Posed with with the classic question “what did you want to be when you grow up”, Harry Stinson would say he is still not sure (about either) but the most consistent passion has been architecture, closely followed by the entertainment industry. His life has already included a fascinating blend of both.
The very first ‘business’ was baking and selling homemade bread rowing around to docks in Muskoka near his grandmother’s cottage. But when the operation was ‘upgraded’, the economics and marketing charm were undermined by the motorboat operation. (Perhaps these days a Tesla canoe with solar cells would do the job).
At high school, he set up a “Cooking Club” (somewhat looking the part at the time) to the ridicule of the gym teacher; Stinson lost the weight, won a cross-country marathon and refused pleas to join any school team.
Meanwhile a (teenage) career in the film business beckoned, splicing 35 mm films (with acetate and mini-guillotines) in the office of his father Fred’s theatre screen ad agency, and accompanying him on sales calls to grand old cinemas and drive in theatres. One of the major clients was a cranky old American entrepreneur hustling franchises. Although Fred declined an offer to trade advertising for a KFC licence, he did allow Colonel Sanders to stay in the guest bedroom when in town.
Stinson took a position as a banquet and dining room waiter living onsite at a fashionable country club owned by a major developer, providing not only a “Gordon Ramsay” style education but the opportunity to eavesdrop on the developer’s constant wining and dining of the multiple participants in large scale development.
Politics was another fascination, with both mother and father’s side politically active, but in different parties. Given first-hand experience working at Pierre Trudeau’s leadership convention, with Jane Jacobs on the Spadina Expressway battle, and on multiple Toronto mayoral campaigns, Stinson registered for a university Political Science course, but dropped out, (disillusioned by the academic disconnect from political realities) and opened the Groaning Board, Toronto’s first “healthy food”, non-smoking restaurant in Yorkville, in the waning days of its hippie era. Despite advice by well-meaning adults and cautious bankers (not to be confused) that the non-smoking policy was foolish and impractical, Stinson rationalized that being the only such facility servicing a local market share of several hundred thousand people could be an advantage; the Groaning Board lasted nearly 3 decades and became a Toronto icon. One of the restaurant’s popular features was screenings of “The World’s Best Commercials”, a reel of prize-winning ads selected annually at the Cannes Advertising Festival, at which his father was the Canadian judge. The restaurant also expanded into catering, particularly specializing in backstage food for performers and crew at major concerts and events. Inevitably Stinson later acquired and operated a number of cinema and live theatre facilities.
Another (genuinely fabled) business was The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a restaurant that specialized only in children’s birthday parties. Anyone who has worked in – or visited – a restaurant during a children’s birthday party realizes that nobody is enjoying the experience. Kids are restless and noisy; parents are stressed; other diners are annoyed, cut short their meal and reduce orders; only cheap food is ordered for the kids; much of it is spilled and trampled; parents have no time to order or enjoy much; there is minimal if any bar bill; service staff are run ragged; tips are modest. At the Mad Hatter, no parents were even allowed inside; drop the kids off, and pick them up in 2 hours. Yes, food was served, but mostly thrown around, with no restriction. Pillow fights, bumper carts, video games (yes, they existed 40 years ago), even whipped cream fights, with the premium party including “limousine” service in a converted, bright red hearse. A documentary film is said to be in the works.
In 1980, Stinson obtained his real estate licence and decided to specialize in the sale of condominiums, after purchasing his first condo and noticing that there did not seem to be any realtors who understood much about condominiums (let alone were interested in the product) and yet they were pocketing healthy commissions. After an apprenticeship at RE/MAX (which would not allow the use of the word condo in a brokerage name), he opened his own specialized brokerage. The first salesman (after Stinson) was Brad Lamb.
After earning a reputation as the experts in condominiums, they noticed a growing demand for ‘interesting’ options, not just because a condo apartment was cheaper than a house. Stinson also realized he was having an increasingly hard time selling properties that he was unenthusiastic about, spontaneously suggesting design improvements that only reminded clients why they were holding back on making an offer. It wasn’t a price issue; clients had the budget, but just didn’t like what they saw. Unfortunately, builders were unwilling to believe Stinson’s assurances that “if you build it, they will come”. Real estate development is very capital intensive; real estate lenders, very conservative. The entrepreneur sees a market vacuum as an opportunity;
the banker sees a vacuum as ‘proof’ there is no demand.
Stinson sensed an unsupplied market for ‘condos with character’ specifically lofts in industrial-style buildings, located in the downtown core, as well as a consumer willingness to pay for quality finishes and more features. This vision is what inspired Stinson to create the Candy Factory Lofts.
1 King West was obviously a more established location, but there was no significant comparable example of an upscale building where the typical suite was 400 to 600 square feet, albeit with a kitchen and laundry. “People want 2 bedrooms at least” the experts insisted. In response, Stinson designed (in 1999) a full-service rental program that provided 1 King unit owners with essentially a private AirBnB, also deemed impractical by hospitality experts and hotel brands who were approached to manage the program. Thus Stinson assembled an independent management team to run the condo and hotel, which still prospers nearly a generation later.
The story continues in the separate project profiles, with doubtless more to come.
There were other projects and tales to tell that will have to wait for the 360-degree, behind-the-scenes version, that could make for a gripping Netflix series.