Ditching Manley, embracing Seaga…and Sandals is born

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In this final of a three-part article previously published in the Sunday Observer , award-winning journalist Desmond Allen, OD shares the high and low moments in the life of Gordon “Butch” Stewart. 

Whatever the reason for it, some people go through life never really knowing what it is that is their true calling. And so they flit from place to place, job to job, project to project, in an endless search for the true measure of their own souls. It is perhaps not for us, mere humans that we are, to decipher the code of our existence, but there comes a time when we need to know…and the sooner, the better.

Gordon “Butch” Stewart knew, from his eye was at his knee, that he wanted to sell stuff. Of course, at that time he didn’t know what he wanted to sell, only that it was his destiny to trade. But when you think of it, there are few things that engage the human spirit as when people are engaged in buying and selling: the meeting of the minds, the cut and thrust of the negotiation, the testing of the will and finally the agreement to exchange. In that moment, what is also frequently exchanged is a part of the character of each, and the potential for lasting relationships is built or destroyed.

When he had contributed enough to the coffers of others, Butch Stewart launched out on his own. With £5,000 he established Appliance Traders Limited (ATL) in a building leased from Pat and Peter Rousseau’s Key Homes at Caledonia Avenue, Cross Roads, refurbished it and set a blistering path, with Fedders air-conditioning units as its trump card. 

Rubbing shoulders with the jet set

Stewart, aged 27, had firmly planted his feet on the first rung of the ladder of success, marking the beginning of a magical journey to wealth and influence in which he would rub shoulders with the jet set — like having tea with Queen Elizabeth II — be courted by national leaders, adored by women and earn the adulation of his compatriots for giving his nation its first true international superstar of business, through his world-class Sandals brand of luxury hotels.

It was a dizzying climb from the hot, lazy summer days in the Ocho Rios of a distant time, when he learnt to protect himself from street toughs and sold fish to hotels to save to buy a boat. And Appliance Traders was only the culmination of the first phase.

In its first quarter, ATL surpassed, by 700 per cent, the budget constructed by Butch’s good friend Brian Mair of Mair Russell and Partners. Within 12 months, and against wicked competition from top firms like Wonards, ICD, Carrier and the like, the Fedders brand had become the number one room air-conditioner in Jamaica.

Very soon, Butch added other agencies such as Amana refrigerators, Columbus stoves and an array of stylish European appliances that Jamaican executives could not resist such as luxury office refrigerators and wine coolers out of Ignis, the Italian company later bought out by Phillips. Stewart drove himself as if work was going out of style.

“Time meant nothing to me. I was getting up at 5:00 am and going to bed at 1:00 am, and frequently enough, at 8:00 am the next day. We targeted the new villas being built in Runaway Bay, realising that they needed AC units for each room, which made it more attractive than selling to single residential homes,” he recounts. “They also needed big freezers and refrigerators. To me, the whole thing was like an adventure and I loved it.” 

Bad-mouthing competitors

Stewart admits that he had his fair share of critics and bad-mouthing by competitors, “but when you are busy, you don’t have time to notice”. His secret formula was in the quality of service. Everything ATL sold, it could repair and fast.

“Moments after a problem is reported, you’d hear our repair vehicle honking outside,” he exaggerates for emphasis. His team didn’t just stop there. “They’d change a light bulb in a high ceiling, fix a dripping pipe or clean up the place after working. People loved that, they tipped them and they talked. They were my best promoters,” says Butch.

He remembers two master technicians, a guy everybody called “Check” and Errol Lee, “one of the most brilliant technicians you could ever find”. “We could send him anywhere, anytime, day or night. But he had the distinction of writing off two motor vehicles in one day,” Butch laughs heartily in recollection.

Importantly, the relationship with New Jersey-based Fedders mushroomed. ATL could order AC units on Tuesday, have them shipped to New York by Friday and on the Jamaican wharves by the following Monday. This meant that ATL could deliver orders in record time. “This was integral to the efficiency of my business,” Stewart recounts.

By now he was travelling frequently, looking for new brands to sell and he wanted only the best. He would travel, say to Chicago on a Saturday, sleep all day Sunday and start meetings Sunday night. The US Midwest manufacturing belt became his stomping ground — winter or summer — and he acquired franchises like Tecumseh in Michigan; Hobart, the Rolls-Royce of commercial equipment; Mosler and Amana. Sometimes he took his technicians and at other times the sales people, saying “exposure is the best teacher”. 

Trepidation at ATL

By 1972 — four years after start-up — ATL had outgrown first, Caledonia Avenue and then offices at Marescaux Road. When the decision was taken to buy land at Half-Way-Tree Road — three lots for $160,000 — everyone was petrified that they had over-expanded. Even the staff who had seen the magic from day to day still underestimated the vision and determination of the chairman.

They opened at 35 Half-Way-Tree Road amid spectacular celebrations that would become the trademark of Butch Stewart. Over the years, more adjoining lands were acquired to accommodate a warehouse, showroom and administration.

Growth was even more rapid after that. By 1974, employment rose to 150 and counting. First came the acquisition of Webster Agencies, office equipment dealers from an old Jamaican family in 1975. Then came Caribrake in 1976. Both companies were turned from loss-making entities to vibrancy under strong management.

Turning his attention overseas, Stewart assisted some friends who had migrated to start a company selling Fedders AC units along the east coast of Florida. Once again, Fedders became the number one selling unit in South Florida. Then they took over the west coast. Butch was giving 10 days a month to that incredibly successful company — Appliance and Refrigeration — which stands today as a testimonial to Jamaican entrepreneurship.

But as he was building the empire in the early 1970s, a jealous mistress was vying for his attention…and caught it. 

Michael Manley’s Socialism

When Michael Manley stormed onto the political scene in the wake of the death of his great father, Norman Manley, Butch recalled the time many years before when he accompanied his own father, Gordon Stewart, to a job interview for the position of chief engineer for the coming JBC radio and television station. The then premier had delighted the young man by shaking his hand.

Now, like most Jamaicans at the time, Butch couldn’t help admiring Michael Manley. Never a man spake like this man! And his articulation of a new, wealthier Jamaica and empowerment for the poor moved him and a group of his friends — all young professionals who had caught the vision.

The buddies, led by Tony Alberga and Peter Rousseau, formed a supportive group called the New Light Committee and invited Butch to join. Someone suggested supporting the campaign of Eric Bell, a future finance minister in the Manley Administration.

“It was exhilarating. We were in the shops, in the streets, addressing forums all over. Eric had offices owned by Tonti Barrett. It was the most joyous period with all the excitement of victory for the People’s National Party (PNP) in 1972,” Butch remembers. “We celebrated for weeks.” 

Eric Bell was in shock

But by 1974, when Manley declared the PNP democratic socialist, the love affair was over. “Many of us felt deceived.” Butch says Bell was in shock but continued to toe the party line, although he would later resign at the behest of his wife and take a job with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington.

The group of buddies went into revolt, convinced that socialism was not relevant to Jamaica. As they wrestled with the development, one night they invited Arnold “Scree” Bertram, a sort of PNP ideologue, to explain the merits of democratic socialism. “He was a nice person and we liked him, but nobody was convinced, despite his persuasiveness,” Butch remembers. After that, many members of the New Light Committee migrated.

“The 70s proved to be a terrible period. Jamaica was getting poorer by the minute. The flight of capital, from the man who owned a rum bar to big business, was devastating, and the divisions in the society along political lines was rapidly destroying our beloved Jamaica,” he recalls. “The crime and violence had escalated. Almost overnight the places where friends used to gather and drink were becoming out of bounds.” 

Ditching Manley, embracing Seaga

The upshot was that he turned against Manley and the PNP and embraced Edward Seaga and the Opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) “in the hope of reversing the trend and saving Jamaica”.

“Many from the New Light Committee, but also many people who had nothing to do with politics, got active in the 1980 elections. We knew that what we were doing was right, when we saw the long lines at polling stations on October 30. Everyone wanted to vote, including invalids who had to be carried to dip their finger in the ink.”

The JLP won the elections by a landslide, the country settled down and the process of reconstruction began under the new prime minister, Edward Seaga, Butch says. The excitement behind him, he ended the relationship with his jealous mistress — elective politics — and turned his attention back to business. And just in time too. 

Sandals is born

The deLisser family in Montego Bay, who Butch remembers as the founding fathers of the hotel industry in that north coast tourism mecca, was selling the 52-room Carlisle and upscale Bay Roc hotels. That reignited his early interest in tourism and he remembered how, while in England, he had heard people talk about their dream of vacationing in Jamaica.

Bay Roc — current name Sandals Montego Bay — was closed at the time, and as Butch was to find out, in dreadfully dilapidated condition. He bought that first, paying down US$100,000 in 1981, but admits that had he not been a proud man and had given his commitment, he might have asked for his money back. Three weeks later he bought Carlisle, later renamed Sandals Inn.

A period of refurbishing and redevelopment followed, incorporating the work of Butch’s architect, Evon Williams, owner of Red Bones, and Edward D Stone, one of the greatest American architects who had taught Williams in New York. Butch chose the Club Med concept which had made it the top hotel chain in the world, but he wanted an even more luxurious operation.

At Carlisle he met the manager, Merrick Fray, “a wonderful gentleman” who became the first Sandals employee and who became managing director of Sandals Resorts.

In a brainstorming session in Miami, people were tossing around names when Adrian Robinson came up with ‘Sandals’. Everybody liked it, except Butch. But he let himself be persuaded, “being the democratic person that I am”. And Sandals changed the lives of the ATL family. They now had an international operation which meant doing things at international standards all of the time.

Butch used to be away from Jamaica half the time seeking business in the Middle East, the Far East, North America, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Canada, on grounds that “if you wait for the business it will never come”. As Sandals grew, he was away even more often, estimating that now he spends only about 25 per cent of his time on Jamaica’s shores, although he ploughs back all his profits into his beloved island. 

JHTA was never the same again

With his upbeat style and articulation of a new vision for tourism, his colleague hoteliers elected him president of the umbrella Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) from 1984 to 1988. The year before, he had undertaken the famous Save the Dollar Initiative when the Jamaican currency went into a nasty tailspin that triggered an unending price spiral and was slaughtering the Jamaican economy.

After his election, the previously reticent JHTA would never be the same again, quickly becoming known for initiatives like Crime Stop, that continues today. Butch set the pace by perfecting the Sandals ultra all-inclusive concept in Jamaica where he owns nine hotels, and then turned to another of his cherished dreams — building a Caribbean chain of hotels as a precursor to an international chain.

First he converted Michael Manley, who had spent his years in the wilderness of political opposition in introspection and transformation, telling him that he didn’t think he (Manley) believed in a local chain going regional. At the time, Butch was spending a half-day every month in discussions with the prime minister-in-waiting.

“He went ballistic on me, but when he returned to Government in 1989 he challenged local entrepreneurs to go the way of a Caribbean chain. That is all I wanted to hear.” 

Devastated by Jonathan’s death

Butch embarked on what he describes as “a decade of the most incredible development in tourism”, starting in Antigua and Barbuda. In a way it happened by accident, no pun intended. In 1990, Butch’s son Jonathan Stewart was killed in a car crash in Florida. He had loved his son to no end and his death devastated him. People say he would walk out in the middle of a board meeting, go to the crash site and plunge into deep remorse. “It was the worst period of my life,” Butch remarks.

Butch Stewart loves his children: Brian; Bobby and Jonathan, sons of Erica Stewart; Jamie and Adam, children of P J Stewart, the former Penelope Jane Foxley-Norris, a delectable English art teacher who swept Butch off his feet and whom he married in 1977 after his previous marriage ended; Sabrina and the twins Kelly and Gordon, children of Cheryl Hammersmith, his current wife.

“They are all remarkable young professionals,” says the proud father. The oldest ones either work or have worked with Sandals, including Brian who has since “done an exceptional job” with his own businesses — the swinging Margaritaville and Rainforest Seafoods. 

Sandals goes Caribbean

Still, Jonathan’s death was hard to take. Butch used to cool out in Antigua when he was tired, and for relief he went again to this island hideaway to heal his grief. It was while there that the opportunity to buy the Anchorage Hotel emerged and he took it, renaming it Sandals Antigua. St Lucia followed with three hotels, starting in 1992. Then came The Bahamas in 1994; followed by the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1996.

Butch contracted Miami-based Unique Vacations as the worldwide representative of Sandals, and with Sandals as its lone client, Unique has 250 employees working mainly out of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. As if that were not enough, he also acquired a luxury yacht he renamed Lady Sandals which has sailed the many seas heralding Jamaican and Caribbean tourism as an unofficial ambassador and frequently used by top local and regional officials to woo investors.

Butch did everything big and luxurious and profitable. After the Gulf War, he gave out US$1 million in vacation for war-weary soldiers and is still being thanked today. He established one of the largest training initiatives for hotel staff, through Hocking College in Ohio, USA. Over the years, an unending stream of some of the world’s most prestigious awards, too numerous to mention, followed him everywhere. 

The Jamaica Observer

Then he began to look outside of tourism to new enterprises to test his mettle. In 1992, partnered by Delroy Lindsay and Ken Gordon, he pumped millions of dollars into giving Jamaica its 20th daily newspaper, ignoring dire warnings that the island was a cruel cemetery for newspapers, most of which had folded within the first five years. The Jamaica Observer, having surpassed the over century-and-a half-year-old competitor on weekdays, has set its sights on becoming market leader on Sundays as well. But the next enterprise would not fare as well. 

Nightmare at Air Jamaica

Air Jamaica, the national airline known as the Love Bird was in dire straits and in imminent danger of crashing out of existence when the Government decided to sell it. After several bids failed, Butch Stewart entered the picture in 1994, backed by the National Commercial Bank — the Air Jamaica Acquisition Group (AJAG). He quickly reimaged the airline, introduced unprecedented innovations such as on-time no-line schedules, champagne flights and the flying chef; bought new state-of-the-art planes and rekindled the pride of the nation in the little piece of Jamaica that flies. Air Jamaica soared again. But that wasn’t enough.

“Partnering Air Jamaica with the Government was a nightmare,” he says. “They didn’t want to do any of the work and they didn’t keep their promises. We just kept on doing and presuming that the promises would be fulfilled. They never materialised. Our debt-swap agreement reached in 1999 to be signed ‘next week’ was never signed.”

And so, on the day before Christmas Eve, 2004, the nation was shocked to hear the announcement that AJAG had handed back the airline to the Government. Stewart had had enough of the political shenanigans. It was a hard decision. He had put his life into making the airline viable, putting his lifelong marketing skills and considerable business savvy on the line. And he hurt. But looking on the bright side he could now pay more attention to his other enterprises with the time he used to devote to Air Jamaica. What is Air Jamaica’s loss will be to the gain of Sandals, ATL and the Jamaica Observer

How will men speak Butch Stewart’s name?

Yet, amidst the disappointment, Butch Stewart says: “If I were called upon again, I would assist the airline. It is Jamaica’s and there is nothing I wouldn’t do for my country. But I wouldn’t be caught again in believing that everybody is interested in the success of the airline.”

And Alas! We have once again run out of space. The story of the Hon Gordon Arthur Cyril “Butch” Stewart, OJ belongs in the best-seller category of the world’s book stores. In the end, dear reader, the question is how will future men speak his name? What will he be most remembered for? How would Jamaica have fared without him? Whatever else they will say, we know that they will hail Butch Stewart as a giant of his time and his name will live forever in the hearts of men and women.

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