Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart, Founding father of Sandals Resorts, Dies at 79


Gordon Stewart, who bought a shabby beach hotel in his native Jamaica and built it into a chain of all-inclusive resorts as the founder of Sandals Resorts International, died Monday. He was 79 years old.

His death was confirmed in a statement from his family that gave no reason or where he died other than saying that he died in the United States.

His son Adam Stewart said in an interview Tuesday that his father’s death was related to a recent medical diagnosis that Mr. Stewart, known as Butch, kept private for not “wanting to be someone else’s burden”.

“He didn’t even want his closest friends to worry about him,” said Adam Stewart.

Despite his illness, Mr. Stewart worked long before the end of his life, his son said. Adam Stewart became Chairman of Sandals Resorts International after the death of his father.

Mr. Stewart started his resort business in 1981 when he invested the money he had made selling air conditioners in Jamaica to develop a hotel on the north coast of the island. Named Sandals Montego Bay, it would become the flagship of a chain of luxury vacation destinations. Sandals now operates 15 resorts, including six in Jamaica.

Mr. Stewart founded Sandals Resorts International with a couple-centric focus before branching out with the more family-oriented Beaches Resorts. That deal was going on when he died in St. Vincent and the Dutch island of Curaçao, his family said.

Gordon Arthur Cyril Stewart was born on July 6, 1941 in Kingston, Jamaica, the eldest of three children of Gordon Leslie Stewart and Jean (Townsend) Stewart. He grew up in St. Ann Parish on the north coast of the island. The family struggled financially and from a young age Mr. Stewart felt compelled to take an active role in helping them.

At the age of 12 he started selling freshly caught fish to local hotels. “He always called himself an old fisherman,” said his son. “The first boat he had was a dugout canoe made from an old tree.”

Mr. Stewart studied in England for about a year when he was in his late teens. He returned to Jamaica and took a position at the Dutch Curaçao Trading Company, where he became sales manager.

But he was dying to start his own business, the family said, and seized an opportunity in 1968 when he saw the appeal of air conditioning for people living in an island climate. He started his first company, Appliance Traders Ltd., after starting Fedders Corp. from Edison, New Jersey, to represent the brand in Jamaica.

From there, Mr. Stewart developed his overall business philosophy: “Find out what people want, give it to them and exceed their expectations.” This initially included a willingness to install air conditioners for his customers at any time of the day or night said his son.

Mr. Stewart’s work with the Sandals and Beaches resorts has resulted in senior positions in the Jamaica tourism industry, including a decade as director of the Jamaica Tourist Board. In 1992, his Butch Stewart initiative pumped $ 1 million a week into the foreign exchange market to halt the decline in the Jamaican dollar.

In 1994, he led a group of investors who took control of Air Jamaica, the Caribbean’s largest regional airline. He put together an investment group that paid $ 37.5 million for 70 percent of the airline and gave itself a 46 percent stake.

The move was a great public gesture that Mr Stewart became famous for, the New York Times reported in an article about the move.

At the helm of the troubled national airline, Mr. Stewart began adding routes and improving service. As part of the turnaround, he increased the airline’s turnover and gained market share from competitors.

“One thing you have to give Butch Stewart is he’ll try anything to make the company work,” Peter J. Dolara, then senior vice president of American Airlines, told The Times. “The man is a fierce competitor.”

In 2009, Mr. Stewart founded the Sandals Foundation, which supports school construction, education and access to health care on the islands where the company operates resorts. He has received the highest national awards in Jamaica, including the Order of Jamaica.

In addition to his son Adam, he is survived by his wife Cheryl. his mother Jean; a sister, Pat; three other sons, Brian, Bobby and Gordon; his daughters Jaime, Sabrina, and Kelly; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. A fifth son, Jonathan, died in a car accident in 1989. Mr. Stewart’s brother Peter died in 2004.

Adam Stewart summed up his father’s work ethic as “Grit, hard work and people first”.

“He surpassed the best of them,” said the son. “He always taught us that the fast path is not the right one.”