Book Review: Four Seasons The Story of a Business Philosophy



Isadore Sharp provides a chronological account of his life, taking us from his youth in Toronto to present day.  As expected, the book charts the rise of the Four Seasons hotel company, but much of the most interesting storytelling is in the first seven chapters where Mr. Sharp talks about learning his father’s construction business and developing real estate.  Luck and opportunity drew Isadore Sharp to the hospitality industry which I guess make all of us in this industry like Mr. Sharp. The comparisons probably end there.

The book is a breezy read and does logically chart how Mr. Sharp’s circumstances, vision and determination became one of the world’s most recognized luxury brands.  Take a moment to think on that. The two words ‘Four Seasons’ mean pretty much the same thing to a lot of people.  Mr. Sharp claims that the Golden Rule and a commitment to guest service are like the Gilbert and Sullivan in his theatrical production.

What Is to Be Learned

The book clearly shows that Mr. Sharp’s professional career was built on the corner posts of immigrant family values, work ethic, and unwavering confidence in his own conclusions; his bravado receives generous ink.  The reader, though, will clearly see how Mr. Sharp’s early intuitions about the changing needs of the upscale traveler were indeed confirmed, and how he built on that to create an enterprise that to many people defines the ultimate in hotel guest experience. How did he do it?

The most important lesson (revealed in Chapter 6-London) is how Mr. Sharp very patiently cultivated relationships.  He concentrated on character and continuously sought out like-minded people that would eventually become partners and employees.

In the early going he needed to be patient, but as the enterprise grew rapidly Four Seasons needed to add people at exponentially higher rates.  The devotion to the very simple principles of providing superior service and abiding by the Golden Rule allowed Mr. Sharp, and now his subordinates, to immediately spot like-minded people and get them on board.

This of course is called ‘culture’.  The author certainly presents the story in a rose-colored fashion at times.  There are plenty of real-life stories about how Four Seasons first staked out its position, defended it, and eventually coined their way into an immense barrier to entry.  My only regret was that the book is almost entirely devoid of anyone else’s perspective; the reader will have to take the author’s word for it.  Chapters 14, 15, 22-25 provide excellent accounts of how some of the most iconic hotels in our industry became what they are.

Other highlights include the development of the morning meeting and how Four Seasons dealt with 9/11, a period that led many of us to wonder if travel would ever be the same again.

OK, so Four Seasons is an unusual story and I put down the book several times and wondered if the hotel industry would (or could) ever see a story similar to this again.  Probably not, and that alone makes this book worth a read. But when I put the book down for the last time, the takeaway was something everyone in the hotel business should remember: quality guest service comes down to keeping promises and giving guests a great night’s sleep.

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