Zita Cobb — Business as a force for good

Statia Elliot, left, director of the University of Guelph's School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management, presents an award to Zita Cobb.

Statia Elliot, left, director of the University of Guelph's School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management, presents an award to Zita Cobb.

GUELPH — Zita Cobb, founder and innkeeper at Fogo Island Inn, Joe Batt's Arm, N.L., and CEO of the Shorefast foundation, was honoured with a dinner at University of Guelph's School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management Feb. 25. 

Every year the School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management invites a successful and prominent industry executive to its Guelph campus. Cobb is the school's 2016 executive-in-residence.

Julia Christensen-Hughes, dean of Business and Economics at the university set the theme by talking about what the huge variety of programs that fall under her faculty have in common.

“Hospitality is our oldest program — it will soon be 50 years old. All of our programs want to develop leaders for a sustainable world. Business should be a force for good in the world, and entrepreneurship is a means for families and communities to be self determined,” she told the gathering of HFTM students, faculty and invited guests at the university's PJ's restaurant.

Cobb's story fits into this model.

She explained that as an eighth generation Fogo Islander, she saw the profound effect of diminishing cod stocks on this small island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. After rising to the ranks of CFO in the fiber optics industry, she felt a calling to return home; to use her talents in service of her home community, and to make it an incredible tourist destination.

“Nature and culture are the two great tools of business life,” Cobb said. “We live in a time where we've experienced business as a master. Only business as a servant will suffice.

“I come from a family of people who die young, so I retired at age 40 and moved home in 2005. I wanted to help Fogo Island develop entrepreneurial attitudes and skills to belong to the world. People on Fogo don't have warm relationships with business people — my job was getting people to understand that business is just a tool that belongs to others.”

The 29-room luxury inn and the Shorefast Foundation were developed on a co-op model — a model familiar to residents since the fishery was owned by a co-op.

“We developed a charitable foundation called Shorefast to use funds [for Fogo Islanders] in a way that creates value. We have 350 years of culture, going out in a tiny wooden boat to fish for cod. We emerge with a way of knowing, a give and take relationship with the natural world. Those who live in the city don't have that knowledge.”

A tourism project was an obvious fit — Fogo Islanders are predisposed to great hospitality. “But they didn't understand that people are willing to pay for great experiences.”

The result is the inn, “a public building which welcomes everybody, people from away and people from Fogo Island. Our 29 rooms are not the most expensive in Canada — that honour goes to Clayoquot Lodge [in B.C.], where they charge $3,500 per night.” Rates for the Fogo Island Inn are $1,500 per night on an island where the average annual income is $16,000 per year.

It's a case of business as a servant. Cobb compares the model with a cauliflower: “The stem holds together the florets. Business, regulations, etc., all live in the stem. And it's the job of the stem to serve the florets.”