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Understanding what could be

Jeff Stober, BACS'80, saw beyond the moment to create the Drake empire

by Adela Talbot, BA'08, MA'11

The scene was one of squalor.

When Jeff Stober first walked in, there were stacks of dirty mattresses piled up in corners. Used needles and condoms were strewn about. The Drake Hotel, which opened its doors in one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighbourhoods at the close of the 19th Century, had become a flophouse in a run-down quarter.

But during his tour nearly two decades ago, Stober saw something else.

“We all shine in our own chosen areas. The gift I’ve been fortunate in having is this capacity to very quickly visualize, interpret and imagine, to understand what something could be, what it would look like and all the implications therein,” said the owner of the rejuvenated Drake, a now-iconic boutique hotel in West Queen West, a spot Vogue magazine listed among the world’s trendiest neighbourhoods.

Jeff Stober, BACS'80 (photo by Mark Sommerfeld)
Jeff Stober, BACS'80 (photo by Mark Sommerfeld)

That first walk-through of the Drake was not the first time Stober saw – and created – new life between historic walls. Originally from Montreal, he arrived at Western in the late 1970s as part of the inaugural cohort of the Administrative and Commercial Studies program. The school was a good fit and London had that ‘university town’ feel Stober wanted to experience. Soon after, he was renting a basement apartment on Paul Street in an established neighbourhood traditionally reigned by a student population.

But Stober knew what he was working with even then. He knew what he liked, what he wanted and what he needed to do to make the vision he had into a reality.

“I was always very visual and loved creating environments. Even in those days, as a student, with all the furniture I was fortunate to collect from friends and family, I remember bringing a U-Haul out, choosing the right colour paint and making the furniture placement just so,” said Stober, BACS’80.

This ability to visualize what could be, once the layers are peeled back, might just be Stober’s secret to success. Indeed, he sees everything as a blank canvas waiting to be primed. He knows there’s never a shortage of ideas; the trick is knowing which hunch to follow. And the life-long entrepreneur, who started a window-washing company as a teenager and operated side businesses while studying at Western, simply seems to have a knack for the hunch.

Stober often jokes he ended up in Toronto because he ran out of gas en route from London to Montreal. In reality, he saw a thriving city and threw himself into it.

After a two-decade stint owning a computer consulting firm, CNC Global, Stober bought the Drake property for $860,000 in October 2001. In it, he saw something similar to the Hotel Chelsea in New York City, a space where artists and creative types could live and work and mingle. After $6 million in renovations, he re-opened the hotel in February 2004.

Today, he has something of an empire, owning the hotel and its offshoots – the Drake One Fifty restaurant, five Drake General Stores, the Drake Devonshire Inn and the new food-focused Drake Commissary – which collectively employ more than 500 people.

Drake Hotel, Toronto
Drake Hotel, Toronto

“To my mind, it’s never been about having a shortage of ideas. You never know when the idea is right. What you can do is learn how to articulate the idea, how to surround yourself with trusted advisors and collaborators and be very, very open minded to the feedback you are going to receive,” Stober said.

“It’s about learning the process of listening to the marketplace, to the stakeholders that I work with, to that ecosystem of employees, neighbours in a given neighbourhood, the supply chain, our customers, employees, the media – the list goes on and on. It’s about putting the idea out there and learning and adjusting and benefiting from the feedback you receive. You learn quickly enough whether the idea is right or not.”

In any case, when you have a vision, when you fall in love with the idea – as he did with that of the Drake – you have to take the risk, he added. When he toured the property, he saw a space begging for a new lease on life. He saw the kind of life he could create and just went with it.

“My attraction to the space in part represents a love of historic hotels that I’ve had since I was a kid, my love of artists, of culture in general, and in no small measure the relationship between the two, between artists and hotels. Artists have lived in hotels, died in hotels, bartered their art to sleep in a hotel; this had always fascinated me,” Stober explained.

“When I found the Drake Hotel, I found an opportunity for myself to reinvent a business model, a cultural community centre of sorts – kind of an oxymoron for hotels – where it would be a hotel as much for locals as for international travellers.”

He stressed that every step of the way is a leap of faith. When he and his team started creating the Drake model, which now has become somewhat ubiquitous in its foundational principles of culture, community and hospitality, it was a risk.

How you build that bridge from where you are to where you are going is key, Stober said. Measured, attainable goals are a process. A challenge. A continual effort. Patience and resolve are essential.

“But you have to go into this knowing the only constant will remain change, but also that, certainly, there will be one hurdle after another that you will have to resolve. The only way to do that is with a deeply entrenched culture that you create from the get-go,” he added.

“If we have the blessing and opportunity to pursue our passions, to immerse ourselves professionally in something that is important and relevant and contributes to the world in a better way, I think we are doing a good job and that’s what we should all strive towards.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Alumni Gazette
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