I don't come from the hotel world. My background is construction. I come from an immigrant household, and growing up in a home like that, you become a hardworking kid. During my summers, I worked construction, doing gofer types of jobs and, after a while, manual labor. I really enjoyed it the physical part, trying to measure up, so to speak. These guys were rugged. Ninety-nine percent of them were immigrants from Poland. I studied architecture at Ryerson [University], knowing I was going to be a builder. After that, I joined my dad. It was Max Sharp and then Max Sharp & Son a two-man organization.
I came to hotels by coincidence. I was building a small motel for a friend. He and his wife were going to run this motel in Toronto at the crossroads of two highways. He was building this in the middle of a field, and in order to get to it, you had to get off the highway and drive through a residential area. It was a very small, 14-room motel. I said, "Jack, how are people ever going to find this place?" He said, "Don't give me advice. Just build it." They were filled every night with these 14 rooms.
It occurred to me that if he could make that work in the middle of nowhere, why wouldn't you take the same idea of a motel, which at that time was the new rage this was 1954, 1955 and do it downtown? You could combine the location of a hotel with the informality of a motel. I wasn't thinking of getting into the hotel business. I was doing it as a real estate deal.
In order for a motel to work, it's all convenience: you drive up, and there's free parking. So you need a large piece of land. Now the only place to get a large piece of land in downtown Toronto is on the wrong side of the tracks, so that's where I looked. I found a piece on what was at that time a street of ill repute called Jarvis Street. It was a hooker's paradise drugs, gamblers, everything. You went there for the action. And for most of the motels on the street, that's what it was all about.
But I looked at it very differently. People who are coming into town might not know what's the right side of town, the wrong side of town. I knew architecturally we could build something that would be interesting. If you know some history, you know the medieval way of building buildings was that everything faced in to a safe courtyard. To me, that was the concept of this motel: everything faced in to a protective square. The courtyard was like an oasis in the middle of all this turmoil. It was called Four Seasons Motor Hotel.
Now, I was still a builder. I wasn't running the hotel. I hired a fellow, Ian Munroe, who knew about the hotel business. I had an idea of what it should be, but I was always thinking about it from the customer perspective. We were the first company to put shampoo in the bathroom, simply because I grew up with three sisters and I saw that women never wash their hair with soap. So I said, "Why don't we get these little packages of shampoo and leave them in the bathroom?" A lot of the things I started with, other people said, "You can't do that." We put in large, cotton towels. People said, "They'll steal those. How can you do that?" The principle was to think about it as if you're having guests come to your home.
That was the beginning. The second one was called the Inn on the Park, in Toronto. Again it was extreme simply because of the location. There was nothing around it. But that was the intent: to be a resort within the city. It was close enough to downtown you could get there in 20, 30 minutes. It was on 16 acres [61/2 hectares] of land, and the architecture was really dramatic.
It was a different atmosphere, but the principle was exactly the same. You treated your customers in a manner that made them feel special as individuals, understanding what their likes and dislikes are. Fortunately, Munroe understood exactly how to make it work. He knew how to be a good host and how to train people so that they'd give the customer good service. He became my teacher, my mentor.
Each hotel led to the next. This was now the early '60s, and I'd taken a vacation with my wife to London and stayed in a hotel that I thought was just spectacular, the Dorchester. I was talking to this fellow back in Toronto about this wonderful hotel, and he said, "My company owns that." I said, "Tell your company if they ever want to build a hotel in London, I can make it better than the Dorchester." He comes back a month or so later and says, "My company has a hotel it wants to build. Were you serious?" I said, "Of course." Again, it was taking an idea that was not new but new to London a modern hotel with all the conveniences, air-conditioning, things like that. They said, "You're wasting your money nobody in London has air-conditioning." I said, "I know they don't, but North American travelers will expect it." The first year we won hotel of the year.
So remember, I'm doing all this, and I'm still a builder by trade. But my course in life changed at the same time I was building in London, from 1965 to 1970. I put together a deal with ITT to build a convention hotel in Toronto. I had a 49% interest. It was called the Four Seasons Sheraton.
The contrast between how that hotel ran and what we were doing in London gave me an idea for what we should do from that point forward. In the convention hotel, you had to deal with people as a mass. You could not possibly give personal service. As a business, it was very successful. It was charging a lower price, and people weren't expecting all these little touches. But in London, we had become the best. If we can beat the best hotels in London, why wouldn't it be possible to do it elsewhere? That's when I said, "From now on, we're going to build and operate hotels only of exceptional quality, and we're going to make each one the best." That set me on the course to become a hotelier. That was 1972.
The plan hasn't changed. Years back, I didn't know where we were going. Today it's easy to look at the future. I see the next decade as the most exciting in the company's history. We will double the number of hotels. Fast-forward 10 years, and the majority will be next-generation, five-star hotels the kind that we're opening now in Budapest, Prague, New York City. And now that we've gone from public to private [Four Seasons was acquired by Bill Gates and Saudi Prince al-Waleed], there is a certainty of stability. If ownership never changes, and management has got a clear look to the future, the company's legacy is almost assured.
As told to Barbara Kiviatn