Thirteen years ago, Maggie White packed her things and moved from Colorado to the Massachusetts Island of her childhood summers. She left behind a booming and profitable business to run a small Edgartown inn. She had no experience in the hospitality industry and she knew not a soul on the Vineyard, save the herd of cows she brought with her.
Anyone else would have been daunted. Heck, anyone else would have stayed in Colorado. Confident, shrewd and spunky, Ms. White is not anyone. “When you come with 14 cows,” she said this week, “you’re kind of a force to be reckoned with.”
Margaret White grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and spent summers clamming and sailing with her family in Edgartown. She attended an all-girls’ private school and when she graduated, she flew to Switzerland and enrolled in a two-year college. Afterward she returned to the States, packed up her car and drove west.
She landed in Boulder, Colo., at a car wash. Petite and blonde with a no-nonsense air about her, Ms. White took a job washing windows. Recognizing her talents, the car wash promoted her almost immediately to cashier. By age 20, Ms. White had entered the real estate business. By age 40, she was director of asset management at a shopping center development firm. The job took her all over the country and the business was so successful that in 1983, she bought a 40-acre farm and a herd of beef cattle. She had no agricultural experience, but lack of experience had never stopped her before.
All was well until Ms. White’s rule of 20 kicked in. “I believe in a theory of 20-20-20,” she said matter-of-factly from the dining room of the Hob Knob, the Edgartown inn she owns and operates. “Twenty-year segments. I had spent my first 18 in Cleveland. I was in Boulder until I was 40. I was ready for the next investment and it took me to the Vineyard. You can exchange mountains for ocean, you know, and that’s what I did.”
She looked at properties in the Napa Valley and in Telluride, but in the end the old Governor Bradford Inn in Edgartown caught her eye. She bought it for $1.6 million in 1995. After running the inn for a season, Ms. White closed down for a seven-month renovation project. “No surface went untouched,” she said. The inn reopened as the 17-room Hob Knob Inn, a name taken from the first initials of Ms. White’s grandmother — Helen Osborne Bruch — and the estate she lived in — a house set high on a hill known as the Knob.
The renovations cost around $500,000 and transformed the inn to a small hotel which, like Ms. White herself, is at once classically elegant and comfortably country. “I wanted to accomplish a true Vineyard experience that was upscale, yet casual and current. I didn’t want to be stiff and pretty,” she said. She followed the first round of renovations with additions — a wraparound porch and a luxury spa. This past year, a million-dollar renovation turned the hotel eco-friendly with composting and recycling programs, all-organic cleaning products and upgraded energy usage. Walls were repainted, carpets redone and mini bars installed in each room. “Properties get tired, so you have to stay fresh and stay on top of your game,” Ms. White explained. “You have to remember that people have choices [of where to stay].”
But she didn’t stop there. Soon after Ms. White opened the inn, she began Hob Knob Construction. “I have a development itch and a passion for architecture,” she said. When hotel customers began asking for recommendations on where to rent houses on the Island and from whom, Ms. White opened her own realty company. She rents out two luxury homes near the hotel and recently completed seven mixed-use condominiums on North Summer street. Three are for sale at market value (they range in cost from $1.9 to $2.3 million; the first sold within one week on the market), two are for affordable housing and two are available as retail spaces.
“So now people can spend anywhere from two to three days [at the inn], to a few weeks in a luxury rental, to buying a place with Hob Knob [real estate agency],” she explained.
And despite the frightening state of the economy, Ms. White sees her real estate investments as sound. She said the rental market is strong on the Vineyard and that the hotel had a good season. “The hotel has been sold out every weekend this fall and our occupancy is up from last year,” she said. “The real telltale sign will be the advanced bookings for next year, but you know, people won’t stop having weddings.” Construction? “The next 10 years are going to be very productive on Martha’s Vineyard,” she predicted.
Which is not to say that Ms. White is putting her feet up. “Don’t ever rest on your laurels, I don’t,” she cautioned. “You always have to ratchet it up, to raise the bar.” Last November, she hired a Los Angeles-based public relations firm to spruce up the hotel’s image. The name changed to simply Hob Knob; mentions in Travel and Leisure, Elle and Boston magazines followed. Tonight the inn launches a year-round cultural series, the Art of Hob Knobbing, which will highlight Vineyard culinary, literary and artistic talent. This evening, wire sculptor Steve Lohman will unveil a new sculpture and photographer Alison Shaw has curated a special exhibit of her work. The inn has also teamed up with Island chefs Jan Buhrman and Elizabeth Germain, and in January will begin hosting monthly weekend cooking getaways with themes like Resurrecting Roots and Glorious Greens.
“Ultimately if we can promote business year-round and stay busy, that would be ideal,” Ms. White said.
With her own business booming, Ms. White has turned her attention to the rest of Edgartown. “There is an obligation to give back to the community,” she said. After moving her cows from one Island field to another, Ms. White recently donated the herd to the Katama Farm Institute and joined their board. When Edgartown resurrected their defunct board of trade three years ago, Ms. White stepped up as board president. The board now sponsors four events — Christmas in Edgartown, the food and wine festival, a sand castle building contest and the Fourth of July fireworks. “The real estate market exceeded downtown retail [in Edgartown],” Ms. White said. “Hopefully Edgartown can truly become a year-round community again.”
As for her own future, Ms. White is unclear. If her rule of 20 continues to apply, that would leave Ms. White with only seven years on the Vineyard before she moves on to a new project and a new location. She would only say this: “I will always own a house on Martha’s Vineyard and construction will always remain a part of it. The sky’s the limit.”