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Kathleen Taylor by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Kathleen Taylor by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

THE LUNCH

Four Seasons CEO Kathleen Taylor: When every detail counts Add to ...

Ms. Taylor’s composure through the challenges convinced Mr. Sharp and the private company’s board that she was indeed the proper heir to his empire. “There couldn’t have been a better time to get the battle scars,” he said as he stepped aside in 2010 and assumed the chairman’s role.

Those harder times seem a distant memory now as we sit down at the company’s headquarters for lunch, which, as you might expect, is exquisite.

There are about 350 employees in the building, and you won’t see any of them carrying brown paper bags, because they eat for free in the company’s cafeteria. And we’re not talking about slabs of mashed potatoes and some gristly roast beef. I walk away from the buffet with a Cuban pork panini and a fancy salad. Ms. Taylor has salmon, some greens and a big glass of chocolate milk.

As we sit outside under a giant umbrella on a breezy summer afternoon, it occurs to me that Toronto is an odd place for the company’s corporate headquarters, given its foreign ownership and its increasing focus outside of North America. “Would we be better off in London? We could do that,” Ms. Taylor says. “But the cost of doing business there for a company like ours would be astronomical.”

Much of Four Seasons’ growth is expected to take place in China in the coming years, and she rattles off a list of reasonably unexpected countries when asked where the company expects to invest in the next decade, such as Uruguay, Mexico and Russia. The company will open a new hotel in Toronto in October, but Canada isn’t exactly top of mind when it comes to international hot spots.

The long development cycle – each new property takes about five years to build – and the 100-year life expectancy for each hotel means the company needs to consider economic and political shifts well ahead of any actual changes.

It does that by relying heavily on local contacts, and scouting locations for years before making a play – sometimes decades. When Ms. Taylor arrived at the company, Four Seasons executives were already working on development plans in India; 19 years later, the company finally opened a hotel in Mumbai.

In the coming years she expects to see a lot of activity in South America, and the company is taking its first cautious steps into sub-Saharan Africa with its first safari lodge in Tanzania.

“When we negotiated with an owner in Hong Kong, he said, ‘Mark my words, you will have as many hotels in China as you have in the United States,’ ” she says. “I remember wondering how that could be. But I stopped myself from saying it was crazy because he knew way more about what was happening in China than I could ever know.”

That was eight years ago; Four Seasons had 20 hotels in the United States. Within a decade, it will have 15 in China – which, she says, easily puts him within the margin of error.

“I started with the business about 24 years ago and if someone had told me we’d have hotels in Moscow and Beijing I would have scratched my head and said, ‘That’s just not possible,’ ” she says.

At this point, we’ve moved on to some yogurt and lighter conversation. As she walks me back to the front desk to hand in my visitor’s pass, we stop at the recycling station to deal with what’s left on our trays.

“You know, we can get things right, down to the smallest details all over the world,” she says. “But when we put this system in we didn’t realize that we would be composting. ”

Sometimes change is impossible to predict, even for Four Seasons.

___________________

CURRICULUM VITAE

PERSONAL

Age: 55.

Lives in Toronto.

Married; three children.

EDUCATION

1980: Bachelor of arts (political science), University of Toronto.

1984: Obtained law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School and MBA from Schulich School of Business, York University.

FOUR SEASONS CAREER

1989: Joined Four Seasons Hotels as corporate counsel; in 1992, appointed vice-president, general counsel.

1997: Named executive vice-president of corporate planning and development.

1999: Named president of worldwide business operations.

2007: Appointed president and chief operating officer.

2010: Appointed president and chief executive officer.

SPARE TIME

Director, Royal Bank of Canada.

Board member, Hospital for Sick Children Foundation, Toronto.

VERBATIM

“One of my great personal regrets is not learning another language. It’s not too late, it’s just hard to find the time and then a place to use the language regularly.”

“I’ve never counted how many days a year I travel because I’m afraid of what I’ll see.”

“The Middle East in an interesting emerging market. People says that’s crazy, but if you’re thinking long-term, peace and democracy will come to many of these countries.”

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