It's an iconic name bringing to mind images of gorgeous foyers, spacious rooms and elegant meals. Four Seasons Hotel Inc
has long been associated with luxurious hospitality, and in 50 years it has brought its well-known brand to cities across the world.
It offers 84 hotels and resorts in 34 countries, and the Toronto-based company has been named one of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" by Fortune magazine every year since the survey began in 1998.
These auspicious honours contrast wildly with the company's humble beginnings. Sharp, a builder's son, opened the first Four Seasons Motor Hotel on Toronto's Jarvis Street on March 21, 1961. At the Toronto celebration recently, he told the audience, "We were just opening a small, 125-room hotel on the wrong side of the tracks. It was an oasis amongst the clutter of a seedy neighbourhood." But being close to the CBC building, Maple Leaf Gardens and downtown meant the hotel would thrive, he added.
He also told his staff at the Toronto event that in the early 1980s, he saw interest rates skyrocket and he contacted his banker because he needed money to grow the company. The banker asked Sharp what collateral he had in order to get a loan, and Sharp admitted he didn't have much, so the banker requested shares in the company. "I had no choice but to give shares to the bank. If I didn't do that, you wouldn't be here today," he told his Four Seasons employees.
Princes and high-tech billionaires have taken notice of the Four Seasons' success story. The company went private in 2007 in a $4-billion deal backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal; Sharp was left with a 5 percent stake and he still serves as chairman of Four Seasons Inc.
To honour the 1961 opening, Four Seasons Hotel Toronto on Avenue Road is launching
a special $19.61 lunch menu at its Studio Cafe, running until early April.
2012 will be a year of transition for Four Seasons in Toronto. Next year it takes over its fifth home here, currently under construction in Yorkville. "I am going to call this our flagship hotel," Sharp said to big applause during the town hall meeting with his employees.