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Kathleen Taylor addresses an audience of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts shareholders during the company’s annual meeting in this file photo.

Darryl James/The Globe and Mail

Kathleen Taylor spent years preparing for the top job at Four Seasons Hotels Inc., but the company said Tuesday she will be replaced only three years after she finally sat down in the corner office.+

Ms. Taylor was the hand-picked successor to Isadore Sharp, the legendary Toronto hotel mogul who founded the company in 1961 by buying a good motel in a bad neighbourhood.

He went on to expand the privately held company into an international powerhouse synonymous with luxury, before selling it for $4-billion in 2007 and ensuring Ms. Taylor would take over when he stepped away from the company's day-to-day operations.

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Now, as chairman of the board, Mr. Sharp finds himself in charge once again as he leads a management team tasked with running the company until a replacement can be found for Ms. Taylor. He never really left the company, retaining control over development plans and maintaining standards.

When Ms. Taylor took over in 2010, Mr. Sharp told The Globe and Mail that "the role of founder lasts forever."

"The role I'm continuing to control is the new developments and the aesthetics of the company," he said at the time. "Nobody else has ever done that, and it's what I enjoy. The fact is there are 50 projects under development, and it's a big chunk I can take off of her hands."

The company said Tuesday that it has hired a search firm to find a new chief executive officer, with industry sources saying the company is likely looking for an outsider to lead its expansion into countries outside of its traditional markets. While it continues to expand in North American and Western Europe – a new Toronto Four Seasons opened late last year – most of its anticipated growth is in China and the Middle East.

No one at the company would comment on the change Tuesday. Employees at the company's Toronto headquarters, where Ms. Taylor often ate lunch in the cafeteria alongside her staff, were surprised by the news when they arrived to work, and the announcement was handled by a New York public relations agency rather than by the company's internal communications team.

Ms. Taylor's appointment as CEO was not a sudden decision; Mr. Sharp brought her to the company in 1989 to work in its legal department, but she was quickly promoted into an operating role. She took over as chief operating officer in 2007, and was credited with guiding the company through a recession that was especially hard on high-end hotels.

The company does not actually own the hotels that carry its banner; it manages them on behalf of owners for a fee. This ensures that any facility bearing the Four Seasons name is run in a similar manner, a task that saw Ms. Taylor travelling the globe to ensure the chain's 30,000 employees were adhering to strict quality controls regardless of where the hotels were located.

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"I try to visit between 25 and 30 hotels a year just to stay in touch with employees, capital partners and hotel owners," she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail last summer. "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."

Ms. Taylor was also a strong link to the chain's Canadian heritage, after the chain was sold to Saudi Arabian Prince al-Waleed bin Talal and Bill Gates (Mr. Sharp retained a 5-per-cent stake).

She said last year that the company retained its Toronto headquarters after the takeover because it was considered a good travel hub, and the city's quality of life helped attract and retain talent.

Four Seasons is in 35 countries, with close to 90 hotels under management. The 2008 recession was brutal for most industries, but it was particularly hard on the luxury hotel market because businesses concerned about image didn't want to be seen spending money on high-end amenities while they were also shrinking their staffs.

The hotel industry is now in the midst of a recovery, said CBRE Ltd. executive vice-president Bill Stone, with many of the expansion markets targeted by Four Seasons recovering more quickly than traditional markets such as the United States and Western Europe.

"Europe still has its own subset of issues but if you look at major capital cities where Four Seasons operates, they have generally been very strong," said Mr. Stone, who specializes in hotels. "And if you look at the Middle East, where one of the major owners is based, there continues to be strong growth."

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