As the 20th annual Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) returns to an in-person event from July 26-28 in Los Angeles, it will honor Kathleen “Katie” Taylor, long-time executive at Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, with its Lifetime Achievement Award for her significant contributions to the hospitality industry.
If Taylor had followed the path that she had originally thought she had to as a young girl in a small town in Canada (she was the first child in her family to go to college), her life would have probably been very different. “I went off to undergrad and thought I needed to be a teacher because in my small town, that is what women did—they taught, they nursed, they made homes, they could be secretaries, or they could be a nun,” she said. “Variously through my life, I cycled through all of those options and said, ‘Oh well, I guess I will be a teacher.’ Then I went to university and realized I didn’t have to be a teacher; I could be all kinds of things.”
Instead, she graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in political science and economics. After graduation, she didn’t know what she could do with her degree and decided to continue her education, choosing the longest post-graduate degree she could find, a combination law degree and MBA. “The logical next step for me was going to practice M&A and public company law with a law firm here in Toronto,” she said.
A few years later, David Mongeau, a former colleague and mentor at the firm, invited her to join him in the two-person law department at Four Seasons. “It seemed like a great idea,” said Taylor. “I was three years in private practice looking for something new to do. I didn’t embark on it in any way shape or form as a career in hospitality, so much as it was a chance to go and work for a company and be part of the inside. I had been working for lots of companies as a lawyer in a law firm, but this gave me the opportunity to actually be part of an organization that I was attracted to.”
Her first thought when joining the company—where she would eventually spend nearly 24 years and become president/CEO—was that she would “maybe do it for three or four years, get experience and see what else would come along,” she said.
But a few years later, in a move that would benefit Four Seasons, Taylor and himself in the long run, Mongeau decided to leave the company and became a successful investment banker. “I was given a chance to take on a more senior role in the company at a time when I was still relatively young and inexperienced,” she said. “It was one of those moments of truth in an organization when the company said they would put their trust and confidence in me.”
Shortly thereafter, she joined the company’s executive committee—and made history. “Just about everything I did, given my age, stage and the industry I was in, I was the first woman,” said Taylor. “That was the beginning of ‘the firsts’ because I was the first woman to join what we call the management committee at Four Seasons.”
In her time at Four Seasons, she helped build it into the global hospitality brand it is today. “When I started with Four Seasons, it was 1989, and we were a relatively small hotel company,” said Taylor. “Virtually, all of [our hotels], with the exception of one hotel in London, were located in Canada and the U.S., so we were a primarily North American, small, luxury hotel chain. When I left in 2013, we had 90 hotels in 36 countries and thousands of employees around the world… It was one of these extraordinary international success stories. It was a real global story.”
She added that coming from the “business side of the business” helped her as well. “I spent a lot of time working on those deals, with a huge team, of course,” she said. “It was that kind of trajectory that was so interesting. When I first started at Four Seasons, we were clearly the No. 2. Ritz-Carlton was the world’s well-known luxury brand, so we were a challenger brand in the early days of my career. Of course, I like to think that changed over the course of those 24 years.”
When she also looks back, she recalls that she didn’t think too much about the fact she was a woman, especially during the early stages of her career. “Four Seasons was a very family-oriented business,” said Taylor. “You never really felt [like you were] a woman or a man or any of those things. Even the male leadership was very advanced back in those days. I got my very first promotion shortly after I returned from my first maternity leave, so I just didn’t ever feel those sorts of negative pressures.”
In hindsight, she sees that being a female CEO of global branded company at that time put her in rare company. “There are a lot more women on the operations side of the business today than there was back in my day,” she said. “That was also very male-dominated, and that has changed in all kinds of companies, including at Four Seasons, which is great.”