STORY BY JACKIE SLOAT-SPENCER PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN HRYNIUK
The Punjab-born hotelier landed in Canada with $108 in his pocket and moonlighted as an insurance salesman before making the leap into real estate and hospitality. “When I was in grade nine I used to dream about owning a five-star hotel,” he reminisces. “That’s all they had in India those days.”
In 1979, Gupta purchased the Easton Service Centre station in Port Hope, Ont. and adopted the name for his fledgling business, Easton’s Group of Hotels. “I also changed my first name (from Suresh) to make it easier for people to pronounce because they were having a hard time,” he adds. Today, the Easton’s portfolio has grown to 15 hotels with Marriott, Hilton and InterContinental Hotels Group banners spanning the Greater Toronto Area, Kingston and Montreal.
“Our growth started escalating in 2009 during the recession when my dad opened three Hilton Garden Inns, and since then, he’s been building hotels everywhere. I would wake up and I swear, another hotel would be open,” laughs Reetu Gupta, Steve’s daughter and newly minted COO of the company.
Steve’s four children — daughters Reema, Reetu and Shelley, as well as his son Suraj — learned about the hotel and real-estate business from childhood. Reetu used to go to the office after school and practice rent rolls and administrative duties. Later, she shadowed GMs before assuming sales-and-marketing responsibilities for the company’s portfolio. “In hindsight, we were kids and didn’t realize it, but they were teaching us specific skillsets,” Reetu adds.
As the new COO, Reetu is helping transition the company as it launches its new real-estate brand, The Gupta Group, and building mixed-use properties. “Easton’s Group is not going anywhere,” Reetu clarifies. “That is our hotel arm, but because we are diversifying into residential we needed an overall encompassing brand.”
The Gupta Group’s recent projects have included the King Blue condo development (which was later sold to Shanghai-based Greenland Holding Group Co. for an undisclosed amount). It is also developing the first Canopy by Hilton lifestyle brand in Canada on Bloor St. in Toronto, which is scheduled to open in 2019. A second Canopy project is also in the works, but the location has not been revealed.
In the past 35 years, the Easton’s Group has channeled its own path. “We created a niche in the middlemarket in the ’80s when there was the economic crash. Full-service hotels were hurting, limited-service hotels came in, so we took the limited-service hotel [prototype] and reduced the gap between the two,” Gupta says. “Marriott made a big presentation about us breaking their brand standards not once, not twice, but three times and that became their new brand standard,” he smiles.
“I have watched this classic entrepreneur take old properties and revitalize them into leading edge, profitable hotels,” adds Tony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada. “At the same time he has had the courage to develop new hotels in difficult economic times when many others would not take the risk.”
Breaking the mould became profitable, and the company capped off 2014 with sales of $109.6 million, a six-per-cent increase over the previous year. It starts with under-promise, over-deliver and then exceeding the expectations of their guests, Gupta explains. “Now we are redefining excellence and every project that we do has been different. I don’t want to do 100 hotels — if I do, they have to be different than everybody else’s.”
“I don’t know of a franchisee in Canada that’s left as big of an impact as Steve has in Canada,” says Thomas Lorenzo, VP and managing director – Franchise Development at Hilton Worldwide. “He’s very forward-leaning. He was one of the first to adopt the urban select-service in Canada.”
Right now the Guptas are pursuing development opportunities in Western Canada, as well as New York and several European markets. But wherever the Guptas grow, Steve Gupta himself will ensure that development is strategic and is centered on adding value to the company and to the bottom-line.
As part of another condo project in development at Dundas and Jarvis Streets, the Guptas will donate $1,000 from every suite sold to Ryerson University, capping out the donation at $1 million. (The same school honoured Gupta with a Doctor of Laws honoris causa degree this summer.) Gupta is also passionate about helping young entrepreneurs and immigrants get their start in Canada. He’s part of The Next 36, an entrepreneurs’ circle that provides mentorship and seed money to students and recent grads. He’s pledged $100,000 over four years to the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, which provides cultural access passes to new Canadians to let them experience the country’s rich cultural history. In addition, the Gupta family donates to causes in India, including eye camps — which treat diseases of the eye in rural parts of India — as well as sanitation projects.
It’s all part of leaving a lasting legacy, which will continue to be carried out by the next generation of Guptas who are taking the Easton’s Group of Hotels and The Gupta Group brands into new territory, he says. “We want to create jobs; we don’t just want to go make money. Money is not my driver; my driver is a sense of accomplishment, a sense of achievement and a legacy for my children.” But one thing’s for certain: “He’s still the boss,” Reetu chuckles.