J. Allen Smith, A&S ’80, MPS ’86: Ithaca native, Cornell alum, and CEO of a global brand

December 17, 2014

The Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series (DDLS) brings prominent industry professionals to speak at SHA most Fridays during the fall semester. For 2014, students work in pairs each week to research, meet, and profile featured speakers, and then guest-blog here about the experience.

This week’s student authors are Tara Lobo ’15 and Rommia White ’15.

This year, the School of Hotel Administration had the honor and privilege of welcoming Mr. Allen Smith, president and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. As a leader of one of the foremost luxury hotel brands in the world, Mr. Smith shared his insight on the future of the company, and his own experiences taking on his position as president and CEO of the unsurpassed Four Seasons brand.

While preparing a research packet on Mr. Smith for students of the class to read prior to his arrival, we came across numerous articles on his recent appointment as CEO and the future growth expected from the brand. We also found he had earned not one but two degrees from Cornell University: an undergraduate degree in sociology and an Master of Professional Studies degree (MPS) from SHA in 1986. Additionally, a fun fact that was perhaps most exciting for us was that Mr. Smith was also a “townie!”

It was therefore with great anticipation and excitement that we attended dinner with Mr. Smith at Taverna Banfi the night before his talk. Mr. Smith’s wife Kathy, Dean and Mrs. Johnson, Professor Walsh, and several MMH students and SHA undergraduates were also in attendance. Alexis Sicklick ’15, the executive chef of the 90th Hotel Ezra Cornell, composed a wonderful three-course Thai-inspired dinner.

Getting to know Mr. Smith on a more personal level was an unforgettable experience. Intelligent, insightful, and extremely humble, he spoke of living in Ithaca, where his father had been a entomology professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. We discussed his family’s passion for acting and the arts, and his wife’s extensive work in child advocacy. Highly inquisitive, with a passion for learning, he described his own research theses during his time at Cornell, and how his MPS thesis helped him better understand the intricacies of finance.

Regularly commuting from New York to Toronto, he found that work-life balance is a challenge, requiring a great deal of effort.

The next day, on Friday, Mr. Smith started off his speech with a humorous and charming anecdote about how just after being made CEO, while passing through immigration on his regular commute between New York and Toronto, he had been asked about his position at Four Seasons by the immigration officer, to which he had responded that he was the CEO. The entire audience began laughing as he recounted how she had replied in complete sincerity, “In other words, you don’t do anything.”

But she could not have been more wrong. On the contrary, Mr. Smith’s life is far from easy. Regularly commuting from his home and family in the outlying areas of New York to Toronto, he found that work-life balance is a challenge, requiring a great deal of effort on the part of both him and his wife. His message was that we must choose between an ambitious career and a more relaxing life, and that a demanding career is not necessarily for everyone.

Later that afternoon, during HADM 4100: Hospitality Management Seminar, the teaching assistants of the Dean’s Distinguished Lectures Series were able to ask Mr. Smith questions about his vision for the company, his career path, and his life. He spoke about his journey from being an aspiring lawyer as an intern on Capitol Hill to his foray into food and beverage and catering, which ultimately led to him pursuing his MPS, where he studied both food and beverage and real estate finance. He also gave us insight into Four Seasons’s new properties in the Walt Disney World Resort, Moscow, and Dubai, and the brand’s continuous growth and adaptation in an ever-changing world.

It was an incredible opportunity having the CEO of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts come spend time with us and share his experiences. Mr. Smith’s humility and insight were an inspiration for us all, and we are honored and blessed to have been able to meet such an amazing leader in the hospitality industry. We are extremely grateful for his taking the time to speak with us and look forward to his next visit to Ithaca!

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