How others see Jamaica's 'Butch' Stewart

Friday, November 09, 2012

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Father to son: the charismatic daddy cool of the Sandals empire, Gordon 'Butch' Stewart, wagers on the next generation. In this insightful piece, titled 'Mr Jamaica', Juliet Austin, senior writer of the prestigious Caribbean lifestyle magazine reallife, takes a peek into the life of the reigning king of vacations.

HE has neither released award-winning albums like Bob Marley, nor lit up the home stretch like compatriot, Usain 'Lightning' Bolt. On home turf, the gregarious Gordon 'Butch' Stewart is the undisputed 'King of the All-Inclusive' — a local boy made good.

The entrepreneurial founder and chairman of Sandals brand presides over one of the largest private sector conglomerates in the region, a broad portfolio boasting 19 on six exotic Caribbean islands. Yet, while his story has surprisingly humble beginnings, with his second youngest son and protégé, Adam, climbing the ranks to become CEO of Sandals Resorts International, Stewart may just have played his trump card.

Never has fortune favoured the bold more than in the meteoric rise of Butch Stewart, nicknamed after Walt Disney's British bulldog cartoon and labelled by school priests as, "most unlikely to succeed". Raised in Honeymoon Bay, Ocho Rios, by parents Gordon and Jean, the intrepid Butch displayed the telltale temerity and bullish charm that would become his trademarks.

Unlike many white Jamaican counterparts bequeathed ancestral wealth, his working life began at age 12. Well versed in the art of Jamaican hustle, he borrowed his father's fishing boat, convincing the film crew shooting the latest James Bond movies that he was their man.

Selling his catch of the day and ferrying the rich and famous between their anchored yachts and the harbour front, the young Butch quickly assimilated the terms of engagement for success: offer instant gratification, always exceed expectation and never underestimate the power of personality.

Following inauspicious stints working in his mother's small appliances store and for the Curacao Trading Company, Stewart finally bit the bullet, taking the first in a series of all-or-nothing gambles that would shoot him to the top.

One letter of speculation to the manufacturers of Fedders air-conditioners, a flight to New Jersey to schmooze the president's nephew and all his savings later, and he became Fedders's exclusive representative in Jamaica with his first company, Appliance Traders Limited (ATL).

Having pre-sold the entire shipment before landing it, he went all-in, guaranteeing customers installation within half-a-day.

"Jamaicans like to please," he explains. "It's pleasure I'm giving. Natural satisfaction."

The life of the Caribbean's 'Super Salesman' had begun. Stewart's infectious joie de vivre and the lilting Jamaican brogue that he touts like a badge of honour, belie his shrewd business acumen. Nonetheless, when on a wing, and a prayer in 1981, he bought two deadbeat MoBay hotels — Carlyle on the Bay and Bay Roc — those in Stewart's inner circle knew it was a cash or bust.

Losing more money than he thought imaginable in the first two years, he again rolled the dice, ignoring naysayers and navigating on instinct alone. "You're in it," he says, plainly. "You have to find a way to make it work." And work he did — sometimes to [the point of] collapse.

Increasing room numbers and adding never-before-seen features from in-room hairdryers and signature swim-up bars to multiple hot tubs to give his guests the ultimate in luxury, the all-inclusive 'couples-only' Sandals brand hit jackpot, bursting onto the hospitality scene and setting the tourism industry on fire.

More than simply beginner's luck, the largesse of the host with the most became the stuff of legend. Building a legion of repeat clientele, the hotel magnate started with the best natural products he could find, adding properties and 'Sandalising' each as he went: 16 restaurants here, an Irish pub there, 100 pools, the biggest waterpark, personal butlers, nannies, destination Wedding Moons, even Cookie Monster came at one all-inclusive rate.

Cookie Monsters aside, it is, above all else, the Sandals family — the army of approximately 10,000 highly-trained staff — which makes him most proud.

"I've worked with a multitude of the finest people you can find," he states. "I'm only a guiding light. I may have a vision for a restaurant, but finding the right chef... I burn eggs and water!"

Despite grand gestures, Stewart is credited with always keeping "a heart for the small people", a trait passed on to his son, Adam — astute businessman, chip-off-the-old-block and founder of the philanthropic Sandals Foundation.

Raising US$2.2 million in two-and-a-half years, the foundation uses the Sandals powerhouse in support of three common goals: community, education, and the environment.

With two marine sanctuaries, adopted schools and libraries, literacy projects, its own corporate university and a smorgasbord of socially responsible initiatives across the region, the Stewarts evidently have every intention of paying it forward by championing their lucky charm, the Caribbean.

Masters of reinvention, the Sandals Empire has been forged on calculated risks and a desire to stay ahead of the game. Sadly though, success has not come without the cruelest blows. Father of eight children, the loss of Stewart's beloved son, Jonathon, in a tragic accident in 1990, left him reeling.

As the affable, public face of Sandals, he battled the private agony of mourning his child in the glare of the limelight. He explains quietly, "Nothing meant anything for a while."

To attempt to qualify or quantify the genius of Butch Stewart is futile. He is the real deal: a man able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people from all walks of life; a father raising children to share the values he holds dear; a champion of the people who, like Jamaica itself — "the tiny island with the mighty reach" — inspires extraordinary affection.

"I tend to work to extremes," he admits, "but laughter, laughter is the best cure possible — laughter and salt water."

And, what of legacy?

"As long as most people think I've done something good with my life, that's plenty good enough for me," he smiles, and, it may sound strange, but you can almost hear the twinkle in his eyes.





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