Live & Learn: Isadore Sharp

The founder and CEO of Four Seasons Resorts and Hotels on his childhood, knowing not all that much about hotels and how he makes the big decisions.

Isadore Sharp • Born Oct. 8, 1931, in Toronto • Founder/CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts • Philanthropist

1952 Begins full-time construction work with his father as Max Sharp & Son, after earning an architecture degree.
1961 Opens first hotel, the Four Seasons Motor Hotel, in Toronto.
1970 Four Seasons opens a 230-room luxury hotel in London, a project that took seven years to finish.
1981 Helps establish the annual Terry Fox Run three years after one of his own sons, Christopher, dies from cancer.
2006 Takes Four Seasons private, along with Bill Gates and longtime company investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud of Saudi Arabia.

The strongest agreement is a handshake. It doesn’t always work out, but it works most of the time. I’d rather go on the basis of believing that when people promise something, they intend to keep it.

Having mentors? I didn’t really get that experience. I’m a builder by trade, and I was just looking to make a living.

As a kid growing up, I was quite wild. Irresponsible. I did all the things you’re not supposed to do. We used to gamble a lot.

My siblings and I were trusted to use our best judgment from a very early age. Not that we didn’t get into trouble by using our judgment. Playing hooky from Jewish school, my mother would see me, grab me by the ear and tell me to get down there. You were quick to find out the way you should be.

All those stories you hear about the typical Yiddish mama, that was my mother.

In Jewish families, the women really took charge of the household. The men were more steeped in the tradition of religion. My mother made all of the decisions. Today’s women’s lib? My mother was the original.

As a student, I was terrible. School for me was a place to have fun. Sports and girls, doing the things that the hormones dictate. It was actually only in my last year at Ryerson, and I don’t know why, that I just became very interested in school. I saw that it really didn’t interfere with having fun. I sort of resent the fact that I wasted my years while getting an education.

I knew I was going into construction. That was my life. I wasn’t thinking about doing anything other than that, because that’s what I used to do every summer with my father.

I liked the physical aspect of it, and the type of people I was working with. I just enjoyed the camaraderie. Most of these people were like my parents: hard-working immigrants.

My father was a very quiet person. He’d never raise his voice or his hand, but you always did what he asked. He wouldn’t ask you to do it, if it wasn’t important.

Getting into hotels, I knew nothing, other than what a hotel did. My approach to operating them came from thinking about it not from an understanding of the business, but what was expected by a customer.

That’s still what we’re doing today. All of our thoughts are about what the customer is expecting, so we can meet that expectation and exceed it.

My lack of knowledge and experience in the hotel industry probably allowed me to think of doing things that others who knew more feared to try.

The idea of putting shampoo in the bathrooms was ours. I grew up with three sisters, and I knew women would never wash their hair with soap. Why wouldn’t we just put a little package of shampoo in the bathroom for people to use? Nobody ever travelled with shampoo.

Most of the things we’ve initiated were practical things. I tried to think not of what would be a gimmick to impress, but what would be useful.

I researched and had mattresses shipped here to Toronto. Dozens and dozens from different manufacturers. I’d give them the old bum test. I finally came across one that was manufactured in Germany, and that’s the one we installed in London in 1970. We took that mattress and asked how we could make it better. And, over the years, we created a Four Seasons mattress.

The question of having a favourite hotel always comes up. The answer is whatever hotel I’m in is the favourite of the day. I’ve been part of creating every hotel, so the history of each hotel is with me.

I have a way of dealing with major decisions. My habit is to get up very early, three or four in the morning, and, in the quiet of the night, make lists of the pros and cons. I started doing that many, many years ago, and follow it to this day.

This is a very, very good industry to be in. It’s got great growth potential. It’s not like someone’s going to invent something and hotels won’t be of use.

It’s wrong in hindsight to identify good or bad decisions. Each one is part of a whole. If you look at where you are today and can say, “I’m satisfied,” then you can’t say anything is a bad decision.

I wouldn’t take anything back, or change anything. There’s no doubt that if you change the past, you would not be where you are today. You might be better off, but you don’t know that.