The tourism world is mourning the passing of Sandals Resorts founder Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart who died on Monday in Miami after a short illness, aged 79.
He became one of the most successful Jamaican businessmen ever, running a string of companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
All told, Stewart spearheaded two dozen diverse companies that collectively represent the largest private sector group in Jamaica, the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner and its largest non-government employer.
He was fuelled by a dogged passion for hard work, duty to country and love of family who always seems to be having the most fun. “Honestly, I’ve never worked a day in my life,” he joked.
Stewart was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1941. He grew up on the north coast, where he got the nickname “Butch” from an American sailor which stuck.
After being educated in England, Stewart worked for Dutch-owned Curaçao Trading Company, before leaving to found his own firm, Appliance Traders.
But his real breakthrough came in April 1981, when he bought two derelict hotels, renovated them and reopened as the Sandals Resort Beach Club, later known as Sandals Montego Bay. That’s despite no previous experience in the hotel industry. He defined Sandals from the other competition by creating Jamaica’s first ‘all-inclusive’ resorts with a much higher quality service than elsewhere. From there his empire grew - eventually making up 25 resorts across the Caribbean.
As well as Sandals Resorts, Stewart founded Beaches Resorts, The ATL Group and The Jamaica Observer.
Perhaps less well-known is the extent of his considerable philanthropy. Sandals supports almost 300 major projects in its host communities through its philanthropic arm, the Sandals Foundation, founded in 2009. Beyond the Foundation, in Jamaica, Stewart stepped in to revive the economy by donating $1 million to stop inflation and adjust the exchange rate.
During the Persian Gulf War, Stewart gave over $1 million in free vacations at Sandals Resorts to Operation Desert Storm veterans and their guests. After Operation Iraqi Freedom, he donated $2 million in complimentary vacations to active members of the United States armed forces.
Stewart was a recipient of Jamaica’s highest national distinctions, including the Order of Jamaica.
He is survived by seven children and his wife, Cheryl. His son, Adam Stewart - deputy chairman of Sandals - told the Jamaica Observer: "This news seems almost unbelievable, since he was as involved and forward-thinking as ever. He chose to keep a very recent health diagnosis private and we respected that wish.
"There will never be another quite like him and we will miss him forever."
Tributes have poured in for the popular entrepreneur, including from Cayman’s Moses Kirkconnell, Deputy Premier and Tourism Minister. He said: “Making a positive impact on the lives of others is a noble legacy and undeniably, one which the friends and family of the late Gordon “Butch” Stewart are undoubtedly proud of when thinking of him. His vision for Sandals Resorts — one of the first all-inclusive holiday vacation opportunities in the Caribbean —along with the other endeavours in his vast portfolio created opportunities for the country of Jamaica and the Caribbean to shine in the international market.
“As a fellow entrepreneur and colleague in tourism, it was a privilege to have had the opportunity to develop a relationship with Mr. Stewart throughout the years. His larger-than-life personality and keen business acumen earned him the distinction of being recognized as an iconic Jamaican businessman. Butch was a tourism magnate, earning him many accolades and national distinctions including ‘Travel Man of the Millennium’ for his work in promoting Caribbean tourism and the Caribbean World Magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in Jamaica.
“On behalf of The Cayman Islands Government, Ministry and Department of Tourism, we extend our most sincere condolences to his family and friends at this time. We celebrate the lifetime of achievements that Mr. Stewart contributed to the Caribbean. He will be missed.”