#184 Isadore Sharp Four Seasons

Summary Notes


Isadore Sharp, the founder of Four Seasons, shares his journey from a builder with no hotel experience to creating the world's most prestigious group of five-star hotels. Sharp's philosophy, detailed in his book "Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy," revolves around the four pillars of quality, service, culture, and brand, which have underpinned the company's evolution and success. Despite initial skepticism and challenges, including the tragic loss of his son Chris, Sharp's unwavering belief in providing exceptional value and service to customers shaped Four Seasons into a leader in luxury hospitality. His story illustrates the importance of a clear vision, the courage to defy naysayers, and the significance of actions over words in building a successful business.

Summary Notes

Early Vision and Strategy

  • Isidor Sharp had no original vision or grand scheme when he built his first hotel.
  • His background was in building apartments and houses, not in hotel management.
  • Sharp approached the hotel business from a customer's perspective, focusing on what customers would value.
  • The strategy of providing good value to customers so they would pay what they think it's worth has been a continuous approach for Four Seasons.
  • The company evolved slowly, with Sharp admitting to making mistakes, but he never prioritized profit over people.
  • Over 40 years, Four Seasons developed four key strategic decisions: quality, service, culture, and brand.
  • These decisions, known as the four pillars of the business model, evolved over 25 years.
  • New initiatives are introduced yearly, but none have been as fundamentally important as the original four pillars.
  • The consistent quality of exceptional service is a key differentiator that cannot be copied, as it is based on corporate culture.

"Because if we give them good value, they will pay what they think it's worth. That was the first strategy, and it continues to this day."

This quote sums up the fundamental business strategy of providing good value to ensure customer willingness to pay, which has been a consistent approach since the inception of Four Seasons.

Corporate Culture and Service

  • Service at Four Seasons is based on the corporate culture, which cannot be mandated but must grow from within.
  • The actions of the company's people over time shape the culture.
  • Isidor Sharp believes that just like companies, individuals become the actions they take over an extended period.

"The consistent quality of our exceptional service. That service is based on a corporate culture, and a culture cannot be mandated as a policy. It must grow from within, based on the actions of the company's people over a long period of time."

This quote emphasizes that the exceptional service at Four Seasons is a result of the corporate culture, which is organically developed through the actions and behaviors of its employees over time.

Isidor Sharp's Personality and Influences

  • Isidor Sharp's wife describes him as a dreamer, who, even as a child, believed that any goal was within his reach.
  • Sharp was influenced by men who volunteered for the army during wartime, particularly those from World War II.
  • His family's Jewish background and escape from Auschwitz to Canada influenced his later decisions.
  • Sharp's philosophy included a strong belief in his decisions, which he considered common sense.
  • He valued responsibility and was taught to welcome it.
  • Sharp had the ability to synthesize opposing ideas to create superior solutions.
  • He consumed and remixed great ideas, which is a trait of successful entrepreneurs.
  • His wife observed his energy and intellectual vigor, noting his consistent calm demeanor and lack of anger.
  • Despite early skepticism, Sharp's audacious goal of making Four Seasons a worldwide luxury brand like Rolls Royce eventually came to fruition.

"He saw no reason why this goal should not be within his reach."

This quote reflects Sharp's early confidence and ambition, which played a significant role in his later success with Four Seasons.

Childhood and Early Life Lessons

  • Sharp's upbringing was marked by resourcefulness and self-sufficiency, instilled by his parents.
  • His mother practiced tough love and practicality, while his father taught him the value of hard work without complaint.
  • Sharp's early life involved frequent moves and living with extended family due to financial constraints.
  • The construction became a significant part of Sharp's life through helping his father build a cottage and working on construction sites.
  • His father's teaching methods were experiential, allowing Sharp to learn from his mistakes.
  • Sharp's parents encouraged independence and self-reliance, which contributed to his resourcefulness.

"Dad handed me a sledgehammer, and all he said then or later was, break it and do it the right way next time."

This quote exemplifies the hands-on and experiential learning approach of Sharp's father, which left a lasting impression on Sharp's work ethic and problem-solving skills.

Career Beginnings and Business Philosophy

  • Sharp started working in his father's small construction company and was forced to be a jack of all trades.
  • A banker recognized Sharp's business acumen and advised him to focus on using his mind rather than manual labor.
  • Sharp's wife, Rosalie, was a proficient economizer, which was necessary due to their tight financial situation.
  • Sharp's work ethic was intense, often working long hours and sacrificing personal time, which his wife noted could lead to a loss of intimacy and self-absorption.
  • Even during his honeymoon, Sharp was thinking about work, which led to the realization that if a mediocre business could be profitable, a great business could do even better.

"You may say, I'm putting no money down, but that's not true. What I've gained on my land is my equity."

This quote illustrates Sharp's early understanding of leveraging assets and equity to secure financing, reflecting his business savvy and strategic thinking.


Isidor Sharp's story, as told through his book "Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy," showcases the evolution of a business and personal philosophy that led to the creation of a world-renowned luxury hotel brand. His upbringing, personality, and experiences all contributed to the development of Four Seasons' core principles of quality, service, culture, and brand. Sharp's ability to synthesize ideas, his relentless work ethic, and his commitment to never losing focus on exceptional quality and service are central themes that emerge from the transcript.

Introduction to the Hotel Industry

  • Isidor Sharp's first encounter with the hotel industry was an experience with a poorly designed hotel bathroom.
  • The incident led him to consider the profitability of a well-designed hotel.
  • Sharp's initial venture into the hotel industry began with building a motel for someone else.
  • Sharp's observation of the motel's success sparked the idea of creating his own hotel, particularly in a downtown location.

"Somebody's in my bathroom. No one was there, but someone had been for the bathroom, served two separate rooms." "I thought that if a hotel like this was making lots of money, it shouldn't be hard to build a hotel that would make a lot more."

The quotes highlight Sharp's realization of potential improvements in hotel design and operations, which could increase profitability.

Overcoming Skepticism

  • Sharp faced skepticism and rejection when he proposed building a motel downtown.
  • His previous financial backers, including Cecil from Great West, did not support his new hotel venture.
  • Sharp's best friend, Wally, was unable to invest due to restrictions from his trust fund.
  • A lender named Max, with experience in the hotel business, also rejected Sharp's idea.

"Cecil did not like this new deal I was proposing." "Sorry, izzy, my money's all in a trust, and my trustee won't invest in something that he thinks that will never work." "You know nothing about the hotel business. I do, and I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole."

The quotes demonstrate the initial resistance Sharp faced from potential investors who doubted the feasibility of his hotel project.

Persistence and Learning from Experts

  • Despite the rejections, Sharp continued to seek the ideal location for his motel.
  • He revisited Cecil multiple times over three years, eventually securing a commitment for partial financing.
  • Sharp was willing to ask for help and learn from others with more experience.
  • He reached out to Mike Robinson, an experienced motel operator, and Al Parvin, a knowledgeable figure in the hotel business, for advice.

"I will give you 50% if you can get the other 50." "None of us knew anything about the hotel business. So when Murray... read in Time magazine about a man named Mike Robinson... I wrote him a letter." "Mike told us, go meet with Al. We're going to go meet with Al."

Sharp's persistence in seeking expert advice and securing financing showcases his determination to succeed in the hotel industry despite initial setbacks.

Steve Jobs' Philosophy on Asking for Help

  • Steve Jobs believed in the importance of asking for help and found that people are generally willing to provide assistance.
  • Jobs recalled a personal experience from his youth where he received support from Bill Hewlett after simply asking for it.
  • The philosophy of reaching out and not being afraid of rejection is paralleled in Sharp's approach.

"Most people don't get those experiences because they never ask." "I've never found anybody who didn't want to help me when I've asked them for help." "Most people never pick up the phone and call. Most people never ask."

Jobs' quotes reinforce the idea that seeking help and being proactive can separate successful individuals from those who only dream.

Naming the Four Seasons and Early Successes

  • The first Four Seasons hotel was located in a neighborhood perceived negatively, but Sharp saw potential.
  • The name "Four Seasons" was chosen after "Thunderbird" was found to be taken and was inspired by a hotel in Munich.
  • Sharp's belief in his hotel concept preceded the evidence of success, leading him to gamble on a second hotel.

"Almost everybody we talked to about it had the same reaction. How could you think of building a motel or a hotel on Jarvis street?" "It was the finest hotel he had known, and it was a name in German... It translates as Four Seasons."

The selection of the "Four Seasons" name and the decision to continue expanding despite early challenges demonstrate Sharp's commitment to his vision.

Customer-Centric Approach

  • Sharp focused on what customers would value most in a hotel experience.
  • He prioritized customer needs such as a quiet room, a good night's sleep, and a good shower.
  • The Four Seasons was one of the first to offer amenities like fluffy cotton towels and designated non-smoking floors.

"What would our customers want most? I had little hotel experience, but enough to know that what most people wanted, a quiet room, a good night's sleep, and an invigorating morning shower."

Sharp's emphasis on customer satisfaction and his innovative approach to hotel amenities set Four Seasons apart from competitors.

Innovative Health and Fitness Offerings

  • Sharp collaborated with Lloyd Percival to open the first health club in a hotel.
  • This initiative provided unique value to guests and changed industry standards.
  • The success of the health club demonstrated the effectiveness of Sharp's customer-focused innovations.

"I asked Lloyd if he'd operate a fitness club in the hotel... The hotel would be the first location of his fitness institute, which was also the first kind of health club in the world."

The partnership with Lloyd Percival and the introduction of a health club within the hotel exemplify Sharp's foresight in enhancing the guest experience.

Building Trust and Mentorship

  • Sharp's relationship with Sir Gerald Glover was based on mutual trust and respect.
  • Glover's mentorship was critical to Sharp's success, emphasizing the importance of trustworthy relationships in business.

"My dear boy, he said, over time, you make a judgment about people, you develop a belief and a trust." "Those many meetings of ours were not primarily about business per se. They were about the foundation of business, trustworthy relationships."

The quotes from Sir Gerald Glover highlight the significance of building strong, trust-based relationships in achieving business success.

Belief Before Ability

  • Sharp's vision for a large hotel in Toronto was ambitious given his limited experience and resources.
  • He bid on a project to build a hotel next to Toronto's new city hall, reflecting his belief in his ability to create a world-class hotel.
  • Sharp's chutzpah and vision were evident in his approach to the project, despite not winning the initial bid.

"I had neither the experience nor the money such a hotel required." "This would be one of the world's great hotels, and I don't know why I thought I could build it."

Sharp's confidence and willingness to pursue a grand vision for a hotel in Toronto illustrate his entrepreneurial spirit and belief in his capabilities.

Leveraging Opportunities and Strategic Partnerships

  • Sharp identified an article about Harold Janine's interest in the hotel business, which led to a partnership with ITT.
  • The partnership with ITT was a strategic move that aligned with Sharp's goals for the hotel project.

"Janine's next move, it said, would be in the hotel business. So I called ITT."

Sharp's proactive approach to seeking opportunities and forming strategic partnerships was instrumental in advancing his hotel projects.

Harold Janine Biography and ITT

  • The book "Janine: The Biography of Harold Janine" discusses the rise of ITT under Harold Janine.
  • Janine's methods, triumphs, and scandals are covered, providing insights into successful conglomerate management.
  • The book is praised for avoiding common pitfalls of business biographies: adulation, antagonism, inadequate research, and overwhelming dullness.
  • Janine was a prominent figure in his time, comparable to the fame of Elon Musk today.
  • Historical figures like Janine and Henry Kaiser are often forgotten over time despite their significant contributions and ideas.

"Janine, the biography of Harold Janine, who made ITT into the most successful conglomerate in history. His development methods, triumphs and scandals, the real story."

This quote is the title of the book that piqued interest due to its coverage of a significant figure in business history and the promise of a comprehensive look at his career.

ITT Joint Venture and Decision Making

  • Isidor Sharp's (Izzy) partnership with ITT and Sheridan to build a hotel.
  • Izzy's clear understanding of his purpose simplifies his decision-making process.
  • Despite having no money and little expertise, Izzy negotiates a 49% interest in the hotel for $3.5 million.
  • Izzy secures a loan from the Bank of Nova Scotia using the agreement with ITT as collateral.
  • ITT offers to buy out Izzy for a $2 million profit, but he declines, emphasizing his goal to build and be a partner.

"With that agreement, I went to the bank of Nova Scotia and had no trouble in borrowing the 3.5 million we needed, since it and t guaranteed my payment from having no money whatsoever and very little hotel experience."

Izzy leverages a business agreement to secure funding, demonstrating the power of contracts in obtaining loans and his strategic thinking in business development.

Importance of Knowing Your Purpose

  • Izzy's refusal of ITT's buyout offer reflects his commitment to his vision and purpose.
  • ITT later offers to purchase Four Seasons and give Izzy a job, but he values his independence and declines.
  • Izzy's decision-making process involves weighing pros and cons, reflecting on his goals, and prioritizing independence over financial gain.

"I'm not here to sell. I'm here to be a partner."

This quote underscores Izzy's dedication to his business vision and his unwillingness to compromise on his goals for short-term profit.

Realizations and Business Model Shift

  • Izzy's experiences with ITT and Sheridan lead to disagreements on hotel management.
  • He sells his interest in the hotel for $18 million, a significant profit from his initial investment.
  • This success and the threat of bankruptcy lead Izzy to shift focus from development to hotel management.
  • Izzy sets a principle to limit Four Seasons' equity investment per property, reducing financial risk.

"That near ruinous experience changed my thinking on hotel investment."

This quote explains how a brush with bankruptcy led Izzy to rethink his investment strategy and business model, leading to a more sustainable approach.

Personal Tragedy and Emotional Impact

  • Izzy's son, interested in the hotel business, dies at 18 from melanoma.
  • The emotional toll of this loss is profound, and Izzy includes his son as part of the family despite his absence.
  • Reading biographies allows readers to experience the full range of human emotions, making the lessons more impactful.

"Losing Chris changed my life forever."

This quote conveys the deep personal impact of losing a child and how such a tragedy can reshape one's life and perspective.

Philanthropy and Inspiration

  • Four Seasons sponsors the Terry Fox Hope run, raising money for cancer research.
  • Terry Fox, despite his own cancer and amputation, runs 26 miles a day to support the cause.
  • Fox's determination serves as a reminder of human potential and the power of a greater cause.

"He was running 26 miles a day on one leg despite exhaustion, a swollen ankle and a bleeding stump, because he felt he was generating a great swell of support for his cause."

This quote illustrates the incredible perseverance of Terry Fox and the inspiration he provides, highlighting the human capacity to overcome adversity for a greater purpose.

Vision for Four Seasons and Quality Focus

  • Izzy's slow realization that his passion is in creating the world's best hotels.
  • He decides to specialize in mid-size, exceptional quality hotels, rejecting the model of being all things to all people.
  • Izzy's vision contrasts with the broader market approach of competitors like Weston, Marriott, and Sheraton.
  • The focus on quality over quantity aligns with lessons from Steve Jobs on selling premium products.

"Create a group of the best hotels in the world. And what we really want to do is usually what we do best."

This quote encapsulates Izzy's ultimate goal for Four Seasons and his belief that following one's true passion leads to the best outcomes.

Conviction and Vision

  • Isidor Sharp's conviction in his business model was strong, despite others doubting its viability.
  • He aimed to create the best five-star hotel in the world, rather than settling for mediocrity.
  • Sharp's approach mirrored Steve Jobs's philosophy when restructuring Apple – focusing on premium products with higher margins.

"I believe that what we had done in London, we could do anywhere in the world be the best. The strength of that conviction overrode doubt, bolstering my self confidence to press on with an idea that no one else thought would work."

The quote emphasizes Sharp's unwavering belief in his business model, which was to establish the best hotels worldwide, regardless of the prevailing skepticism.

Strategy and Focus

  • Sharp and Jobs shared a similar business strategy: targeting the high-end market instead of competing on price.
  • They both believed in delivering superior value to customers, which justified higher prices.
  • This strategy involved concentrating on a niche market and creating innovative products rather than competing in a saturated market.

"I'm only shooting for the top. I'm going to charge more money than anybody else has, but the customer will get value for that."

This quote underscores Sharp's strategic focus on delivering top-tier value, justifying higher prices by aiming to be the best in the market.

Learning from Other Industries

  • Sharp learned about service excellence from different industries, such as McDonald's.
  • Despite pushback, he insisted that the method of delivering service was more important than the product itself.
  • He emphasized the importance of how services are sold, not just what is being sold.

"I want you to come with me to McDonald's and see how they train their people for service."

Sharp's quote reflects his belief in learning effective service delivery from other successful businesses, regardless of the industry.

Emphasizing the 'How' Over the 'What'

  • Sharp and other successful founders focus on the approach to business, not just the products or services.
  • He, like Bezos and Jobs, believed in learning the strategies behind successful products to apply them to their own businesses.
  • The 'how' is transferable across disciplines and is crucial for innovation.

"Don't copy the what, copy the how."

This quote captures the essence of focusing on the strategy and process behind successful business models, rather than imitating the products themselves.

Actions Over Words

  • Sharp repeatedly stressed the importance of actions over rhetoric.
  • He believed that providing superior service and value to customers was paramount to the company's success.
  • His philosophy was to focus on the customer first, which aligns with the principles held by other successful entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Walt Disney.

"We are only what we do, not what we say we are."

This quote conveys Sharp's principle that a company's true identity is defined by its actions and the value it delivers, rather than its proclamations.

Uncompromising Quality

  • Sharp maintained a relentless focus on quality, even during economic downturns.
  • He believed that growth should not come at the expense of quality, a view supported by Peter Drucker.
  • Sharp's commitment to quality was unwavering, which he saw as essential for maintaining a competitive edge.

"If quality is your edge, you can't compromise it."

The quote highlights Sharp's belief that a company's competitive advantage lies in its commitment to quality, which should never be compromised for expansion or short-term gains.

Overcoming Economic Challenges

  • Sharp faced significant financial challenges but refused to sell his company.
  • His determination and belief in his business model allowed him to navigate through recessions.
  • He pledged his own stock to secure loans, demonstrating his commitment to his vision.

"I had to succeed or I'd lose everything."

Sharp's quote reflects the high stakes he faced during economic downturns and his resolve to persevere and maintain ownership of his company.

Service Innovation

  • Sharp was a pioneer in using technology to enhance customer service.
  • He set up a guest history system to personalize the guest experience without being prompted.
  • His focus on service innovation contributed to the company's reputation for excellence.

"The first time guests stayed with us, we computerized their preferences in rooms, food, drink, and anything else our employees noted so that when they returned, we could give them without them having to ask whatever they wanted and liked best."

This quote illustrates Sharp's innovative approach to customer service, using technology to remember and cater to guest preferences, enhancing their overall experience.

Dedication and Work Ethic

  • Sharp learned the importance of people in business from his father.
  • He valued positive attitudes and the willingness to learn over previous experience in the hotel industry.
  • Sharp's hiring practices focused on individuals who were appreciative and willing to embody the company's service ethos.

"Dad was the most tolerant, kindest, and most positive thinking person I've ever known."

The quote reflects the profound impact Sharp's father had on him, teaching him the value of positivity and kindness in business success.

Marketing and Competitive Advantage

  • Sharp continued advertising during recessions, understanding that maintaining momentum is crucial for long-term market share.
  • He believed in the concept of a barrier to entry as the true competitive advantage.
  • Four Seasons' portfolio of first-class hotels was unique and difficult for competitors to replicate.

"It is much easier to sustain momentum than restart it."

Sharp's quote underscores the strategic importance of continuous marketing efforts during economic downturns to maintain a competitive edge and momentum.

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