Review of “Four Seasons”, The Story of a Business Philosophy
Simple Small Business will, from time to time, review a business book that we think is worthy of your consideration. I think that it is only fair to warn you that I have spent most of my adult life studying business related books and I find that over time I am drawn to Biographies and Case Studies rather than non-fiction, strategic or instructional types of books. When you are first beginning the journey of entrepreneurship, instructional books are necessary because we lack a foundation of solid technical knowledge. After the framework has been developed, we will need guidance from someone with more experience. This guidance comes from actually listening to people who have done it. Understanding their struggles and how they overcame them can be extremely enlightening.
“Four Seasons” is a book written by Isadore Sharp, the founder and CEO of the highly regarded Four Seasons Hotels. It is a forty year summary of his life and the evolution of the Four Seasons name.
In the introduction he begins by humbly admitting that when he started he knew nothing of the hotel business or any small business for that matter. His parents were poor immigrants from Poland and Isadore spent some time explaining how his family arrived in Canada and how his father wound up in the building trade. This was during the depression and as a small boy he would spend the day helping his father by carrying bricks or plaster, digging ditches and putting in a good hard days work. It becomes obvious that Isadore’s values came from his upbringing and it is important in understanding his philosophy in his dealings with businesses and with people today.
After graduating school at twenty-one years old, he went into business full time with his father. His father had been building houses and now was beginning to get offered jobs to build apartments. The first one was a partnership in which Isadore’s father would supply the labor on speculation with the profits being divided after the sale of the unit.
Next is a brief interlude where Mr. Sharp goes into the history of his immediate family, describing how he met Rosalie, his wife. He also spends several chapters talking about his children and going into great detail of his heart wrenching tale of how he lost one of his sons to cancer. This in turn sets up another tale of some amazing charity events and cancer awareness programs supported by Isadore, his family and the Four Seasons Hotels that are continued to this day.
There is a lot in this book. Mr. Sharp explains how he came to build his first motel, his first big hotel development project and how he acquired the funding for it, even when he had very little collateral himself. He takes you through the development of many five-star hotels throughout Canada, Europe, Asia, The United States and even on Tropical Islands. Each area and each hotel had its own unique problems to overcome and Mr. Sharp explains many of them.
One of the biggest things that stands out in my mind after reading the book was the huge impact that Isadore Sharp had on the hotel industry in general. The Four Seasons Hotels pioneered things like shampoo and cream rinse in the bathroom, exercise room and equipment in the lobby, desk, lounge chairs, and high quality bedding in the rooms. Probably his most important contribution was his fight to give the employees authority and a feeling of ownership in the business. You really get a sense of frustration on Isadore’s part when he talks about how hard it was to overcome the mindset of traditional hotel management. He even resorted to having his top key staff sit in on McDonald’s training classes in order to try to convey how the employees are the front line of any business and not just robots or slaves to do what the hotel manager commands.
Mr. Sharp states that his entire business was built on four pillars. These are Quality, Service, Culture and Brand. If you can believe everything that he says, he always put people and relationships ahead of profits. There were many instances in the book when he put a lot, if not everything, on the line because he refused to lower his values simply to make a buck.
As I mentioned earlier, this book is a summary of Isadore Sharp’s rise in the world of business, real estate development and hotel management. I enjoyed the first two-thirds of this book greatly. The last third was not quite as exciting because it seemed like it was spent simply wrapping up any lose ends. I personally wanted to know more. For my taste, Mr. Sharp did not go into enough detail about the specific businesses and obstacles that he encountered along the way. Don’t get me wrong, he explained how he approached these situations, his tactics, his reasoning and his fears and celebrations. This is probably enough for most people. I wanted to know things like exactly how much did he buy the land for? How much was the hotel earning annually, what were the operating cost and where were those costs coming from? I admit these are things that really were not pertinent to the structure of this book, which really was “The Story of His Business Philosophy”. The book holds true to its key purpose all the way to the end. The book really is more about emotion then execution and if this is your cup of tea, then I highly recommend any simple small business owner buy a copy of this book. There is a lot to be learned here about business relationships.