Gordon 'Butch' Stewart: A super salesman is unleashed

Gordon 'Butch' Stewart: A super salesman is unleashed

Thursday, January 07, 2021

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In this second of a three-part article previously published in the Sunday Observer , award-winning journalist Desmond Allen, OD, follows the intriguing path of business mogul Gordon “Butch” Stewart from humble beginnings to spectacular heights.

It is hard not to conclude, isn't it, that men are born to the end which they eventually come to serve in life. In the way hardened newspapermen are convinced they have ink in their blood, Gordon “Butch” Stewart was born to sell. He could sell virtually anything.

When comedian Tony Hendricks' father got him a job maintaining machines at a company making cashmere sweaters in Kingston, Butch was grateful but it just wasn't him. His heart was not in it. He wanted to sell stuff.

After about seven or eight months there, he moved on to a company named BSA Agencies on Spanish Town Road, selling bicycles, flashlights, and batteries, including the famous Berec brand which most Jamaicans with radio sets at the time used to operate their transistors. This, now, was more like it.

The spirit of the super salesman, it seemed, had crossed time and space to appoint the young man to this certain destiny. He had known this from as far back as he could remember. Why else at age 12 would he be selling fish to hotels, at a time when most boys that age would still be preoccupied with their toys. The excuse was that he wanted the money to buy a boat — which he eventually did — but the real reason was that he was in practice for the time when he must answer his true calling, and it didn't matter that he didn't know it yet.

Ferdie Archer, Martin Viera

When Butch left Ocho Rios, St Ann, where he grew up, he had come to Kingston to one end and one end alone: to sell. The BSA Agencies, owned by Ferdie Archer, father of Douglas Vaz's first wife, brought Butch back his true spirit. He had amazing energy and the old man liked him instantly.

“He sent me all over the place to represent him,” says Butch. “There was also a great guy named Mr Stubbs who taught me a lot about bicycle parts.”

Archer was winding down the business and so, after a year, Butch again moved on, this time to Arthur Gray Limited, a commission agency specialising in chemicals and appliances. At 19 years old, he was a seasoned salesman. He loved to be on the road, recalling that “I did not like to stay home in case I missed something”. It was there that he met a life-long friend — Martin Viera who now lives at Coral Springs, Trelawny.

Back in the day, as it is now, Spanish Town Road was a beehive of trading activities, teeming with vendors of all sort and Butch found comfort among his kind. It was the Spanish Town Road of a more peaceful era and he frequented places like Princess Street and Barry Street, meeting the importers and sellers of goods such as zinc, steel, bush essences, linoleum, anything that could be sold; hanging with the people from D&G, Liquid Foods, Kelly's, you name it.

For motivation, Gray offered Butch and the sales team a special commission on every fridge and water cooler they sold after working hours. Butch and Viera grabbed the bait and travelled the shops and bars of rural Jamaica, taking turns at driving.

“We spent hours on the road, worked well into the night on a regular basis. Sometime we had to sleep where the night had caught us,” Butch remembers. But he loved it how he would cross paths with many of the powerful salesmen of the time, among them the ones from Charley's Rum and J Wray and Nephew, and how at peace he felt in the fresh country air, split frequently by the pleasant chatter and laughter from the simple country folk.

“We drank with the rural people in the country bars and got to know them. After a time we knew so many people. It was a lot of fun and I did not regard it as work.” Very importantly, he saved hard from the commission which he earned. That was often more than the salary he received. The money would come in handy, for two very good reasons.

Love on a sun-kissed island

Butch was always popular with the girls. But one day, without warning, into his life stepped one special girl — Erica Sturrock whose parents had come to Jamaica from England, met and loved each other on this beautiful sun-kissed isle. Erica was a mere teenager but she was lovely. The family diaries testify that the fireworks sparkled. Butch fell heavily in love.

The second important thing was that at this time he began to feel the need to improve his education, if he was going to succeed as a businessman, and he decided to go to school in England.

With the money he had saved from commission, he bought a plane ticket for 72 and, with his friend Duncan Sharpe, left for London by way of New York in 1960, arriving at the beginning of winter, and describing the place as a “whole new world altogether” and “a different type of wonderful” compared with scenic Ocho Rios that he loved so well.

He enrolled at David Lang and Dick College, a hotel school, and says now that his time in England did so much to expand his mind that he routinely sends away thousands of people, mostly staff, to similarly expand their thinking. But England would be more than school.

Partying in Europe

Butch was not there long before his place of residence became the party centre. He made many friends and travelled all over Europe. “We went to Denmark, Germany, Holland, Italy, France, Switzerland and many other places. At the time, England had only one highway, the M1, while Germany had many massive ones. In Denmark, I dove into the water and it felt as if I had electrocuted myself. I never felt water so cold and I immediately remembered the warm sea water at Ocho Rios! But I was struck by the cultural differences in Europe,” he remembers.

Many Jamaicans found their way to the residence at Earl's Court where Butch lived with Sharpe and George Myers. “We burnt the candle from all five ends,” he jokes. “We went up and down England, Scotland, Wales partying but still managed to get up and go to school. We lived every second of the time there. We never missed a major event, from tennis at Wimbledon, to soccer, to cricket, to formula one races, horse-racing — someone in the group would always be able to get tickets. One morning when we woke up after a swinging party, there were about 20 people at the small apartment and they were from all over the British colonies.”

But the fun and games had to come to an end. In preparation to return to Jamaica and Arthur Gray Limited, Butch spent a month at a distillery called Bush, remembering that he one day persuaded the staff not to throw away a five-gallon bottle of gin. He took it home and threw a gin party which lasted for a whole weekend. “People had headaches for a week,” he laughs heartily in recollection. Then he came home.

“My time in England left a great impression on me. It opened up my mind to what the world was and had to offer,” he reflects. Memories of the Second World War 15 years earlier were still fresh and England was still in reconstruction mode, Butch says.

“Many people there had lost relatives in the war, but the spirit of the British was impressive. They did not let the horrors prevent them from thinking bright and cheerful. It was a country with a lot of history. So too was Europe, a continent with a great history, and all of that experience firmly planted at the back of a young head that there were immense opportunities that were available to people who were willing to get up and go.”

Independence fever

Butch came home in 1962 and found the island in the midst of Independence fever. He spent some time catching up with old friends, saying it seemed like an eternity since he had last seen them. He could not wait to resume his water-skiing, skin-diving, fishing, spear-fishing, and the other water sports he had come to love from childhood. And, of course, the parties at Duke Street, Melrose, the famous Glass Bucket, swimming at Bournemouth, which were all a staple of the young man's life. Truly, life was just for living.

John Pringle, Abe Issa

All the time that this was going on, Butch had been making a mental note of the activities of the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) and people like John Pringle, its director. The news about the Jamaican tourism industry and the world-famous people who used to visit Jamaica was always refreshing to him.

“I remember clearly an announcement that Jamaica was the first Caribbean or Third World country to be on US television, projecting our beautiful country into the homes of Americans in a tourism commercial.”

He somehow knew that something would come of this interest he had in tourism, but for the moment he did not know what. Years later he would also remember Pringle and Abe Issa, sitting on the verandah of the Terra Nova Hotel in St Andrew and encouraging him when he made the first tentative steps into the industry.

But now he turned his attention to something he knew about — selling. He got a job at Curacao Trading Company, a Dutch commission agency which represented many top brands. It had a small office at Princess Street and flagged the Panasonic brand. Butch's job was to promote sales of radios and phonographs.

A love affair with work

Rolf DeGroot, the Dutchman who was running Curacao Trading, could not help noticing how Butch applied himself to the job as if this were a love affair and not quite work. DeGroot liked that and he thought to himself that with the right coaching, the young man could go far in the business. He decided to spend time helping Butch to sharpen his business habits. Butch soaked up everything he could learn from the elder salesman. “I took on the responsibility like a good truck takes on a load,” he says now.

Butch's station wagon laden with transistor radios, batteries, phonographs and the like became a familiar sight, day or night it did not matter, in the nooks and crannies of the island. So too were the charm, the smooth sales talk and the lively personality of the salesman from Kingston. Within two years, the company had dominated the market.

In the meantime, Butch had made friends with John DeLisser, who ran Brandon and Company on Harbour Street, dealing in hotel supplies. That company represented Admiral, the big manufacturer of fridges, air-conditioners, stoves and television sets. Brandon asked Curacao Trading to handle the Admiral brand and Butch went to town. By the time he left the company, at age 27, his department was hauling in revenues 11 times the amount of all the other departments combined.

A sad farewell

When Butch knocked and entered DeGroot's office one very bleak Monday morning, the Dutchman sensed immediately that whatever he had come to say, it was not going to be good news. He was somehow expecting it, but when young Stewart told him he was leaving, he could not help the wave of sadness which washed over him. He had gotten to like this dynamo and he hated to see him go. But he knew that Curacao Trading could not hold him forever. Undoubtedly, there was greater fish to fry. DeGroot composed himself and wished him well. The two would remain good friends.

Butch had planned for this day when he would leave Curacao Trading. For years he had nursed a growing ambition to go into business on his own and the itch had got worse as time went by.

While at Curacao Trading, he had entered into a partnership with a friend called Richard DeCasseres in a pest control company and spent two weeks learning how to treat rodents and termites, working mostly on weekends and after hours. But here again, that was not Butch Stewart, and the partnership was always in danger.

The amazing R Danny Williams

While there too, he had met R Danny Williams, a remarkable businessman and trailblazer, as Butch remembers him. Williams was running North American Life, which eventually became Life of Jamaica (LoJ) and offered Butch a job to sell insurance. He started insurance sales training but soon found that yes, it was in sales, but insurance did not turn him on.

What was it that Butch Stewart wanted? What did he know but didn't know? And where was life taking him? For his part, he had not a clue. But he knew he was on the right path and he would soon know.

In the meantime, his respect for Danny Williams, who later became a minister of industry in the Michael Manley Administration, had deepened, to the point that when Williams was starting LoJ he took shares in it just to support him, recalling that it was one of only two companies in which he had bought shares. In any event, he was plotting his way to his own business. But that would have to wait for just a little while.

Marrying Erica Sturrock

Erica Sturrock had gone to art school in England and when she returned, Butch's loving arms were waiting. In September 1963, he married the woman he loved and started a family with her. This, of course, meant the need for more income.

On the eve of leaving Curacao Trading, he was visiting New York one day when out of the blue it hit him that Fedders air-conditioning units were very popular in the Big Apple. Yet he had not seen the brand in Jamaica. Here indeed was an opportunity, Butch felt, and the thought stayed with him throughout his visit. Then an idea struck him.

Back in Jamaica, he did up a business plan and submitted it with a cover letter to the Fedders people in New York, offering to represent them in Jamaica. Within two weeks they responded, with both good and bad news. 'Yes' they would like to sell in Jamaica, but 'no', he was too small. Fedders was a humongous company operating across the United States and Butch's $3,200 plan was peanuts to them.

“Well, all I wanted to know was that they were interested. I hopped onto the first plane to New York and headed down to Edison, New Jersey where the Fedders factory was,” Butch recounts. “My plan was to preach my way into a Fedders franchise for Jamaica.”

At last 'Butch' Stewart now knew what destiny had been preparing him for all this time and the moment was here. There was no way he was going to let it go.

“It was tough going. I was faced with a formidable bureaucracy. They were just afraid to get involved with a start-up company,” Butch explains. What Fedders did not know, of course, was that they were dealing with Gordon Arthur Cyril “Butch” Stewart, man of destiny.

“I met a young fellow, Bruno Giordano Jnr, the nephew of the president of the company. He was my age and he was in charge of exports. We had many things in common and we hit it off. We talked the same language and I found that we had similar ambitions — to make Fedders Export the number one in the US. Giordano decided to give me a chance.”

Appliance Traders

Butch left for Jamaica that same afternoon. He was a happy man. It was the year 1968. He had pledged to the young executive that he would not let him down and he would make him proud and he planned to do just that. He gathered his thoughts, worked out what he had to do and wrote a letter of resignation to DeGroot, giving him three months' notice. He didn't just want to leave him in a lurch. This place had been good for him. “In the meantime I worked like a slave right up to the last day. I wanted to leave on the best possible erms.”

That decision not to burn his bridges behind him was good thinking and it paid off, because Curacao Trading became Butch's best customer for Fedders air-conditioning units. And with 5,000, Butch established Appliance Traders on the first day of June 1968 at Dr Billy Escoffrey's old office at Caledonia Avenue in Cross Roads. He had laid the first building blocks to the vast empire that would, in time, come to be the largest private sector employer of labour in Jamaica, and herald a new dawn in Caribbean tourism.

Tomorrow: Ditching Manley, embracing Seaga, and Sandals is born

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