Delighting in defying the odds
The Honourable Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart
July 6, 1941 to January 4, 2021
Legend, entrepreneur, unstoppable force, vibrant personality, philanthropist, statesman, private and devoted to family man.
The Hon. Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart was all of these and so much more.
News of his passing on Jan. 4, 2021, at the age of 79, has been marked by an outpouring of praise, reminisces and heartfelt sympathies, each touching on a different aspect of the man who built the world’s most recognized Caribbean resort brand and in doing so, reinvented and revitalized the tourism and hospitality industry throughout the region.
A son of Jamaica, Butch Stewart was born in Kingston on July 6, 1941 and grew up along the island’s North Coast, where his love of the sea, dominoes and free enterprise were sown.
Certain from the start that he wanted to run his own company, at the tender age of 12, Stewart first stepped into the hospitality industry selling fresh-caught fish to local hotels. His success got him ‘hooked’ and his enthusiasm for entrepreneurship never waned.
His career began at the Dutch-owned Curaçao Trading Company where he quickly rose to become sales manager, but itched to start his own company and in 1968, Stewart took his chance.
Although he had no collateral, he recognized the comfort that would make air conditioning an essential service, and convinced American manufacturer Fedders Corporation to allow him to represent their brand in Jamaica. With that, Stewart’s foundational business – Appliance Traders Limited (ATL), was born and he was on his way.
At ATL, Stewart developed a simple business philosophy he articulated many times: “Find out what people want, give it to them and in doing so – exceed their expectations.”
It became the standard of every one of his enterprises and it was a standard practiced by every employee.
In 1981, Stewart found the Bay Roc – a rundown hotel on a magnificent beach in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Seven months and $4 million in renovations later, Sandals Montego Bay opened as the flagship of what has become the most popular, award-winning, all-inclusive, luxury-included resort company in the world.
While Stewart never laid claim to inventing the all-inclusive concept, he is recognized worldwide for his tireless effort to elevate the experience, delivering to his guests an unsurpassed level of luxury, and proving beyond question that a Caribbean company could successfully compete with any organization in the world.
He accomplished both. And by steadfastly adhering to the “we can do it better” principle of pleasing his guests, Stewart fostered a company free to imagine and free to consistently raise the bar. In doing so, he changed the face of the all-inclusive format and established Sandals Resorts as the most successful brand in the category – boasting year-round occupancy levels of over 85%, a returning guest factor of 40% and demand that has led to unprecedented expansion including the creation of additional concepts such as Beaches Resorts.
In fact, at the time of his passing, Stewart was hard at work on plans for the company’s plans expand to the Dutch island of Curaçao and St. Vincent.
Stewart’s leadership helped resurrect Jamaica’s travel industry and earned him the respect of his peers and the admiration of his countrymen. He was elected President of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica in 1989 and was inducted into its “Hall of Fame” in 1995. He served as a Director of the Jamaica Tourist Board for a decade and as President of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association in the mid-80s.
In 1994, Stewart led a group of investors that took over the leadership of Air Jamaica. It was a daunting task – planes were dirty, service was indifferent and on-time schedules were rarely met, causing its market share to plummet along with its revenues.
But by applying the successful formula he had used for ATL and Sandals Resorts, he was able to give the airline back to the government with an increase in revenue of over US$250 million.
That wasn’t the first time that Stewart had come to the aid of his country.
In 1992, he galvanized the admiration of Jamaicans with the “Butch Stewart Initiative,” pumping US$1 million a week into the official foreign exchange market at below prevailing rates to help halt the slide of the Jamaican dollar.
Less well-known may be the extent of Stewart’s considerable philanthropy, where for more than 40 years he has helped improve and shape the lives of Caribbean people.
His work, formalized with the creation of The Sandals Foundation in 2009, offers support ranging from the building of schools and paying of teachers to bringing healthcare to the doorsteps of those who cannot afford it. This in addition to his tireless support of a wide range of environmental initiatives.
Beyond the work of the Foundation, Stewart has given millions to charitable causes such as celebrating the bravery of veterans and first responders and helping those in the wake of devastating hurricanes.
Stewart’s successes in business and in life have earned him more than 50 well-deserved local, regional, and international accolades and awards including Jamaica’s highest national distinctions: The Order of Jamaica (O.J.), and Commander of the Order of Distinction (C.D.). In 2017, Stewart was honoured with the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Caribbean Hotel & Resort Investment Summit (CHRIS).
Yet while Stewart was an astute business man, he was also an extremely private man whose deepest devotion was to his family.
The company Butch Stewart built remains wholly owned by the Stewart family, who, in honour of Stewart’s long-term succession plans, has named Adam Stewart Chairman of Sandals Resorts International, extending his formidable leadership of the brands he has shepherded since he was appointed CEO in 2007.
Speaking on behalf of his family, Adam Stewart said, “our father was a singular personality; an unstoppable force who delighted in defying the odds by 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. Nothing, except maybe a great fishing day, could come before family to my dad. And while the world understood him to be a phenomenal businessman – which he was, his first and most important devotion was always to us. We will miss him terribly forever.”