Hans Willimann

"I never forget that I am parking the cars, and they are driving. What's important is that guests get what they expect."

Title: General Manager
Company: Four Seasons Hotel
Location: Chicago
Age: 52

When the former first lady of the United States came to dinner, Hans Willimann found himself with a tough fashion problem. Willimann runs the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago, and shortly after it opened in 1989, Nancy Reagan attended a fund-raising dinner there for a local hospital. "Before the function, there was to be a small gathering of the 20 largest donors with former President and Mrs. Reagan," says Willimann. "As we awaited their arrival, I looked around the room and saw that every man was in a tuxedo except for me and one other man. And that man was very unhappy."

Willimann approached the agitated guest. "I took him to see our maitre d'hotel. I said, 'This man needs a tuxedo.' " The maitre d'hotel was unflappable. With the Reagan entourage bearing down on the hotel, he disappeared; moments later, he returned with a tuxedo -- the one off his own back, freshly pressed. "He put it on the man," says Willimann. "It was a little too big, so we had the pants tightened by the hotel seamstress. The man went to the party and enjoyed himself. The next day, we got a letter from him that began, 'You don't know who I am, but . . .' "

The grateful guest turned out to be Fred Steingraber, CEO of A.T. Kearney, a management-consulting company. Since that evening 10 years ago, Steingraber has shown his gratitude by steering a good deal of business to the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago.

That instant tuxedo represents exactly the kind of over-the-top service for which the Four Seasons is famous. And it exemplifies the kind of embedded cultural response that Willimann has instilled at other Four Seasons Hotels. Willimann, a native of Zurich who was schooled in Lausanne, Switzerland, is the only general manager that the Chicago Four Seasons has ever had. Willimann has also been called on to set service standards at the Four Seasons Hotels in Houston and in Boston. All three hotels achieved AAA five-diamond status in their first year of operation.

"The opening general manager sets the direction in a hotel," says Wolf Hengst, executive vice president of operations at Four Seasons -- and Willimann's boss. "It's a unique time in the life of a hotel. You have to set a tone of true hospitality, caring, and enthusiasm -- which always comes from the top. Hans created what our Boston hotel became, in terms of quality levels. And he's been instrumental in positioning our Chicago hotel, which is recognized as one of the best in the world."

Willimann, who joined Four Seasons 20 years ago, after working for Hilton Hotels Corp. and Canadian Pacific Ltd., makes it clear that no detail is too small to escape his attention. Before the Chicago Four Seasons opened, it received 19,000 applications for 500 jobs. In other words, it was four times harder to get a job with Willimann than it is to get into Harvard. Willimann personally interviewed every candidate who was ultimately hired. When Willimann worked in Houston, immigration authorities would occasionally round up some of his legal Hispanic employees. "I would go down on Monday morning with the chief of security," Willimann says, "and bail out those guys to get them back to work. That we would do that had an incredible impact on our staff, and that attitude was transferred to our guests."

It costs, on average, $300 to $400 a night to stay at the Four Seasons. At that price, Willimann says, the service must be absolutely perfect: gracious, instantaneous, respectful, yet never obsequious or subservient. But his lessons on great service apply to all businesses, regardless of their pricing policies. The most important lesson? Customers come first. "I never forget that I am parking the cars, and they are driving," says Willimann. "Even though we are sharing time with some of the wealthiest people in North America, we are not sharing status. If I have to bring up the luggage for a guest, that's fine. He doesn't know who I am, and I am not going to tell him. What's important is that guests get what they expect."

Perhaps the best measure of Willimann's respect for customers is how he has schooled the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago to treat that most overlooked category of luxury-hotel guests: children. "I have two children, and they have grown up in a hotel environment," says Willimann. "My 14-year-old daughter is very picky. When we go to a hotel, she likes chicken nuggets. So we have chicken nuggets on the menu here" -- as well as peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, spaghetti, and macaroni and cheese ("Kraft, of course, from the box"). At turndown each evening, children get a glass of milk, a plate of cookies, and a balloon.

"What this does is take away the parents' apprehension of whether their children will behave," says Willimann. "Children will behave extremely well -- if we treat them with the same respect with which we treat their parents."

What's Fast

Hans Willimann's Fast Service Tip: "It is not hard to treat people with dignity," says Willimann, "and that applies just as easily to employees as it does to guests. The only difference is, guests have more money. If an employee needs to be bailed out of jail, okay. If a guest needs filet mignon at one in the morning, we do it."

Charles Fishman (CNFish@mindspring.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor. Contact Hans Willimann by email (hans.willimann@fourseasons.com). Visit the Four Seasons Hotel on the Web (www.fshr.com).

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