He Sees Only Quibbles between The Possible and The Impossible

This article originally appeared in Maclean’s Magazine. By Peter C. Newman.

When he was growing up in Patiala, a modest provincial city in the Punjab, Suresh (Steve) Gupta topped his class in math and English, but he lived for his dreams. They included the usual youthful fantasies about having one big mother of a car, but he spent many more nights visualizing the luxury hotels he was determined someday to build and own.

“Even in my school days, I always felt I wanted to do something different,” he recalls. “In Grade 11, I was thinking I’ll have a big hotel, a few hundred employees who walk into my office and say, ‘Good morning! Good morning!’ That’s the kind of vision I had. People said, ‘Are you stupid? It’s not going to happen.’ ”

In 1971, at age 22, Steve Gupta arrived in Canada with $108 in his pocket. Now, his dreams have come true with a vengeance — except that instead of having that one limousine he dreamed about(he drives a silver S-500 Mercedes), he owns five other luxury automobiles, including three Lexuses, another Mercedes, plus a BMW.

Gupta owns six in and around Toronto with 80-percent-plus occupancy rates. Three more are under construction, and half a dozen others are comitted in Ontario. When all are running five years from now, the values of his private holdings will top $500 million. He has no partners or shareholders, so all the profit will be his.

At 56, Gupta projects the confidence of a high-wire acrobat who has never heard of safety nets. Of all the New-Canadian Establishment members profiled in this series, he is the most self-possessed: one of those rare people who recognize only negotiable quibbles between the possible and the impossible. He is the ultimate master of the leveraged buyout, not in the classical sense that he purchases other companies with their own money, but in the much riskier context that he bids on large projects without having the cash, or knowing where he’ll get it.

Within a year, he doubled sales by getting lists of Montreal-Toronto truckers who weren’t stopping at his pumps, and arranged special fuel discounts for them. Instead of just being a gas station, his spot had 10 basement rooms for truck drivers to sleep in, and a lounge where they could watch TV. Unlike most of the other stops along the 401 in those days, which served indifferent fast food, his place was special. “We had 10 acres of land, and you could eat off the floor, not a single cigarette butt on the property,” Gupta says. “It was a no-alcohol area, but I got it rezoned, which allowed me to obtain Swiss Chalet, Harvey’s and Comfort Inn franchises.” The location has become a major hub, the most complete service centre on the Toronto-to-Montreal route, and sells more fuel than virtually any other service station in the country. Honouring his first big success, Gupta calls his empire the Easton’s Group of Cos.

With a combination of drive, conviction and financial acumen, Mr. Gupta parlayed his early investment success into a string of hotel acquisitions under the Easton’s Group of Hotels banner. Today, Easton’s Group’s portfolio includes 14 hotels representing renowned brands such as Marriot, Hilton IHG Starwood, with aggressive plans to continue adding hotels in locations a youngster growing up in India, Gupta earned a B.Sc. in mathematics, physics and chemistry. But English was one of his favourite subjects, and he was anxious to visit England, the U.S. or Canada. His father, who owned a construction company that built bridges and runways, wanted young Suresh to stay and work for him, because he was the eldest son. Instead, Gupta went to England, stayed for two months, and when he couldn’t get a visa for the States, decided on Canada. “I told my father I would try it for a year, and if it didn’t work out, I would come back,” Gupta recalls. “My father wasn’t happy, so I sent the return half of my ticket back to him and said ‘You cash it,’ and decided to stay for good.”