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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 ...

Kathleen Taylor has a single, inviolable rule she follows whenever she sleeps in a hotel that isn’t one of her own.

Yes, every so often, even a woman who runs a globe-straddling chain of luxury hotels will find herself in a gritty motel in the middle of nowhere, husband and children in tow. And whenever that is the case, Ms. Taylor pops open the trunk and hauls out the pillows.

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“It’s a very simple rule,” she says. “You can pretty much fix up a room – you’re just looking for a shower and a good sleep. But for a good sleep, you need the pillow.”

No guest of Ms. Taylor’s hotels need worry about the bedding: Four Seasons Hotels Inc. became one of the world’s most admired luxury brands, and arguably one of Canada’s most successful global exports, by paying attention to every detail. And Ms. Taylor got to the chief executive officer’s suite – the only person founder Isadore Sharp would entrust with the business that is his lifelong passion – in much the same way. How many other executives admit to being a “control freak” in their official corporate biographies?

“I like things to be done a certain way,” she says, “though I’d learned that if you are going to grow a business you need to rely on people you trust implicitly and blindly. You need to be able to go to sleep at night and know that if something comes up in Asia Pacific, the president there has it under control.”

The story of Four Seasons, which began in the 1960s with a good motel in a bad Toronto neighbourhood and now includes high-end properties in 35 countries, has been thoroughly documented. (Mr. Sharp wrote a book about it, published in 2009.) Ms. Taylor’s role in the company’s rise is not as well-known.

Her early career was on Bay Street, where she practised competition and securities law and did a stint at the Ontario Securities Commission. In 1989, she moved to Four Seasons’ in-house legal department.

She was quickly promoted, eventually moving into an operating role, where she helped drive Four Seasons’ relentless global expansion. As economic power has shifted to emerging markets, the company has followed along: In the past 15 years it has begun managing hotels in cities like Cairo, Riyadh, and Istanbul. Its first property in China, the Four Seasons Shanghai, opened only a decade ago.

“As we think about the places we want to be we’re thinking very long term,” she says. “We operate in a very cyclical business, but plans for growth have to be taken with a view that there will be cycles but we don’t get to pick whether we open on the first day of a recovery or the last. That’s just out of our control.”

The company doesn’t actually own the hotels that carry its banner – it manages them for a fee, insisting on complete control over every aspect of their operations. That includes everything from site planning to bed making. And that means Ms. Taylor spends a lot of time managing expectations and cultivating relationships with hotel owners around the world.

“I try to visit between 25 and 30 hotels a year just to stay in touch with employees, capital partners and hotel owners,” she says. “It’s important for them to feel they have a very personal relationship with the company. This is a high-touch business and we’re very high-touch with all of our stakeholders.”

In 2007, just before a global credit crunch brought deal-making to a standstill, Four Seasons was taken private in a $4-billion transaction backed by Bill Gates and Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal. Mr. Sharp retained a 5-per-cent stake, but the deal was part of a bigger plan to prepare the company for a future without him. The same year, he declared Ms. Taylor would run the company in his place.

It would be three more years before she’d get the job. (But then, that’s the Four Seasons way. The company is famous for its gruelling hiring practices – even dishwashers and housekeepers are interviewed several times before being allowed to join its staff of 30,000.)

Still, it was a difficult time for Ms. Taylor to be under additional scrutiny. The recession was brutal on almost every type of business, but high-end hotels were particularly hard hit: companies cut back on luxury accommodations for executives as they laid off rank-and-file workers. Some of Four Seasons’ cash-strapped partners pleaded with the operator to ease off on some of its standards.

One went so far as to take the company to court to cancel its management contract. But Mr. Sharp and the company held firm – just as it refused to cut room rates and services in the economic downturn that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – and eventually settled out of court with the malcontent.

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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