Values are at the heart of business success, says hotelier

As one of Canada’s most successful and enduring entrepreneurs, Isadore Sharp might be expected  to deliver a convocation address to graduates of York’s Schulich School of Business containing a lot of complexity and theory. Instead, his message was simple: “Treat all others as you would want to be treated.”

Left: Isadore Sharp

Sharp, the founder, chairman & CEO of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, was at York’s Keele campus on Wednesday to accept an honorary degree. In a candid and moving address to graduates, he delivered a master class on the importance of business ethics. 

“You are now entering your chosen field with the same foundations of knowledge and some of you will get to where you want to go, others won’t,” he said. “Luck may enter into it; desire will certainly push you along. But I believe that the degree of success in reaching one’s goal is usually commensurate with the strength of one’s ethical values.”

Ethics and trust form the foundation of Sharp’s multi-million dollar hotel empire and it is on these two principles that he has built his luxury hotel brand. “My approach to business has always been based on the values my parents instilled in me,” said Sharp. “So I surround myself with people who conduct business in the same way. And even to the earliest days of my career, I learned that doing the right thing is always the right decision.”

Recent history offers many important lessons about what happens when business leaders lack a moral compass, said Sharp. He asked graduates to consider the greed behind the financial ruin on Wall Street, the million dollar salaries of CEOs of failing companies, the actions of financial fraudster Bernie Madoff and the Enron debacle. “Clearly a culture of greed is not sustainable and yet so many continue to learn the hard way. Perhaps the convergence of these events will be lesson enough and our attention will turn towards those who build success on an ethical foundation,” said Sharp. “Think of Bill Gates, Michael Lee-Chin, Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg, and the thousands of others less celebrated who achieved tremendous success conducting business with an ethical outlook.

“Nothing could be more simple, but I can tell you firsthand that nothing is more essential,” said Sharp, saying that  even in the earliest days of his career, he learned that “doing the right thing is always the right decision.”

He recounted how in the early 1970s, when inflationary pressures dramatically increased the costs of a luxury hotel he was building in Vancouver, he faced two choices: To offer less than his usual standard and go broke slowly, or continue the project based on his own high standards and go broke quickly. He chose the latter and with the trust of his partners, he was able to continue the project without sacrificing the quality of service that was the heart of his personal and business philosophy.

Right: Honorary degree recipient Isadore Sharp (left) is congratulated by York Chancellor Roy McMurtry and President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri (right)

“Trust plays the same role in a company as it does in society. It is our emotional capital,” said Sharp. “It underwrites the conversions of one-shot deals into long-term relationships. It guarantees communication. Without it, management is not believable. It assures that workplace attitudes are positive rather than negative, encouraging people to open up, share information and risk mistakes.”

People, said Sharp, tend to live up to expectations. When trusted, they become trustworthy. When distrusted, they act accordingly. Trust, he said, is crucial to a high performance workplace. “It enabled us [at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts] to develop a motivated, self-disciplined workforce, that has earned our reputation for service, and that one decision on ethics gave us our biggest competitive advantage,” said Sharp.

Ethics in business, said Sharp, might be defined as caring for the interests of those a company represents, be they customers, employees, business partners and shareholders. “Just think, there could still be an Enron if Kenneth Lay had cared for the interests of those around him.”

The golden rule, said Sharp, is to treat all others as we wish to be treated. “Imagine the possibilies if that was the call of every graduate the world over,” said Sharp. “You are joining the workforce in a time of limited material expectations, but you can make it an era of broadening human expectations. You need to be tough, but compassionate; an individualist, but a team player; a specialist, but to reach the top, a generalist. Above all, your work ethic should be matched by an ethic of worth.”

For a complete listing of the ceremony schedule, click here. York University’s 2009 Spring Convocation ceremonies will be streamed live over the Internet.