Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy

four-seasons

[Note: This review originally ran in Advertising Age on August 3, 2009, and is reposted here by kind permission]

Isadore Sharp’s book Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy is typical of the problems with many “CEO memoir/business books”. For Mr. Sharp has three distinct stories to tell. First, there’s his personal story. The heartwarming tale of the plucky Toronto Jew who rose from being a day-laborer on his immigrant father’s building crews to running the most respected hospitality business on the planet. It’s a story that Horatio Alger would respect.

Then there’s the history of the hospitality business itself. How Four Seasons, which began as little more than a motorlodge in downtown Toronto in 1960, leapfrogged goliaths like Hilton to become the non plus ultra in the hotel business. Where the richest and wealthiest on virtually every continent relax (it should be noted that there is not a Four Seasons on Antarctica. Yet.)

And lastly, there’s the story of Four Seasons unique business model. The fact that in 1974 it stopped owning its hotels, content instead to make its money building them and then signing staggeringly long service agreements (usually in the 80 year range). This is the story of how Sharp transformed his company essentially from a manufacturer to a service business, on purpose, long before it was fashionable.

Each of these would be an interesting tale in its own right; rags-to-riches stories are always popular and often instructive; the evolution of the hospitality industry over the past half century would lend a fascinating perspective on North American culture; and a discussion of how Sharp transformed his company and an honest appraisal of the challenges would be valuable at this time like no other.

And while any of these individual stories would make an interesting book, it would take a writer of inordinate skill to seamlessly interweave them into one compelling and exciting narrative. Unfortunately, for all he may be otherwise, Mr. Sharp is not a writer of inordinate skill.

As a result, we get at best only superficial accounts, as if lifted from a half century of daily planners and calendars: I made this decision here, then I had a meeting there, then we had this situation over here. Opportunities fall more or less from the sky. Characters and key players arrive and disappear without warning or weight. It all seems stunningly random.

It’s quite possible that this is how Mr. Sharp feels. Who among us is capable of looking back upon the tangled threads of our lives to carefully discern the patterns, the leitmotifs, the themes? But one buys a book like this ultimately to learn. For advice. Direction. To use the experience of others to advantage. That is the promise. And a writer who does not deliver on that promise is not delivering value.

It’s ironic actually. Because in a very real sense, this observation about value lies at the heart of what has made Four Seasons successful. Mr. Sharp would be the first to admit (as he does in the book) that Four Seasons is what it is because of a culture of fanatical devotion to understanding what his guests want and a rigorous dedication to the idea that actions speak louder than words. To then write a book that neither delivers what a reader would want, nor does it in a way that is believable, is, at best, a lost opportunity, and, at worst, disappointing in the extreme.

Now, it is probably true that the most compelling of the three stories – how Mr. Sharp realized that he was in the service, and not manufacturing, industry and how he managed his company through that transition – is probably the one fraught with the most ugly details. Mr. Sharp might believe that advertising these difficulties would serve no purpose for him or for the Four Seasons. But he’s not writing this book for himself or his company. He’s writing it for everyone else. And such a story would be of astonishing value to all the rest of us who are trying to negotiate our tiny ships through the Scyllas and Charybdises of today’s economy.

Four Seasons by Isadore Sharp, was published by Penguin Portfolio on 04/30/2009– order it from Amazon here, or Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).