Perhaps distracted by BlackBerry’s messy implosion, Canadians could be forgiven for missing the more discreet disruptions within another iconic global company: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.
Last year its principal stakeholders ousted CEO Kathleen Taylor, the protégée of the company’s legendary founder Isadore Sharp, and replaced her with Allen Smith in the fall. An American who ran $53-billion in real estate assets for Prudential Real Estate Investors, Mr. Smith seemed an unlikely choice for a hospitality company that’s hoping to remain king of its worldly domain.
Luxury hotel chains such as Four Seasons are vertical empires, five-star familiarity for the homesick plutocrat. For this company, which manages 92 hotels and resorts across 38 countries, it’s about expansionism, putting up their signature leafy imprimatur in as many desirous locations as possible. The prevailing wisdom is that the stakeholders removed Ms. Taylor because she wasn’t able to grow the company fast enough, no small feat during a worldwide recession when many potential developers or partners are either pinched or tapped out.
On top of the economic challenges, industry insiders say the Toronto-based hotel management company could be more innovative, that it is ceding ground to the rival imperial power, the Ritz-Carlton. Last December Prince Alwaleed bin Talal added another wrinkle, telling Bloomberg that he wanted an IPO within two to three years.
In the kitchen of Café Boulud in the company’s Toronto hotel, the heat doesn’t bother Allen Smith, an approachable 56-year-old cooking aficionado with a wry sense of humour. We’re asking him to do a video and he asks the staff to turn off the fans so we can be heard while we make our own lobster salad. Sleeves rolled, apron tied, he inspects a long kitchen knife and soon grinds through the romaine lettuce with snapping, staccato chops. Less deftly, I try to ask him poignant questions for this interview – his first full discussion with the media since taking over – while folding pastry skins into triangles for the lobster salad samosas that will accompany it.
A light touch, Mr. Smith has a tone that can imperceptibly bounce from warm banter to a knowing archness to press-statement dry. Or sometimes he piles it on all at once. “One of the challenges in this business is that it’s not one that lends itself to immediate gratification,” he said, pausing on the last word with a slight twitch of the eyebrow.
I tell him that his appointment raised some eyebrows, stemming from the fact that he’s from the world of real-estate finance and Four Seasons doesn’t actually own its buildings, except its Vancouver property. Though it retains a small percentage of equity, the company instead focuses on managing everything inside – from setting the cost of the rooms, to staffing decisions, to what bed linens they use. At first blush, his CV and his new job description don’t seem like boon companions.
It’s not as surprising as one might think, he said. Quoting Steve Jobs, he says that you can’t connect the dots looking forward. “You can only connect them looking backwards.”
In his earlier days, the dots are a little inscrutable. The son of a Cornell professor who grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., Mr. Smith took an early interest in hospitality. A graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, he tells me in the drawn-out vowels of a Western New Yorker that he studied French cooking at L'Academie de Cuisine outside of Washington and apprenticed at Ledoyen, one of Paris’s oldest and most stately restaurants. He also ran a catering business in Washington and worked as a legislative assistant to the Republican congressman from Virginia, M. Caldwell Butler, before taking a job at Prudential, which for a while was one of the country’s major players in hotel properties.