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Born big: Jamaica's Butch Stewart on defining success

How Florida's Caribbean Voice newspaper sees the Sandals chairman

Monday, February 25, 2013    

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FOR more than three decades, Gordon 'Butch' Stewart, the man called the 'King of All-Inclusive Resorts' and the 'Master of Marketing', has blazed a trail of far-reaching entrepreneurship, spearheading two-dozen diverse companies that are collectively Jamaica's largest private sector group, the country's biggest foreign exchange earner, and its largest non-government employer.

Along the way, he has inspired millions throughout the Caribbean region and the diaspora, helping to lay the foundation for their own success and touting the benefits of hard work and opportunity.

"I love what I do and success has allowed me to do more of it," says Stewart.

Stewart's spectacular Jamaican-based empire includes 24 Caribbean resorts, the ATL Group, and the Jamaica Observer newspaper. But Stewart shares the benefits generously. He has quietly supported countless community-based philanthropic initiatives under the auspices of The Sandals Foundation and established the Sandals Corporate University for employees to provide the opportunities that come with a strong education.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, on July 6, 1941, Stewart grew up along Jamaica's north coast, now home to seven Sandals resorts, two Beaches Resorts, and Grand Pineapple Beach Resort Negril, as well as the upscale Royal Plantation resort.

But the origin of Stewart's business career as the leading entrepreneur in the Caribbean had nothing to do with the hotel or resort industries; rather it had everything to do with salesmanship and Stewart soon proved himself to be a master of the craft.

After rising to the position of sales manager for the renowned Dutch-owned Curaçao Trading Company, Stewart left in 1968 to start Appliance Traders Ltd (ATL). Founded as an air-conditioner service and distribution company, ATL soon grew meteorically, adding refrigerators, freezers and other appliances. Today, ATL makes or sells everything from water pumps and electrical generators to cars and auto parts.

In 1980, to generate the hard currency he needed to buy A/C units from United States-based Fedders, Stewart ventured into the hospitality business. His unofficial motto, "We can do better," kicked into gear and led to his purchase of an old hotel on one of Montego Bay's largest beaches. Despite having no hotel experience, Stewart approached this business with a simple philosophy he has articulated many times since: "The winning formula is to find out what people want, give it to them and, in doing so, exceed their expectations."

Seven months and $4 million in renovations later, Sandals Montego Bay opened, the flagship of the most popular award-winning, Luxury Included® resort chain in the world.

While his achievements in diverse industries affirm Stewart's business acumen, his inexhaustible drive to innovate and improve the lives of his countrymen were perhaps most visible during two crises — the foreign currency debacle of 1992 and his 1994 agreement to take over national carrier, Air Jamaica.

During a foreign currency crisis in 1992, when speculators drove the price of the US dollar up from J$21 to J$32, Stewart led the campaign, later called 'the Butch Stewart Initiative', to stabilise the exchange rate by personally depositing US$1 million a week into Jamaican banks at a rate of $25 to one US dollar.

It cost him roughly US$30 million, but by the time it was over, Stewart and thousands of ordinary Jamaicans had beaten the international speculators, pushing the price of a US dollar back down to $22.

Not long after, in 1994, Stewart agreed to take over leadership of the ailing Air Jamaica, at the time, the national carrier of the country and the Caribbean's largest regionally based carrier. It was a daunting task, but Stewart's formula prevailed. He improved the passenger experience, provided increased staff training and expanded routes. In late 2004, Stewart gave the airline back to the government with an increase in revenue of over US$250 million.

Stewart's successes have garnered hundreds of personal and industry awards, which have been publicised worldwide. Most recently, Sandals Resorts International won top honours at the 2012 World Travel Awards as the World's Leading All-Inclusive Company for the 17th consecutive year. Applauded by 1,000 of the sector's leading figures, Stewart was also personally honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award which he accepted on behalf of the 10,000 people who work as part of the Sandals family throughout the Caribbean.

So impressive is Stewart's track record, that the Jamaica Government made him a Commander of the Order of Distinction (CD) in 1988 and a few years later, The Order of Jamaica (OJ), the country's fourth highest honour, bringing with it the title 'Honourable'. He also received the Dr Martin Luther King Jr Humanitarian Award from the Jamaica-America Society.

Perhaps less well known is the extent of his considerable philanthropy. Sandals Resorts International currently gives active support to more than 150 major projects in its host communities, through the company's philanthropic arm, The Sandals Foundation. This support ranges from the building of schools to the paying of teachers, to providing hospitals with linens, to bringing health care to the doorsteps of those who cannot afford it. In his homeland of Jamaica, Stewart stepped in to revive the economy by donating $1 million to stop inflation and adjust the exchange rate.

So what's next for this restless entrepreneur? No one can answer that conclusively, not even Gordon 'Butch' Stewart, but if his history is any indication, whatever he applies his skills to will change an industry... or a nation.

Republished with the kind permission of The Caribbean Voice newspaper

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