Gordon “Butch” Stewart, founder and chairman of Sandals Resorts International, was a breed apart, a rare and unique individual who built an empire by sheer force of personality, intelligence, imagination and a genius for marketing.
He was a self-starter who powered his way from an appliance and electronics salesman to create one of the world’s most iconic tourism brands built on pioneering innovations that transformed the global industry.
His great gift was to recognise the power of the Caribbean as a global brand of leisure and pleasure, and to imagine and construct a profitable industry around it. As the entrepreneur incarnate, he sized up the odds and invariably fancied his chances the bigger they seemed.
Last year, when the global tourism industry retreated under the pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic, Butch Stewart got busy. Sandals offered the Jamaican government a 52-room hotel and financed 40 ventilators at a cost of roughly TT$1 million. Then, with his son Adam, deputy chairman of Sandals, he worked with the government of Jamaica and other governments in countries where Sandals operates to devise highly-detailed travel corridors and bubbles to keep their tourism economies turning over while limiting the risk of Covid-19 exposure.
For almost four decades Butch Stewart dominated the Caribbean business landscape. In 1992 he attained the status of legend when he single-handedly halted the free-fall of the Jamaican dollar with his “Save the dollar” initiative. Declaring war on the black market, he announced that he would sell US$1 million a week to banks at the official rate. Thousands of Jamaicans rallied to the cause by abandoning the black market for the banks, thereby stabilising the dollar.
His knack for seeking opportunity in crisis is told in the story of how he solved the noise problem over his Montego Bay resort from planes taking off from nearby Sangster International Airport. As the story goes, he came up with the bright idea to instruct staff to stop whatever they were doing and wave at the outgoing planes, shouting invitations to come again. Delighted quests quickly joined the cheering, turning the planes’ disruption into a unique tradition which endures to this day.
In 1993, when every attempt to start a second daily newspaper in Jamaica ended in failure against the dominant Jamaica Gleaner, Butch Stewart decided to take the plunge. With the support of Trinidad and Tobago’s Caribbean Communications Network, parent company of the Trinidad Express, and its chief executive Ken Gordon, Stewart launched the Jamaica Observer, taking it from a weekly to a daily within a year. Twenty-five years later, the Jamaica Observer is still going strong.
Throughout it all, Butch Stewart remained a man with a big laugh and an easy touch with people at every level.
As the news of his passing spread around the world yesterday, individuals from all walks of life came forward with their personal stories about how their lives had been touched by his accessibility, generosity and willingness to give the small person a chance in business.
Gordon “Butch” Stewart cut a path where there was no road. May his loved ones find peace and comfort.