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Robert Dunigan, the hotelier turned finance executive

The SVP of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts believes a great customer experience starts with a great employee experience.

Robert Dunigan started his career managing the finances for one hotel — now he oversees finance operations for all of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Here, he discusses how ADP has helped the international hotel brand achieve growth while still centering the customer and employee experiences.   

ADP ReThink Quarterly: How did you start your career with Four Seasons? 

Dunigan: I have a dual degree in hotel management and French literature. The academic side of my brain was driven toward literature, but I knew early on that I didn’t want to spend my life in academia. So I opted for a hotel management program as a pragmatic next step, because I thought at least it would be a way to earn a living. 

Before I joined Four Seasons, I was working for an independent resort property in Palm Beach, Florida, and Four Seasons came in and took on management of the property. And at the time, I was director of finance, and I just assumed, “Well, this has been a great gig, but here comes this big company. I’m sure they’re going to bring in their own people and their own ways of doing things, so that’ll be the end of that.” But I just celebrated my 30th year of service with the company, so it has been a great journey.

ADPRQ: What makes payroll at Four Seasons unique? 

Dunigan: Four Seasons ultimately is a people company. The thing that differentiates us is the quality of the guest experience. And the reason the guest experience is so good is because of the comfort and security of the people delivering it. 

The common perception is that we are the owner-operator of these properties. In reality, we are the just the operator. This means that every property that we manage is someone else’s asset. And that’s quite challenging because it brings a tremendous fiduciary responsibility onto all of us, particularly those of us in finance. For every decision we make, we’re doing it with someone else’s asset and with someone else’s money.

The challenge is that we have to be 100% sure that the choices we make are the right decisions. And we have to prove our business case over and over again, to make sure the economics work. The process from conception of a property to opening the doors is probably, on average, a five- to seven-year journey. And payroll is part of that from nearly the first day. We are able to pay the first person that hits the ground — and do it accurately and do it on time — because we’ve got a partner with us that understands the landscape, the regulations and how to make that all happen when Four Seasons acquires the management of a new property or an existing operation. 

Four Seasons Resort Marrakech in Morocco

ADPRQ: What are some challenges you’ve tackled with ADP?

Dunigan: There was one example a couple of years ago where we had all of about 14 days to make the switch from the prior operator and make sure everything was in place. That included loading employment entities, getting time and attendance in place and bringing in the employees’ master file data. Side by side with ADP, we were able to make that happen.

From the employee perspective, my first contact with ADP was back when I was director of finance at the property in Palm Beach. We started to work with a product ADP had back then called TimeSaver. We ran that and eventually deployed it across the U.S. hotels. 

From TimeSaver, we eventually branched out into workforce management and payroll processing, which led to the things that we have going now: the mobile apps, integration with workforce management and a range of other services. 

It’s an incredibly wide-reaching system that we deploy in wildly different environments, often on short deadlines. There’s been more than one occasion over the years where we looked back, and I just shook my head and thought, “I can’t believe that actually worked.” 

ADPRQ: What initially inspired Four Seasons to partner with ADP? 

Dunigan: We started down a road towards shared services and outsourcing about 10 years ago. Initially the drivers behind it were financial in nature. But very shortly after, we realized that the financial benefits are almost a happy side effect. The real benefit lies in taking away some of the mundane work that people at our properties have to do. You standardize it and let it be done invisibly by others so that the management teams on the ground at each property can focus on truly value-adding work. 

That includes maximizing the customer experience, optimizing the operation for best profitability, and making sure that we have an environment that assures high degrees of employee satisfaction. Eventually we geared up to expand the shared services model outside North America.

Four Seasons Hotel George V Paris in France

ADPRQ: Where did you start your international expansion? 

Dunigan: Interestingly, one of the strongest business needs we had was also in one of the most complex business environments. I was working with the team at the iconic Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris, France. Along with my colleagues in the EMEA region, we thought, “If we can standardize and outsource payroll in France, then the rest of Europe will be easy after that.” 

So this took a lot of planning — blood, sweat and tears, really — making the business case and providing change management. It was all rolled into one. I’m pleased to say that it went off, maybe not without a hitch, but really smoothly. It became a proven business case and a very good example for the rest of the company. People realized that if this can work in France, then it can work virtually anywhere.

Based on the success of North America and France, we realized that we could expand this into other locations — we’re working with ADP in the U.K., France, the Bahamas and St. Kitts & Nevis, and have work in the planning stages across other geographies as well.

ADPRQ: How did ADP help facilitate the process?

Dunigan: One thing that has helped us to be really successful in this area is our partnership with the people at ADP. They take the time to understand not only the underlying business model, but also the specifics of each property and each jurisdiction that we’re operating in. 

We started down a path looking for financial savings, which I am happy to say we’ve achieved, but what is interesting is that we’ve also accomplished a tremendous amount by allowing people to let their creativity run free. Over the last few years, our businesses have been disrupted by Covid-19 closures, travel restrictions and working from home. But because we’ve built this infrastructure of shared services and solid technology, our payroll function continued without missing a beat.

ADPRQ: How does the culture of ADP align with the culture of Four Seasons? 

Dunigan: As a people-oriented company, Four Seasons has always remained highly sensitive to the impact of what we’re doing as we’re transforming the business. From my experience over the years, caring about people and treating people fairly runs deep in ADP’s DNA as well. 

And knowing that the people we’re partnering with share our mindset has been invaluable in helping deliver transformative change in a positive way across the system. When we talk about these points, they totally get it and understand what we’re talking about. 

Contact ADP to discover how your organization can innovate and streamline your global payroll processes.