Jamaica’s first international superstar of business

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In this first of a three-part article previously published in the Sunday Observer , award-winning journalist Desmond Allen OD traces the early life of Gordon “Butch” Stewart and gets a peek into the events that shaped the future business mogul.

 

IT is perhaps to God or science that we will have to turn for an understanding of the deep mysteries and the unfathomable motivation behind the modern-day phenomenon that is Gordon “Butch” Stewart of Jamaica. What explains, for example, why an individual so accomplished would push himself so relentlessly beyond the borders of excellence, constantly shifting his own goal posts until even his detractors are forced to ask ‘What manner of man is this?’

Indeed, we have saved the best wine for the last, as this first series of wondrous tales of extraordinary Jamaicans, these living heroes of their times, comes to a close. Our children will read of them and need not look outside for examples that don’t relate to the context in which they live and breathe and have their being. And so we turn now to one of the most extraordinary of them all.

This final prose should be our magnum opus, but we must admit that at last the interviewer has met his match, has finally run out of words to adequately tell the story of Gordon Butch Stewart. So much has been said and written of him that one can only have pity for the poor scriptwriter who is assigned to pen the next citation to honour this compulsive overachiever.

Let’s poach terminology from sports and entertainment to say an incontrovertible truth — that Gordon Arthur Cyril Stewart, simply “Butch” to his legion of admirers — is truly Jamaica’s first international superstar of business.

Men fawn over people with money, perhaps because they would be beneficiaries themselves of what largesse there may be. But there comes a time, a rare moment even, when honour must be given to whom honour is due. The virtual hero worship which surrounds Butch Stewart is firmly anchored in genuine admiration for his enormous skill as a marketer and entrepreneur extraordinaire, his depth of generosity bequeathed to him by his father, his own sense of honour and, importantly, his infectious joie de vivre.

It can’t be by mere accident, wouldn’t you agree, dear reader, that Butch Stewart has existed in this time, in this age when men seek for saviours but find they are few. Imagine for a moment, if you can, what Jamaica would have done without Stewart. We will attempt to tell this story, resting easy knowing that whatever deficiencies there are, it is a story that has already been told in its many facets, by writers great and small, over the many years of his relentless drive to achieve greatness for self and country.

No glitter, no glamour

And wouldn’t you know it, the Butch Stewart story began, not in the glitter and glamour of latter days, but in relative modesty in a time when his parents had to fend for themselves. Here indeed is a man of the people, a man from among us; eloquent in the vernacular, not averse to dropping or taking a six-love in dominoes — the people’s game. And men will remember and celebrate him as a local boy who made good.

For sure, his distant ancestry stretches back to colonial England but he knew what it was to be taken out of boarding school in Kingston because his parents could no longer afford the fees, and to be sent to the rough and tumble of a school where dropouts ruled tough.

Topless Joan Collins

It is a mixed bag, the antecedents of this Gordon Butch Stewart. His father, Gordon Leslie Cox, came to Jamaica from England as a baby of six months, and when the marriage of his parents went on the rocks, was adopted by a wealthy St Ann couple — Ethel and Cyril Stewart — distant relatives who changed his name to Gordon Leslie Stewart, later to be the legendary chief engineer at the then Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation ( JBC), the State-owned radio and television complex.

Intriguingly, Ethel Stewart who doted on the infant Butch, died, leaving her £1,000,000 fortune to charity. Butch’s dad therefore had to fend for himself, trying his hand unsuccessfully at business before finally taking a job to feed his family.

Well before he was 10 years old Butch learnt how to do what Jamaicans like to refer to as ‘hustle’, using creative ways to make money. He had an early obsession with the sea and, buying a boat, caught fish to sell to hotels and transported celebrities, including the actress Joan Collins, who shocked him by exposing her nude body on one of these trips to a Jamaican reef. He saved like mad to buy his boat. Later he bought old cars, fixed them, and sold them at a profit.

But it would be years hence that people would come to realise that all that was mere practise for the empire on the horizon. Some years ago his personal holdings were valued at a conservative US$1 billion and the respected Fortune magazine named him among the richest men in Britain, not bad for a boyhood fisherman.

Political shenanigans

As a salesman with an irresistible pitch, he built Appliance Traders Limited on some of the top brand names in the world; dreamed that he could conquer the world of tourism and built Sandals which today rates among the most luxurious hotel chains in the world; launched a newspaper that changed Jamaican journalism; and bought an airline that carried the hope and pride of a nation — the little piece of Jamaica that flies — but which defied his considerable genius in the face of political shenanigans.

And if his path would be lined with triumph and success, there too would be tragedy. In 1990 when a horrific traffic accident took the life of his son, Jonathan Stewart, on a Miami freeway, Butch mourned as only a loving father could. It is remembered that he would walk out of a board meeting, head for the accident site and plunge into deep, seemingly unreachable depression and remorse.

Across four sessions that stretched from Kingston to Miami, the interviewer followed this amazing, at times magical story that cannot be fully told within the confines of the pages of a newspaper.

To a life shaped by destiny itself, Butch Stewart was born on July 6, 1941, the first child of Jean Patricia nee Rerrie and Gordon Leslie Stewart, at Nuttall Memorial Hospital near Cross Roads. His siblings are Patricia, and Peter who is now deceased.

The name Butch stuck very early. According to family anecdote, the proud mother was showing off the newborn when in walked an officer of the Winnipeg Grenadiers, a Canadian regiment. “What am I going to call this child?” Jean asked no one in particular. “He is so fat you will have to call him ‘Butch’,” the officer said.

He has early recollections of life at Eastwood Park Road in St Andrew, a nice community where many people used to pass routinely through the Stewart home. “My father was a very entertaining person and he had many friends who would come by the house,” Butch remembers. “The house was full of laughter as my father was a man of great humour.”

Holidays with grandmother Ethel on her properties in Ocho Rios and Walkerswood, St Ann, were special. Grandmother drove a car and lived in a big house. “When the breeze blew it felt like the house was full of ghosts,” to the young child. He spent much time by the sea and the rivers, swimming and catching fish. From those early days Butch developed a love for the sea, having learnt to swim at the very early age of two and a half.

Kindergarten was at Holy Cross and St Hugh’s. Later, when his parents moved to Columbus Heights at Seville near Ocho Rios, Butch, eight years old, was left to board at Campion Hall, as Campion College was then called. He liked it at Campion and participated in football, cricket, track, and softball. Ronnie Nasralla was among his teachers there. “He showed tremendous interest in the young,” Butch recalls. Dr Coleman, who was in charge of the dorms, was very stern but had a big heart.

Most unlikely to succeed

He made good friends with people like Richard Stewart, now owner of Stewart’s Auto; Tony Burrowes; the Stafford brothers and Basil Chin from Spanish Town, among others. But while there Butch still yearned for the rural life by the sea that he used to enjoy when he visited his grandmother. The priests at Campion were reported to have made a dire prediction: that Butch and another boy with whom he was close were the two boys “most unlikely to succeed in life”. Suffice it to say that both boys would prove them wrong. And how!

Money was tight with the Stewarts and they decided they could no longer afford the fees at Campion. Butch was called home and sent to day school at Columbus Heights, outside St Ann’s Bay, remembering that he and a friend, Arthur Lowe, travelled to school on a church bus.

Butch didn’t mind leaving school in Kingston. He got the chance to go to the sea more often and to catch fish. He would sell the fish to the hotels and what was left he would sell to his parents at half-price, which they would buy just to humour him. More than anything else, he wanted to own a boat. When he had sold enough fish, and with assistance from his grandmother, he bought a bateau, a sort of half canoe.

James Bond’s

About 12 years of age he borrowed his father’s motorboat, convinced the filming crew of the James Bond movie Dr No that he had enough skill to transport crew members to a shipwreck site, and earned money doing so. He also similarly transported the British actress Joan Collins and could not believe his eyes when she took off her top, exposing her nudity to the bewildered boatman!

He was sent to the more affordable St Mary’s College, which was in its infancy at Above Rocks in the eastern parish. There he learnt to be tough. He had to. The students at the Roman Catholic-run institution were a mix of day students, like Butch, who were mostly from the area, and boarders who were dropouts who could not get into any other school.

“It was an experimental situation and so when I was 16, I found myself in a class with someone who was 26 years old,” Butch recalls. “The school had several gangs. If you could not stand up for yourself, you would have to take a lot of beatings from them.”

One bully punched Butch down after he refused to give up his lunch money. But he fought back and the bully never touched him again. He also remembers that the school had pit latrines and the students drank water from a standpipe. “None of these things hurt anybody and I did not feel as if anything was wrong,” Butch insists.

Grandmother Ethel dies

People like Brian Rosen and Winston Zaidie kept track of them. Butch especially liked it that St Mary’s College was co-educational, “which made life more interesting”. And he pays tribute to Father Chaney who developed the school and got funding out of Boston to keep it going. He was also fond of a teacher named Mr Barrett, remembering how he and the school had been traumatised when Barrett had a heart attack and died, after diving from the diving board into the pool. “It was the first death that was close to me up till that time. We were badly shaken.”

Another death, even closer home, would shatter his young life soon again. This time it was his grandmother, Ethel. This was 1955. He had loved this eccentric woman who loved cars and dogs and travelled the length and breadth of Jamaica visiting friends. She had often pulled him out of school to accompany her. Upon her death she left most of her money to staff and charity but she had also left him a small portion.

Many years thence, when he would manage Sandals Ocho Rios for the Ciboney people, the memories would be rekindled when Ethel Stewart’s house on the same site was converted into the hotel’s piano bar.

Collin Mills

The years in Ocho Rios were great though. He formed a lifetime friendship with Collin Mills, now a businessman, whose mother worked at the time with Butch’s grandmother. Bauxite was the ore of the moment and when Reynolds came to Ocho Rios it transformed the town. His grandmother sold her farm to the company. His father operated the Bandana night club, bar and cafeteria complex, a rent-a-car agency, as well as a commission agency selling things like small appliances, batteries and flashlights, based on the business activities generated by Reynolds. The scenic north coast resort town was abuzz with construction and other professionals and Butch felt alive.

Daddy Stewart’s generosity and good humour stood out and his son took notice. He liked doing fun things. There was much drinking and carousing at the Bandana. Mr Stewart, being not quite the businessman, the drinks would often be on the house and he would lend his friends the rental cars.

“There was a time when my mother wanted a car to rent and all 16 of them had been lent out,” recounts Butch. But the father’s spirit of generosity would be passed down to the son, even though he would learn not to squander his earnings.

Ganja? No thanks!

Mother Jean provided the stability in the home, Butch says. “Her influence on me was such that although I had a group of friends who used to smoke ganja, I would only take a cigarette. My friends laughed at me but I could not get her words out of mind, to stay away from drugs.” His friends were the guys in the community and he recalls that there was not much of a middle class in Ocho Rios. “Everybody knew everybody and I can’t imagine a more protective community.”

Meeting Norman Manley

After Above Rocks, Butch went to work in the commission agency for his mother, who was now running it, selling refrigerators. By this time his father had gone to work with Reynolds as a radio operator on one of its bauxite ships and then onto JBC, as its first engineer. Butch remembers going into Kingston at age 16 with his father, who drove a Morris Oxford car, to meet Premier Norman Manley for a job interview. “When Manley came out to meet my father he shook my hand,” he recalls with pride. “We had always heard of politicians like him and it was an exciting time for me.” Butch could not know then that in time he and Manley’s son, Michael, would be locking horns.

Butch spent three months with his mother but soon realised that the business was going nowhere. He got his driver’s licence and moved to Kingston to seek a job. In the capital he lived at cousin Howard Cox’s house at Havendale, near to Arnold Foote Jr with whom he became fast friends. Howard was fun-loving and he liked living there. Tony Hendricks’s dad, who was also a neighbour, got Butch a job at a company that made cashmere sweaters. His job was to maintain the machines and train the female employees to operate them. “I was also the office runabout. I used to collect the money and buy supplies for the business,” he recounts.

But something was not adding up. Butch was feeling increasingly depressed about the job. He was putting his all into it but getting no satisfaction from it. One night in bed it suddenly struck him that the problem was the job. This was not what he had been dreaming about and not what he had come to Kingston for. He had trouble sleeping that night but before he finally trailed off, he had made up his mind what he had to do, and it had to be no later than tomorrow.

Tomorrow: A super salesman is unleashed

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