Jamaican titan who created the Sandals Resorts International empire dies
By Ricky Browne
A Jamaican lion died on Tuesday. He was Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, Jamaica’s greatest entrepreneur, a tourism mogul and a driving force for the country’s private sector.
Butch Stewart, who was 79 years old, was the founder and owner of Sandals Resorts International, the founder and head of Appliance Traders Ltd (ATL) and the chairman of the Jamaica Observer.
Stewart was awarded with the Order of Jamaica (OJ) and Order of Distinction (CD) in Jamaica’s honours system. The OJ is considered Jamaica’s equivalent of a knighthood in the British honours system.
Across his businesses he was said to employ some 10,000 people.
His empire included about 25 resorts around the Caribbean, including 15 Sandals hotels across Jamaica, St Lucia, Antigua, the Bahamas, Grenada and Barbados and others from the Beaches and Grand Pineapple brands.
His influence over Jamaica and its governments, of both political parties, was immense.
“It is with deep sadness that I learnt of the passing of one of Jamaica’s most brilliant, innovative and transformative business minds, the Honourable Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart OJ, CD, Hon. LLD,” tweeted Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
“Sending deepest condolences to the family of Gordon “Butch” Stewart as well as his Sandals, Observer and ATL teams. Jamaica has lost one of its most innovative and successful business leaders, and a truly immense figure on the national and international stage. Walk Good “Butch“, tweeted Jamaican Opposition leader Mark Golding.
His tourism empire had hotels across the Caribbean, and was just in the process of opening a new hotel in the Dutch island of Curacao.
A self-made man, Stewart started off as an air conditioner salesman and installer in Ocho Rios, then a little-known tourist resort town on Jamaica’s north coast.
It wasn’t the greatest of starts, but from there with great ambition and perseverance he came to own ATL and to make it into a leading electronics and appliances provider and retailer.
During the 1970s and Jamaica’s disastrous flirtation with socialism, Jamaica’s tourism took a nose dive. It took guts for Stewart to see the potential in the failed and abandoned Bay Roc Hotel at the foot of the Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. He got a great deal on the hotel from the government, and created his first Sandals hotel.
People thought he was mad for going down that road. Jamaica had lost its lustre as a tourism hot spot. The position was so bad that for years the tourism resort of Negril had been selling itself on the international market without making reference to the fact that it was in Jamaica.
But even if there were some tourists who would want to come to Jamaica, why would they want to go to the old Bay Roc, which was dated and which was constantly assaulted by the low flying jet liners taking off or landing at the island’s busiest airport?
Stewart was not bothered by such concerns, and set about creating a Club Med-style hotel that was for couples only and was all-inclusive. He hired well-educated young Jamaicans just leaving school to work as playmakers, keeping the guests busy with games and activities and parties.
And then he turned the problem of the noisy planes into an opportunity, with his playmakers waving excitedly to the planes bringing tourists or waving goodbye to those who were not fortunate enough to be staying.
Like the departing aircraft, the hotel took off, and from there he was able to expand his brand to other hotels, first in Jamaica and then across the Caribbean.
He built the brand so effectively that there would be very few people in his principal markets of North America and the United Kingdom that hadn’t heard of the chain of hotels.
The brand was often advertised on the front page of major newspapers in the US and UK, building an image that was much larger than the hotel itself.
When Spanish hotel chains started to invade his home market with lower prices, Stewart didn’t fight on price, but instead upped his game and increased the luxury offering of his hotels.
Butlers, 5 star restaurants and more took the Sandals brand to a higher level than the Spanish hotels could compete on.
But the upgrading of the hotel chain started even before the Spanish invasion. As a reporter at the Gleaner in Jamaica back in the 1990s, I was part of a team of reporters that Stewart invited to cover the first award ceremony of the World Travel Awards which took place at Universal Studios in Hollywood, California.
The journalists were treated like royalty, flown first on Air Jamaica (which he did not yet own) to Miami and then by American Airlines to Los Angeles. A chauffeur-driven limousine took us to the top-quality hotel near LA, with champagne on ice and the World Cup playing on live TV inside the limo.
The hotel had hair dryers in every room. Stewart was impressed, and said he wanted the same for his Sandals hotels. And shortly after they were introduced, an early step in the effort that Sandals would take in consistently improving its service.
Sandals won its first award for being the best all-inclusive chain that year, and continued to win many awards from the organisation over the years.
Later, in 1994, Stewart boldly acquired a majority stake in the national airline Air Jamaica from the Jamaican government. He rebranded the airline, building on its image as the ‘Love Bird’. Navy blue and a bright pink were added to the previous livery colours of orange and yellow, so that the aircraft could never be missed in a crowd – with the airline even featuring in an episode of the popular US sitcom ‘Seinfeld’.
Like the limousine service for those journalists in LA, the airline offered champagne—or at least sparkling wine — to all its guests on boarding. Its Seventh Heaven customer loyalty programme offered travellers a free trip after every seven flights.
The airline started to win awards as the best airline from the Caribbean, and maintained its high standards for both its service and its quality.
And it gave great deals to tourists flying in for Sandals, helping to make the hotel chain more attractive as it could offer better combined-deals than many of its competitors.
But, the fastest way to become a millionaire is to be a billionaire and buy an airline, was a saying that was doing the rounds. Despite its great marketing, service and overall quality, the airline lost immense amounts of money. And in a controversial deal Stewart returned the airline to the government, which later got taken over by Trinidadian airline BWIA, becoming Caribbean Airlines.
But the airline had been successful in building the Sandals empire, and Stewart was able to now concentrate more on his hotels, as well as expanding his auto dealership businesses under the ATL umbrella.
Never one to shrink away from a challenge in the 1990s Stewart also started up a second newspaper in Jamaica – the Jamaica Observer.
At that point there was only one Jamaican newspaper – the well-established Daily Gleaner, which had been around since 1834 and which had seen the demise of countless papers that tried to challenge its dominance.
Stewart went for a tabloid format and brought full colour to the paper at an early point, way before The Gleaner even attempted to do the same.
As chairman of the paper along with his son Adam Stewart as deputy chairman, Stewart hired me back in December 2015 to be the business editor. Very early in the interview he told me that I had a very impressive resume and that he wanted me to be the business editor – and to sweeten the deal he offered me a 20 percent increase in whatever salary I would negotiate with the Observer, after six months.
This was a measure of the man who could quickly identify business opportunities and go after them whole-heartedly.
One of my first assignments was to cover the opening of the new Sandals hotel in Barbados, and the opening of Butch’s — a five star steak house on the property. It was the first all-inclusive hotel in Barbados, and helped to open up the country to more US tourists instead of its main market of the UK.
With the Jamaica Observer Stewart could put across his views on a national stage. Such was his power, that if he offered an invitation for the Prime Minister or Opposition Leader to join him for lunch in the Observer board room, they would each be there with many members of their teams to enjoy his hospitality.
So although the paper was a cost to his more profitable businesses, it was valuable to Stewart, as if the chips were down, he knew he could rely on at least one part of the Jamaican media scene to offer a point a view that was at least close to his own.
While he never tried to direct me in how I managed the business desk, the paper certainly pushed the power of entrepreneurism.
The paper had an annual award for upcoming entrepreneurs called “Mogul in the Making” as well as a prestigious award for Business Leader of the Year. The paper continues to tell the stories of Jamaicans who are looking to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps by creating their own nascent business empires.
Adam is likely to take over much of his father’s empire. Adam, who is Stewart’s third son, is already the Deputy Chairman of Sandals Resorts International, CEO of The ATL Group & Island Routes Caribbean Adventures and Deputy Chairman of the Jamaica Observer.
In a statement, Adam Stewart spoke on his father and said:
“He was a marketing genius and talented showman, but those who knew him best recognised that he was a dreamer who could dream bigger and better than anyone. It was often said, ‘The best thing for people around him to do is be dream catchers.’ That’s why he always credited his success to the incredible team around him, why he listened intently when it came to creating innovative things that would excite and delight our guests, and why it is so important that I remind you today, of all days, that we will all continue to be his dream catchers.”
“Together, we have all been part of something bigger than ourselves, led by a man who believed in us and who gave us opportunities to learn, grow, and the tools to make dreams real. For him, and because of him, we will continue to dream big and deliver on his certainty that true luxury is always best enjoyed by the sea.
“My Dad lived a big life – husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, entrepreneur, statesman, dreamer. A singular personality and an unstoppable force who revelled in defying the odds, exceeding expectations, and whose passion for his family was matched only by the people and possibility of the Caribbean, for whom he was a fierce champion.
“There will never be another quite like him and we will miss him forever.”