Oct 18, 2008

Personality - Kathleen Taylor

Tara Kilachand

It may be testament to the Four Seasons’ employee vetting process that Kathleen Taylor’s entrance lacks the nervous twitter that usually surrounds a visit by the boss. I had dined there earlier in the week, and been left with nothing to complain about, but clearly, there could be improvements. Super secret chief operating officer tweaks that would confirm that yes, hotels do indeed have different standards for different people.
But no, the waitstaff at Prato, the fine dining Italian restaurant at Four Seasons hotel in Worli, Mumbai, is dismayingly consistent. They are unruffled when Taylor, in for the hotel’s official opening, walks in. There is no special menu, obsequious maître d’, or table visit by the Italian chef to announce a black truffle soufflé magically whipped up for the occasion.
Taylor, I had been told in advance by the hotel’s PR head, was discreet, which often is just PR blather, always at pains to emphasize the “normalcy” of their chieftains. Except this time, they seemed to be right. “I’m a little bit low key,” Taylor says cheerily, dressed neatly in a slate grey suit. “But for sure, employees in the hotel know who I am, so if I’m inside the four walls, the word gets around.”

As it should. Taylor, 51, is—after Four Seasons founder Isadore Sharp—the No. 2 in control: All departments in the 81-property luxury hotel chain report to her, and she, in turn, to Sharp. She knows all 81 general managers personally, by name and property. And, in addition to her daily duties as president and COO, she oversees all 40 developments currently underway around the world.
Most of Taylor’s year is spent travelling from one Four Seasons hotel to another, and though she may be jet-lagged from whirlwind trips to Bali, Tahiti and Australia, it is exceedingly hard to cluck in sympathy. Taylor has, in anyone’s estimation, a sickeningly envious job. In essence, she must oversee new developments, make sure present ones are chugging along on schedule, keep an eye on storied properties such as those in New York and London, and occasionally check herself into competing five-stars.
“It does get more hectic, and you do take on more responsibility, but the important thing about that is to make sure you have people supporting the team, and the company and me personally, who are also taking on increasing levels of responsibility.” And then graciously, because to not do so would be simply churlish, Taylor concedes that her job is pretty fantastic.
“It’s always fun. Always fun,” she says, having spent the summer on a month-long trip through Italy with her three kids and husband. The Bora Bora resort is fabulous, “just fabulous” she points out, having been there recently. Taylor will soon take off for Bangalore, Maldives, Toronto, and then New York, Las Vegas, and Seattle.

Of course, this is not to say that anyone could do Taylor’s job. Her ascent through the ranks of the Canada-based company has been a gradual one, pleasingly spaced out over a nearly 20-year career.
One of five kids, Taylor grew up in the small Canadian town of Oshawa, becoming the first member of her extended family to attend university. After doing a joint law and business degree, Taylor accepted a position at Goodmans, a downtown Toronto law firm, from where she was hand-picked by a former colleague to work in the two-person legal department at the Four Seasons. “So it was a very glamorous beginning,” Taylor says. “My title was corporate counsel and I was ready for a change.”
Amazingly, Taylor didn’t know anything about the Four Seasons, at the time a groundbreaking luxury chain that was gaining impressive traction in North America and Western Europe. “I didn’t know anything about the hospitality business…like a lot of people I thought I’d stay there for two-three years, and see where my career takes me.” When Taylor’s boss left, however, Sharp gave Taylor the job as head counsel, a position that would catapult her to the management committee, executive vice-president, co-president, president of worldwide business operations, and eventually, in January 2007, to president and chief operating officer.
The waiter, having stayed away until now, finally arrives to take our order: the buffalo mozzarella salad and tuna appetizer for her; a potato and leek soup and salad for me. We chat briefly about the media world—the Four Seasons’ opening was being held in conjunction with the launch of the Indian edition of men’s magazine GQ—while servers glide around silently. The restaurant is beginning to fill up, and from the corner I see the maître d’ steer a young family with two shrill toddlers away from our table and tape recorder.
I note that Four Seasons’ presence in India has been late in the coming. “India for us has been a long sought after market. Physically, we’re relatively late, but we’ve been working on India as a development market for the better part of 20 years,” she says. There are already several properties in the pipeline—Hyderabad, Delhi, Kerala, Bangalore—as well as dozens more planned for central and East Asia.
There has been some questioning about the Four Seasons location in Mumbai—the choice of a business hotel as opposed to a resort, its proximity to low-income housing and a neighbouring slum, the sniffer dogs at the gate—but with its opening, the hotel has managed to sidestep most critics, partly by hiring a rigorously selected staff.
All employees were vetted through five rounds of interviews, including the housekeepers and kitchen cleaners, before being hired from the at least 11,000 applicants reviewed. “That’s the most important part of what we do, choosing the people who will join the company. And we always say we hire for attitude before skill.” Taylor, who says she can recognize a Four Seasons employee anywhere, and instantly, makes assiduous note of servers, waiters, concierges—anyone who leaves an impression.

A young man who approached her at an airport lounge in Abu Dhabi recently is but one example. The two got talking about Mauritius, the man’s hometown, and location of an upcoming Four Seasons. “Anyway, the young man said he would next see me in Mauritius because he was going to go there to get a job at our hotel when he was finished with his stint in Abu Dhabi. He said: ‘When you come, look for me. I’ll be in the fine-dining restaurant,’” Taylor marvels. “He was so cute and confident. Exactly the kind of personality we’re looking for. Just a delightful young man.”
Lunch is nearly over, and Taylor has other meetings lined up before she leaves the next morning. In parting, we talk about standards of luxury which, in the last few years, with pillow “concierges” and mattress menus, seem to have leapfrogged to absurd standards. She admits she doesn’t understand six and seven-star hotels that inundate guests with 16 kinds of amenities.
The Four Seasons’ strategy is very clear: Satisfy the basic requirements of the guest, then worry about additional perks. “A great bed, a soundproof room, and shower and bathroom that work,” Taylor says. “This is the essence of a great hotel room.”
Born: 25 August 1957
Education: A law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School; MBA from Schulich School of Business in 1984
Work Profile: Joined Four Seasons in 1989 as corporate counsel; appointed VP, general counsel, in 1992; promoted to executive VP, corporate planning and development, in 1997; promoted to president, worldwide business operations, in 1999; promoted to president and chief operating officer in 2007
Favourite Book: ‘Red Tent’ by Anita Diamant
Favourite Movie: Modern favourite movie is ‘Must Love Dogs’ and historic movie is ‘Gone with the Wind’
Favourite Holiday: Expedition travel such as bike riding in Morocco or Vietnam; and ski trips

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