A Man for All Seasons
Isadore Sharp settles into a settee in the swanky Four Seasons Presentation Centre, looking the part in a power suit that hardly conceals his unassuming aura. Over the last 50 years, the Canadian-based hotelier has blazed a legendary trail, single-handedly innovating the hotel industry by stocking hotel rooms with shampoo bottles, soft toilet paper, thick towels; the best in mattress and pillow comfort. Of the 86 hotels across the world that brandish the Four Seasons insignia, this raise-the-bar approach is an eminent signature. But if you ask the founding father what his vision was for one of today’s leading luxury hospitality brands in the world, he’ll simply tell you that he never had one. “It was an evolution,” he explains, “it wasn’t a planned period, a planned career.” What he had instead was a quiet confidence, an affinity for integrity and a fastidious fist on ethics.
Sharp, affectionately known as “Issy,” was born in 1931 to immigrant parents. The family lived in the west-end of Toronto known as the Ward, where a lane heaped with cinders dumped by coal-burning furnaces was the extent of his playground. In his book, Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy, he describes the day when he was hit in the head with a cinder thrown by a non-Jewish child. He stumbled home crying, the blood trickling down his cheek and shirt. Deciding that the wound wasn’t serious, his mom slapped him across the face and ordered him to get back outside and continue playing. “You gain your values, your personality, from your environment. What does a person become? It’s nurture and nature – we are all born with a DNA of skills,” says Sharp, who inherited his mother’s resolve and his dad’s soft-spoken, tolerant personality. Despite the area’s low-cost housing, the Sharps were barely making ends meet as the Great Depression smeared its plight on the nation. Today, Sharp remembers every last bit of it: his mother cooking Sabbath dinners for friends and family with one oven for extra change, his sisters’ hand-me-downs, his father going back to work after breaking his arm. “I think that’s the immigrant mentality – you have no choice, you do things out of necessity and you have to keep working – you work through the pain. You learn early on that there are no excuses; you try to do your best.”
As the CEO of a company coming into its own, Sharp did just that. His early days, which demanded him to grasp his potential and act on it quickly, made him resistant to the pressures that came with leadership. “I think stress comes from uncertainty, you know, you’re not certain what’s going to happen. And I always had a good sense of what I was able to do and what was happening.”
In 2010, 49 years after he first broke ground with a watershed development on Jarvis Street, Sharp relinquished the role of Four Seasons CEO to Kathleen Taylor, a woman he describes as a “true leader.” Yet the 80-year-old, who keeps his mind stimulated with morning walks in the garden and playing bridge four times a week with his wife, Rosalie Wise Sharp, is still at the top of his game. Apart from the responsibilities of chairman and owner, Sharp holds onto his niche: approving the architectural concepts, esthetics and designs for new developments. “That’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing, and that’s what I’ve always done for the company, so I’m continuing in that aspect, which gives me enough to keep me interested,” he says. An endearing grin spreads across his complexion, sparking a healthy dose of positivism in a climate of fierce competition. Despite new additions to Toronto’s luxury living scene – the Trump International Hotel and Tower, Shangri-La Toronto and The Ritz-Carlton – Sharp’s confidence is unwavering. “What we’ve set as another objective is to become the undisputed leader of luxury hospitality. It’s like winning the gold at the Olympics: everybody in the world knows that that person is No. 1, and that’s what undisputed means – that there is no question that people will give you that acknowledgement. Can we ever get there? Don’t know. But the whole goal is that perfection is always a receding goal, and it’s the pursuit of excellence that you want to persevere. And as long as our people keep that as a goal that is ever-receding, you probably won’t ever know whether you’re the undisputed leader.”
He classifies the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto and Private Residences, set to debut in the summer of 2012, as “the next generation of five-star hotels.” The two connecting towers will be comprised of 259 super-luxurious guest rooms, including 42 suites and 210 residences on a sumptuous Yorkville, Toronto address. Just last year, a 9,000-plus square-foot penthouse with spectacular views of the city sold to an international buyer for $28 million. “This is the Four Seasons of today,” explains Sharp, excited to reveal a 15-minute delivery on room service that has been added to its roster of amenities. “People will always pay for what they believe is value to them. It’s never a matter of price. We were the first ones to break the $100 barrier, the $200, the $1,000 barrier [in room rates] – people aren’t necessarily judging our product by price: we are selling value. That’s been the way we’ve marketed the company, and that’s what a brand stands for.”
Undoubtedly, the brand’s hometown resurgence will elevate the luxury stay in Toronto, hosting top celebrities, business clientele and VIPs alike. “We look upon the future as we have great opportunities to continue to grow and to not compromise. So as we are getting bigger, we will still be better, and we will continue to specialize.” Sharp made his first strategic decision to focus on the
mid-size, five-star hotel category after receiving critical acclaim in 1973 for his London Inn on the Park in England, which ignited the Four Seasons brand to life. It was named Europe’s Hotel of the Year in its first year of operation, besting leading world-class giants like The Connaught, Claridge’s and The Savoy Hotel. But it was much more than the esthetic pleasure of the building, the art or architecture that resulted in the accolade – it was the quality of service, the distinctiveness of how Four Seasons operated and gave value to its customers. “And that’s why I knew we could do better than others,” he says with subdued conviction.
His certainty and belief in his dreams are what gave the Four Seasons a celebrated spot in the global luxury hotel market today – even when the naysayer said he couldn’t. Those around him suggested he reconsider the position he had selected for his first foray in hotel building, the Four Seasons Motor Hotel in 1961. Sharp kept at it. “You still persevere because I call it a ‘subliminal belief’ – you really do believe it. People might say, ‘well, you’re a fanatic.’ Well, fanatics do believe in what they’re doing.”
While location is a critical component to success, Sharp was at the forefront of decisive development, predicting future potential for the area. “Toronto was a city that was very much quickly moving ahead into the second half of the 20th century,” says Gary Miedema, chief historian at Heritage Toronto. Infrastructure consisted of post-war, low-rise buildings cut in lacklustre beige stone, but the ’50s and ’60s gave way to shaping the milieu of a budding metropolis. “It was a very formative period for the building-out of the city we now live in, and it’s for the very same reason an exciting area, to see the city change into a cutting-edge, multicultural, modern city.”
Over the years, Sharp maintained the rise of Four Seasons by fostering healthy business and personal relationships. He built a solid reputation by putting ethics before profit – something that sounds easier than it is. “It’s a global business world that we’re living in, so I think there are different cultures that you’re coming in contact with. Do I still do business on a handshake? Yes. You don’t change. But if you think about it, we have 86 hotels; we have over 50 that are under development or construction, so in the course of all of that, over a 50-year history, the percentages are still on your side to shake hands and say ‘yes’, because you lose so much more time if you don’t trust the person.” Having felt the sting of betrayal that comes with broken promises, Sharp weathered times of difficulty by adhering to his principles. Rosalie describes her partner in life as a kind and gentle man, who, “in a way, is naïve in his business relationships, because he always expects that people are honest, and so, somehow, because he was so trusting, other people trusted him.”
During the economic downturn in 1981, Sharp recalls how the Four Seasons had accumulated a long-term debt of $200 million, and hotels were dropping room rates and employees to keep their heads above water. To avoid cutbacks in value and service, Sharp thought of the only way he could tide his company over until the marketplace bounced back to health: he headed to the bank – with interest rates soaring at 20 per cent – to ask for a loan. “I believed we could get out of it … because time is everything in business,” he explains. As collateral, and as a promise to himself and his major lender, he pledged all his Four Seasons stock. “The Bank of Nova Scotia lent me my first dollar. They have never, ever said ‘no’ – and I’ve asked for some pretty ridiculous things sometimes. And they have always supported me. This was another occasion, when again, a trusting relationship did pay off.”
More than two decades later, as the recession of 2008-09 dealt a hard blow on most industries, the Four Seasons felt its financial impact. Business slowed, projects were put on hold or cancelled. The Arab Spring in the Middle East saw room occupancy grind to a halt at its once-successful hotel in Cairo. In his positive, matter-of-fact way, Sharp explains that preparedness was key to surviving. A long-term thinker, Sharp ran a conservative ship, shaping the Four Seasons into a management firm. “The new developments are now picking up again; we’re going to have six hotels that will open this coming year, and we have the hotels that have slowed down that have now moved into what we call the ‘development stage.’”
But no man can attain such a feat without a hand. From the onset, Sharp knew that his staff was integral to upholding the company’s prestige. Around the 1980s, while the company was gaining international attention, Sharp called a full stop to future deals to build the “people-part” of his company. He needed more staff members, but more importantly, he required people that could espouse the company’s soul. “We did continue to get telephone calls, but I would explain that we weren’t able to do what you’re coming to the Four Seasons for – and most developers and financiers appreciated the candour. So you don’t lose anything when you’re trying to live up to what business arrangements are supposed to be.”
It’s interesting to parallel the name of Four Seasons after significant changes, dips and lows in temperatures, good days and bad – all state of affairs Sharp tackled without regret. “He’s laughably positive – he will only look at what we did right, rather, he just doesn’t bother with the negative,” says Rosalie, who was immediately smitten by Sharp when they first met at a wedding. Her father, however, was resistant to their relationship, hoping his only daughter would marry a doctor or lawyer. “Issy was in rubber boots on the construction site, so my father wasn’t too pleased.” But Rosalie saw potential in her newest suitor, who continues to admire her youthful curiosity. She calls to mind the beginning of their courtship, when Sharp presented her with a gift of thoughtful magnitude. “I went to a friend’s house – a very well-to-do person at school. A bunch of us were there and she opened her drawer and said she had too many ‘cashmeres.’ I had never heard of the word, I said, ‘what is a cashmere?’ I told Issy that story. The next day, he bought me something that was popular in the ’50s: a skirt and sweater set – they matched. They were cashmere. I always say that I remember my closet – there were just a few things swinging in there. And now when I get something, I have to make space for it.”
Growing up, Sharp’s main ambition was to be the best he could be, a lesson in humility he learned while playing sports. So when Rosalie explained that she was forbidden to see him, he visited her father to smooth things over. He was successful. The two went on to marry and have four children. Rosalie, an interior designer, is grateful for the lifestyle they lead, but it’s the courage she and her husband found when they lost a son to melanoma that defines their marriage. “The tragedy of our son’s death and how we reacted to it … it’s the kind of disaster that divides people – but we were always vigilant to protect each other in that situation, that’s how we handled it.” Since the beginning of its formation, the Sharps have been deeply involved in the Terry Fox Foundation, which has, to-date, raised over $600 million for cancer research. “Business is only a part of life, you don’t make it your whole life,” says Sharp.
During his early teens, Sharp began to take interest in the profession of his father, a fledging plastering contractor. He helped him build houses and later on apartments across Toronto, spending his summers on construction sites with men who asked for no more than a job. After receiving a diploma in architecture, his dad stepped aside and watched his son double Max Sharp & Son, the family business. Some of his earliest workers stayed with Sharp for as long as four decades. “A leader gets people to do more than what they believe they can do themselves. You have to earn the trust and respect of the people that you are the boss over. And once you earn that respect, you then have the influence, and through influence, you can get people to rise to their best self – well beyond what they ever believed they were capable of. Because they want to trust you, and they want to live up to that trust you’ve placed in them,” says Sharp, whose profound voice still captures an audience with its crescendos of wisdom and knowledge. His trademark headship is palpable at Four Seasons, where employees receive the same respect and dignity. “He’s a legend. When we travel, and he does his four-o’-clock talk in the boardroom, employees come in on their days off. They want a picture of him, and the lineup goes on and on that I leave – it takes so long! He’s like a rock star,” says Rosalie.
However innocent and incongruous his approach to business, the poise and perseverance he gained in the classroom of his upbringing is what shapes his longstanding legacy. “We lived in the Jewish ghetto, and everybody was helping everybody – even if they had very little. So when you grow up in an environment like that, I think it shapes you in terms of what you’re going