learned the plasterer’s trade before branching into residential home construction in Toronto. As Max Sharp built and sold individual homes, he moved his family from one house to another, and by the time young Issy was 16, he had lived in 15 different homes. But the constant moving had little effect on the boy, who became known as “Razzle-Dazzle Issy” on the basketball court at Forest Hill Collegiate and later was a star college player at Toronto’s Ryerson Institute of Technology. Sharp went on to study architecture at Ryerson and joined his father’s construction firm after graduating with a diploma in architecture—suddenly doubling the company’s staff.

Max Sharp is now retired and sits on the Four Seasons board of directors. But Sharp might still be working with his father if he had not taken what turned out to be a fortuitous gamble in 1959. After building a small motor inn for a Canadian couple, Sharp, then 28, developed a plan for an upscale hotel that he wanted to build at the corner of Toronto’s Jarvis and Carlton streets—then a haven for prostitutes and winos. No one was willing to bankroll the unproven entrepreneur with the unbridled ambition until Sharp persuaded his brother-in-law, Toronto furrier Edmond Creed, and Murray Koffler, a friend of Creed’s, who built the 590-store Shoppers Drug Mart chain, to put up an initial $180,000 to go with his $90,000. When it opened in 1961, the first Four Seasons hotel was extremely innovative by Toronto standards of the day—a two-storey, 126-room European-style building with a lush, tree-filled inner courtyard, a pool and patios—and the best room in the house went for $12.50 a night. “From the beginning, Sharp knew what he wanted,” recalls Creed, who remains on the Four Seasons board of directors and retains eight per cent of the company. “Other people would have skimped on amenities and staffing. But Issy wanted the best.”

Bunch: Creed first met Sharp when he was in his midteens and hung around with a group of poor, first-generation Canadians who were more interested in playing sports than making good grades at Toronto’s Forest Hill Collegiate. The group became lifelong friends and, later, each made millions in the Toronto real estate and construction businesses—among them real estate developer Rudy Bratty, Tridel Inc. president Angelo Del Zotto and lawyer and investor Lionel Schipper. Recalls Schipper, now also a Four Seasons director: “We were just a bunch of kids from ethnic backgrounds who tried to accomplish some of the things that our parents didn’t have the opportunity to do.”

Blue: But driving his Jaguar from Four Seasons Inc.’s headquarters to the flagship Yorkville hotel during a recent interview, the friendly, unpretentious Sharp tried to play down his accomplishments. Immaculately dressed in a tailored steel-blue suit and blue silk tie accented with a splash of orange, he looked a decade younger than his 57 years—and every bit the host to the world’s elite. Only days before, Sharp had been in Chicago, where Four Seasons had recently opened a 344-room property, its second in the city. And the previous week, he was in Maui, attending a ceremonial ground-blessing for his chain’s new resort. But Sharp only chuckled when asked if he had had a vision of creating a hotel chain like Four Seasons when he started out 29 years ago.

“You just look at what is in front of you,” he said. “I was not thinking about building a hotel chain—I was just trying to do that one deal and build that one hotel. After that worked out, I felt that maybe we could take things a step further.”

Boom: That “step further” came when he built a luxury hotel on 16 acres of rolling land in the Toronto suburb of North York in 1963. Sharp says that he thought the location had potential as the city expanded outward. As usual, he was right. An office boom was just beginning in Don Mills and the Inn on the Park thrived as such blue-chip firms as IBM Canada Ltd. and Honeywell Ltd. moved into the area. But his ultimate success was still a long way off. As he drove through Toronto on his way to his Yorkville hotel, Sharp said that the organization’s turning point came seven years later, in 1970, when Four Seasons was offered the opportunity to invest in and manage a new hotel overlooking London’s famed Hyde Park. Sharp concluded that what the hotel needed was good old-fashioned North American informality. Almost overnight, the London Inn on the Park became one of the world’s most profitable hotels. “It gave us the insight we needed,” he said. “We saw that going for the top end of the market was possible without compromising quality. From there, it was a matter of refining the idea.”

The Four Seasons philosophy took further shape as a result of an ill-fated partnership in 1972 to develop a hotel across from Toronto’s city hall with Sheraton Corp. Sheraton swiftly dominated the project, which eventually swelled in size to—in Sharp’s opinion—an unwieldy 1,450 rooms. And, in 1976, Sharp sold his 49-per-cent interest in the project. He recalled: “Our involvement with the Sheraton crystallized what we wanted to build—medium-sized hotels which cater to the luxury market. Never again would we try to be all things to all people.”

As if energized by the setback, Sharp and Four Seasons moved quickly, building small but classy hotels across North America in Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Calgary and Vancouver. In the end, one of the toughest deals he faced was acquiring a flagship hotel in downtown Toronto—the firm’s own backyard. Finally, in 1978, they purchased a 99-year lease on the Hyatt Regency in Yorkville and spent $4.5 million in renovations—or $10,000 per room—and renamed it the Four Seasons Hotel.

Walking through the Yorkville hotel lobby in late May, Sharp was clearly satisfied with the transformation. The once-ostentatious room is now decorated with oil paintings of verdant landscapes, delicate 18th-century Davenport and Ridgeway china and antique furniture. Middle Eastern carpets cover some of the grey marble floors. A large display of red orchids—the hotel spends $100,000 a year alone replenishing its supply of freshly cut flowers—sat on a table in the middle of the lobby.

To ensure that the Four Seasons maintains its high standards, Sharp ultimately has to approve everything that goes into his hotels. In the firm’s earlier days, Sharp and other members of Four Seasons management were involved in all aspects of the business—even picking up fresh fish for the hotel dining rooms. Now, Sharp spends a good deal of time each year visiting each of his hotels—but with no less attention to detail in the facilities that Four Seasons owns and manages. Recently, he even sent back the new place settings for the Maui resort because the bone china was not white enough.

Bath: And on the tour of his Yorkville hotel, Sharp carefully examined an order of uniforms for the hotel’s 609 staff members and quizzed the maintenance department about a lingering water-pressure problem affecting the bathroom taps and toilets. He then took time out to put in a brief appearance at a news conference and luncheon that the hotel put on free of charge for a group of Amazon Indian chiefs who are touring North America with British rock star Sting to raise money to save the South American rain forests. “We are pleased to play a small part in a greater cause,” he told the exotic group through a Portuguese-speaking Four Seasons employee who translated his remarks.

The Four Seasons style effectively mirrors the founder’s own esthetic tastes, which he says in turn are strongly influenced by his wife, Rosalie, a successful interior decorator. But Sharp’s public star was not always so bright. The company suffered some setbacks as the concept was being refined in the 1970s—an ill-fated combination hotel and Bell Canada training centre in Belleville, Ont., failed because of poor planning. The chain’s image also suffered from the disastrous fire at the Inn on the Park in 1981, in which six people died and 60 were injured and which resulted in changes in the North York fire code.

But Sharp manages to inspire loyalty in his staff and respect in the business community. Both employees and guests greeted him with easy familiarity as he walked through the Yorkville hotel during his inspection tour. And, only days before, he made Four Seasons shareholders—who have watched their shares double in the past year—even happier by explaining his company’s sweeping expansion plans. Said Toronto investment adviser Ira Gluskin: “Issy has a world-class reputation—both as a businessman and an individual.”

While walking through a maze of dim corridors deep within the hotel, Sharp explained that paying attention to detail is at the heart of the hospitality business. And ever since the breakthrough in London, he has aimed at nothing less than creating the best hotel in every market that Four Seasons enters. Said Sharp: “Our success is totally dependent upon our ability to anticipate what our guests want. We want to make sure that they have everything they need so that they aren’t distracted from their real reason for travelling—which is usually business.”

Bank: That is why, by matter of course, guests are pampered with everything from the twice-a-day maid service, free overnight shoeshines and complimentary umbrellas to monogrammed terry cloth robes for repeat customers and bedtime milk and chocolate-chip cookies for children. To fine-tune the service even further, Four Seasons is expanding a computer bank that stores information on each guest—including such details as whether they like to be on a ground floor or are allergic to a particular type of pillow.

Some employees say that Four Seasons, which made the The Financial Post’s 1988 list of the 100 best companies to work for in Canada, looks after its workers. According to Sharp, that partly stems from personnel policy that is based more on personality and attitude than on education. “Skills, after all, can be taught,” he said. “But it is people and personalities which guests notice. All business, sooner or later, is show business.”

Having an easygoing personality is important at Four Seasons because employees can be confronted at any moment by bizarre guest requests—such as movie star Elizabeth Taylor’s frantic request for a cage for her pet parrot, Alvin, while staying at the Yorkville hotel. Loyalty to the Four Seasons cause is also important. Legend has it that a bellman at the Yorkville hotel quietly flew to Washington, D.C., at his own expense, to return a briefcase that a visiting diplomat had left behind.

Still, for all his drive, Sharp strives to lead a balanced life. “Razzle-Dazzle Issy” remains an avid tennis player and blocks off a week each year for heli-skiing in British Columbia. When possible, he likes to spend summer weekends at the family cottage at Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto. As well, he has time for charity. He also launched and remains the driving force behind the Terry Fox Run for cancer research—a passion that can be traced to the 1978 death of his son Christopher, then 17.

Beer: Despite Sharp’s hectic pace, his family remains close. Gregory, 30, who is married with three children, is director of Four Seasons management information systems, while Anthony, 27, recently joined the firm’s development department. Sharp’s oldest son, Jordan, 31, who was once a partner in the Brunswick House, a rollicking Toronto beer parlor, now owns restaurants in Toronto and Milton, Ont. And wife Rosalie, who is a well-known collector of 18th-century porcelain and Middle Eastern rugs, has supervised renovations at several Four Seasons hotels. Her husband is quick to point out that any job she wins, she receives on her own merits.

Even though two of his sons are in the organization, Issy Sharp clearly has no immediate plans to pass on the family business to his children. After all, his company is just beginning its most ambitious expansion program ever. And he still wants to achieve his biggest goal—making the Four Seasons the standard by which hotel luxury is measured. That ambition, he feels, is now finally within reach.