Just after 11 p.m. EST on January 4, news broke that Jamaican hotelier Gordon “Butch” Stewart, the self-made businessman who perfected the all-inclusive tourism model the Caribbean is famous for, had passed away at a Miami hospital at age 79. In keeping with his wishes, his family said that the nature of his illness would not be disclosed.
A passion for the Caribbean
In a statement on his father’s passing, Adam Stewart noted:
My Dad lived a big life – husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, entrepreneur, statesman, dreamer. A singular personality and an unstoppable force who revelled in defying the odds, exceeding expectations and whose passion for his family was matched only by the people and possibility of the Caribbean, for whom he was a fierce champion.
The 40 year-old, who has been the deputy chair of Sandals Resorts International for some time, will now take up his father's chairmanship of the business.
Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness reacted on his Facebook page:
It is with deep sadness that I learnt of the passing of one of Jamaica’s most brilliant, innovative and transformative business minds, the Honourable Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart […]
Butch was a man way ahead of his time, he had an eye for details and his ability to market and deliver world class service in any endeavor was tremendously distinctive. He was an extraordinary human being with an unwavering commitment to the social good. He has left his unmistakeable mark across the region and the world and we shall miss him dearly.
I send heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, and the thousands of employees whose lives he no doubt personally impacted. This loss is not just Jamaica’s, it is the Caribbean’s.
A natural salesman
Described as a “Caribbean super salesman” by radio talk show host Cliff Hughes, Stewart had been a dominant figure in both Jamaican business circles and the Caribbean tourism landscape since the 1980s.
To many Jamaicans, he was not only an astute business leader, but a patriotic figure who was not afraid to put his own stamp on national life and who made sure he had politicians’ ears on matters of public importance.
One such example is what came to be known as the “Butch Stewart Initiative”. During a major foreign exchange crisis in 1992, Stewart came to the aid of the sliding Jamaican dollar by injecting some of his own foreign currency into the formal banking system in order to stabilise it. With his usual humour, he defended his move as that of a “friendly speculator.”
Stewart's actions were widely praised. One of his collaborators in that initiative, Leachim Semaj, recalled:
Hail the man.
Gordon Butch Stewart.
Life well lived.
Once we were young. pic.twitter.com/RJlVy2CreZ
— Leahcim Semaj (@LSemaj) January 5, 2021
The 1990s also saw Stewart take on the daunting task of making Air Jamaica profitable. He invested privately in the national airline and served as its Chairman. At the time, his efforts were seen as a patriotic effort to keep the airline afloat. The company later changed hands and ceased operations altogether in 2015.
On social media, Jamaicans reacted with shock and sadness. As singer Nadine Sutherland observed, because of his high-profile presence, even those who had never met Stewart felt as if they knew him:
Funny things happen sometimes in our human journey. Like, you dont ‘know’ someone, yet, you kinda know them because of the years they've being an icon,a Jamaican one specifically.Yes, this news made me kinda sad this morning. RIP Butch Stewart.(Collage borrowed from Wayne Chen). pic.twitter.com/W4WNpSe3Tw
— NadineSutherland (@Nadinesutherlan) January 5, 2021
His staff shared that he was a kind and caring employer:
.We will live with the memories of his successes & his kindness to all he came in contact with..He had a heart of gold, his sense of humour & his love for his staff of many years. He never forgot them..May his soul Rest In Peace💔🙏Blessings to all his family @AdamStewart pic.twitter.com/R2Y6UGX0wB
— judz lanimac (@judzlanimac) January 5, 2021
The Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) expressed condolences on their Facebook page:
The PSOJ is deeply saddened at the news of the passing of The Hon. Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart […] His visionary and incisive leadership extended to numerous private sector entities including the PSOJ where he served as President from 1989-1990. Among his numerous local and international accolades was his induction into the Organisation’s Private Sector Hall of Fame in 1996. A true patriot and nation builder, Mr Stewart's exceptional legacy will be forever woven into the story of Jamaica and the Caribbean.
A world-class entrepreneur
Coming from fairly humble beginnings, Stewart was born in Kingston on July 6, 1941 and grew up in Ocho Rios, then a fishing village but now a tourist resort. Inspired by his parents’ entrepreneurial spirit, he started working in sales at age 16 but always had an eye for an opportunity. Air conditioning units were a rare commodity in Jamaica in 1968, so he became the local representative for the United States-based Fedders Air Conditioners through Appliance Traders Limited, a company he chaired up to the time of his death.
Stewart's journey in tourism began in 1981 when he bought and refurbished a run-down hotel in Montego Bay, turning it into an adults-only Sandals resort. He introduced innovative features and brought a unique Jamaican sensibility to the property.
The Sandals brand currently has 15 properties on six islands across the Caribbean and employs around 10,000 people.
Stewart's first overseas resort was in Antigua. In 1996, he introduced the Beaches brand for the family vacation market. Meanwhile, Sandals was being described as “the most popular award-winning, all-inclusive resort chain in the world”.
The obituary in the Miami Herald referred to Stewart, who had a cheery, ebullient and down to earth style of communicating, as a “one-man Caribbean conglomerate”.
Stewart was the recipient of numerous accolades over the years, including a 2019 World Travel Award for Outstanding Leadership in Social Responsibility. He was well known for his philanthropic efforts: the Sandals Foundation, launched in 2009, has supported hundreds of community-based projects in seven Caribbean countries, mainly in the fields of education, health, and the environment.
Many younger Jamaicans tweeted their thoughts on the inspirational business leader, including a reference to his trademark striped shirt:
I really liked Butch Stewart. Sincerely. As a younger man coming up in a 1990s Jamaica, he stood out to me re what’s possible. Never met him and sometimes it’s better that way. Never have to meet your heroes. So it is. Loved the bengal stripes. Sandals also. Still do. Walk good. pic.twitter.com/aylsyvEwsw
— Ryan Strachan (@5Solae) January 5, 2021
In 2020, as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the Caribbean tourism industry, Stewart poignantly echoed Bob Marley’s song “Three Little Birds” and remained optimistic, observing:
I don’t want you to worry, because everything will be just fine.
Summing up his business philosophy by saying, “I made sure that every customer got more than they expected to get,” it is clear that Stewart excelled at exceeding expectations throughout his life.