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.