Gordon Arthur Cyril Stewart, better known as Butch Stewart, dropped out of school at age 16 and was deemed the “most unlikely to succeed.”
Looking back on his life, that prediction was way off.
When Stewart passed away on Monday at the age of 79 he was lauded by Jamaica’s prime minister Andrew Holness as one of the region’s “most brilliant, innovative and transformative business minds.”
Other prime ministers in the region, including Dr Keith Rowley and Mia Mottley, expressed similar sentiments.
Stewart was born on July 6, 1941 and raised in Honeymoon Bay, Ocho Rios, by parents Gordon and Jean.
He was given the nickname “Butch” from an American sailor which was said to be inspired by the cartoon bulldog animated by Walt Disney of the same name.
From age 12, Stewart started exhibiting an entrepreneurial spirit by selling fresh-caught fish to local hotels.
“I had a great childhood, one of the best. When you grow up by the sea, you do a lot of fishing and swimming. You do what comes naturally. And the communities I grew up in were so protective; everybody looked after everybody. I think it does an enormous amount for you later in life. It allows you to look after yourself. It allows you to be protective of others. It makes you realise that you’re no more special than the rest,” Stewart told the Business JetTraveler magazine during an interview.
“There were gangs in the school and I was fed up with school. I wanted to work. So I hopped a motorcycle and left,” he said.
Stewart began his career at the Dutch-owned Curacao Trading Company, where he eventually rose to the position of sales manager.
He left that company in 1968 to start his own company Appliance Traders, Ltd (ATL).
Originally founded as an air-conditioner service and distribution company, ATL added refrigerators, freezers and other appliances.
But Stewart did not stop there.
In fact, he was only starting.
In 1980 the first government-owned, “all-inclusive” resort opened in Ocho Rios and ATL was contracted to supply kitchen appliances and air conditioners.
Stewart’s unofficial motto, “We can do better,” kicked into gear and in 1981 he bought Bay Roc: a rundown hotel on one of Montego Bay’s largest beaches.
Despite no hotel experience, Stewart approached this business with a simple philosophy: “The winning formula is to find out what people want, give it to them and, in doing so, exceed their expectations.”
And seven months and $4 million in renovations later, Sandals Montego Bay opened its doors.
This earned him the nickname “The Cupid of the Caribbean”.
“I was targeting the honeymoon market so everything was geared towards romance, for two people in love. And while weddings and honeymoons are a big part of our business, Sandals is also a great place for couples to get away and reconnect, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and enjoy the very best in luxurious accommodations, delicious dining, impeccable service and so much more. From romantic candlelight dinners under the stars to relaxing spa treatments in a seaside gazebo, we offer something for every couple at any stage of their relationship,” Stewart stated in an interview with Haute Living in 2019.
He’s also been called the “King of All-Inclusive Resorts,” and the “Master of Marketing.”
In 1997, the company branched out with the debut of its Beaches offshoot, opening the Beaches Negril.
Sandals and Beaches Resorts has transformed from to become one of the most well-known and award-winning hospitality names in the world with five brands and 24 properties in seven countries including Antigua, The Bahamas, Grenada, Barbados, Jamaica, Saint Lucia and Turks and Caicos, Sandals and Beaches Resort.
At the time of his death, he was working on plans for the recently announced expansions to Curacao and St Vincent.
In 1989 Stewart was elected president of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ) and was inducted into its “Hall of Fame” in 1995.
The PSOJ said Stewart was a “bold and innovative entrepreneur who was tenacious in his approach to business.”
“The hallmark of Mr Stewart’s rise to veritable Caribbean business mogul from humble beginnings was his gregarious nature and infectious charm,” the PSOJ stated.
“He was a true Jamaican patriot whose proclivity for innovation inspired the birth and expansion of arguably Mr Stewart’s greatest legacy, Sandals Resorts. The powerful, global hotel brand is one of the largest private sector conglomerates in the region and has forever reshaped the Caribbean hospitality industry,” it stated.
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“Mr Stewart’s patriotism and love for his country saw his unparalleled willingness to harness public and private sector partnerships towards the development of the country. He was a trailblazing businessman, humanitarian and philanthropist. His exceptional legacy will be forever woven into the story of Jamaica and the Caribbean,” the PSOJ stated.
Stewart also 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.
Jamaica’s Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett told Business Guardian Stewart made an “indelible mark” in the region.
“Butch was truly an icon and innovator, philanthropist and perhaps the greatest marketer tourism has ever seen. Sandals is indeed the largest and most enduring brand created by a Caribbean entrepreneur in tourism and arguably the world today and the standard by which luxury All Inclusive is judged. I hail him as a father, leader, benefactor, and the greatest tourism entrepreneur of our time. His passing is truly devastating,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett said Stewart established himself as “not just the standard by which entrepreneurship can be judged, but he has established a brand that has become global and is also the strongest statement that small island states such as Jamaica can make on global scenes, irrespective of their areas of involvement.”
“I think that we can look back on his life and times and draw inspiration from the success that he has had. But I think, most importantly, we can be inspired by his resilience and the fact that he has started from nowhere, and has ended up as being one of the most celebrated human beings that Jamaica has produced in the last century,” Bartlett stated.
Stewart founded the Jamaica Observer newspaper in 1993, and a year later, started the process of acquiring a majority stake in Air Jamaica, the then national carrier.
The Air Jamaica Acquisition Group paid $37.5 million for a majority share of the airline; of which, Stewart held a 46 per cent stake and became the new chairman of Air Jamaica.
Stewart’s group sold their shares of the airline back to the Jamaican Government in 2004.
Stewart has been bestowed with a number of national honours over the years, including the Order of Jamaica (OJ), Commander of the Order of Distinction (OD) and Global Iconic legend of tourism.
He was also presented with an honorary doctor of law degrees from the University of the West Indies (UWI) in 2001, and from the University of Technology, Jamaica in 2009, as also a honorary doctor of business administration degree from Johnson and Wales University in 2011.
Prof Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of UWI likened Stewart to other Jamaican icons Bob Marley and Usain Bolt.
“Our Butch was the ‘stewart’ of this spirit and gave to Jamaica, the Caribbean and the world a performance of sheer class with cool runnings—a ‘sandalization’ of awe and amazement. We experienced in his innovative entrepreneurship, the eruptive excellence of a son produced and nurtured by a soil rich in history and fertile for the future,” Beckles stated.
“He integrated and domesticated his Caribbean like no entrepreneurial other, and demanded ownership everywhere the ‘sandals sea’ swept upon our shores. And so the indomitable spirit is called back to source, to rest, to wheel and to come again,” he stated.
In 2019 Sandals Resorts announced that it would cancel its proposal to build a resort complex in Tobago.
It was lauded as a “game changer” in the 2019 national budget.
“The Sandals Golden Grove Tobago Project – A catalytic tourism event: the decision to establish a Sandals and Beaches Resort in Tobago with 500-750 highquality rooms represents a radical stimulus for the tourism sector in Tobago which would now provide a platform for sustainable economic and social development and place Tobago at the centre of a very competitive tourism market,” finance minister Colm Imbert stated.
“In tandem, with a new airport terminal, increased airlift will allow Tobago convenient access to all points of the major market sources. Employment opportunities and the provision of local content will have a multiplier effect on the economy of Tobago,” he stated.
Sandals eventually withdrew its proposal because of it said ongoing criticism of the project threatened its brand reputation.
The government’s non‑binding October 2017 memorandum of understanding with Sandals was made public in November 2018 following a freedom of information request.
The government was to have designed, built and fitted out the resort with private equity finance, while Sandals was offered significant tax concessions as well as work permits for an unlimited number of expatriate staff.
The opposition had criticised the conditions of the agreement, arguing that the government had made too many concessions that would cost more than the eventual benefit from increased tourism.