Dr. Steve Gupta: Doing things differently
The ambition and energy were there from the start. In his youth, Suresh Gupta loved to picture the luxury hotel that he would build and run one day. Perhaps he’d been inspired by his father whose construction company erected shops, bridges, and even an air base in their native Punjab. When he wasn’t studying, he would busy himself at his father’s office, crafting important letters to government engineering officials. However, upon graduating, he decided against joining the company, much to his dad’s disappointment.
The young man was hardly short of options. So good was his singing voice that he’d been invited for an audition at a major radio organization. Thanks to his head for numbers, he had also achieved one of the highest scores in the fiercely competitive exams covering five Indian states to become a tax inspector. The ensuing promises of fast-tracked promotion weren’t enough to tempt him into this career, though. A visiting uncle suggested that he consider a move to Canada, which was offering visas to those able to speak enough English.
Some friends doubted the wisdom of Suresh’s subsequent decision to emigrate. After all, he had no network to rely upon in that faraway land.
Besides, didn’t he know how unforgiving Canadian winters could be? In 1971, however, Suresh set out on the long journey to Toronto with a little over $100 in his pocket. His aspiration was to work in real estate, but that career required a license that could only be issued after a year’s residency. Instead, he took a job as a life insurance salesman.
Despite his unfamiliar surroundings, Suresh achieved striking success. With a quick scan of the names on the bells outside apartment blocks, he learned to identify the likeliest customers. In his first year, he was the most prolific salesman at his branch, rewarded not only with commission but also a first-class trip to San Diego. He patiently accumulated savings and recycled them into buying and reselling modest apartment buildings in the Greater Toronto Area.
His big break came in 1979. In reply to a local newspaper ad, Suresh got the chance to buy a fuel station and truck stop 60 miles from Toronto. On paper, it was hopelessly beyond his reach. The down payment alone came to 15 times his modest pot of savings. But he audaciously pulled the deal of by remortgaging his apartment and enlisting two partners. There was hidden potential here, Suresh thought.
And his analysis was right. Within a year, he’d doubled the struggling site’s turnover. A streamlined registration process and special fuel discounts helped him win over previously untapped Québécois trucking firms. He even triggered a local referendum to enable the opening of restaurant facilities selling alcohol. His clients loved his enthusiastic commitment, although some struggled to pronounce his name. From then on, Suresh became known as Steve.
The cash pumped out by the service station fueled expansion elsewhere. In the early 1980s, Steve began investing in some of the Toronto apartment blocks whose corridors he’d previously trudged as an insurance salesman. After receiving a midnight phone call, he agreed to buy 2,500 apartments the following day. His overnight due diligence had convinced him the units were worth much more than their $59.7 million price tag. He was right. Just a few months later, he resold them for one-third more.
For all his success with apartments, Steve had never given up his boyhood dream of owning hotels. By the late 1980s, he had developed his first one, repurposing some spare land near his trucking station. His subsequent conversion of a derelict police headquarters into a high-rise hotel did not only prove to be a business triumph but also helped regenerate a neighborhood of Toronto that had seen better days.
Today, the Easton’s Group of Hotels spans 20 properties across eastern Canada which trade under some of the best-known brands in global hospitality and 5 million square feet (464,515 square meters) of residential condos under development in Toronto. Steve’s bold and far-sighted approach was typified by his commitment to a significant expansion during the worst of the global financial crisis of 2008-09.
I’ve always believed in doing things differently from everybody else, he remarks.
I’ve never followed the crowd – instead, I’ve done things when nobody else was doing them.