Tributes continues to pour in for Jamaican entrepreneur Gordon “Butch” Stewart, chairman and founder of the iconic Sandals Resorts brand, who passed away on Monday (Jan. 4) in Miami, Florida, at age 79.
In a memo to the Sandals Group on Monday, Adam Stewart, Gordon's son, said his father succumbed to a “very recent health diagnosis,” the details of which are being kept private.
“There will never be another quite like him and we will miss him forever," wrote Adam Stewart.
Sandals Resorts International, the parent company of Sandals and Beaches Resorts, remains wholly owned by the Stewart family, who, in honor of Mr. Stewart’s long-term succession plans, has named Adam Stewart Chairman of Sandals Resorts International, extending his formidable leadership of the brands he has shepherded since he was appointed CEO in 2007.
Mr. Stewart's estimated billion-dollar Jamaican-based empire includes 24 Caribbean properties, Appliance Traders, ATL Automotive, ATL Autobahn and the Observer media company.
A "travel & tourism icon"
The Jamaica Tourist Board issued a statement on Tuesday (Jan. 5), hailing Mr. Stewart as a “travel and tourism icon.”
Chairman of the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) John Lynch spoke of Stewart’s commitment to excellence.
“I have had the privilege of working with Mr. Stewart over many years, and his passion and vision for tourism in Jamaica and across the wider Caribbean region is unparalleled,” said Lynch in a statement. “He will be remembered for his groundbreaking work in growing the all-inclusive concept here and in the Caribbean and we’re confident his rich legacy will be preserved.”
A leader in hospitality
Stewart was a leader in the hospitality industry, influencing the all-inclusive resort in a way that reshaped the notion of luxury.
A recipient of the Order of Jamaica and the Commander of the Order of Distinction, Stewart was born in Kingston on July 6, 1941.
He grew up along the island country’s North Coast, a tropical paradise that now boasts several of his “Luxury-Included” Sandals and Beaches Resorts and where his love of the sea, dominoes and free enterprise were sown.
At age 12, Stewart first stepped into the hospitality industry selling fresh-caught fish to local hotels.
“His success got him ‘hooked’ and his enthusiasm for entrepreneurship never waned,” wrote Sandals Resorts International in an official obituary released on Tuesday.
In 1968, recognizing the comfort that would make air conditioning an essential service, Stewart founded his own business, Appliance Traders Limited (ATL).
Through this, Stewart developed a simple business philosophy: “Find out what people want, give it to them and in doing so - exceed their expectations," the company said.
This attitude would become the standard for every Stewart enterprise and practiced by every employee of the many companies Stewart would go on to found, including and perhaps most importantly, Sandals Resorts International, the company said.
The launch of Sandals Montego Bay
In 1981, with a gift for recognizing opportunity, Stewart found one in Bay Roc: a rundown hotel on a magnificent beach in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Seven months and $4 million in renovations later, Sandals Montego Bay would open as the flagship of what is today the most popular award-winning, all-inclusive resort chain in the world.
While Stewart never laid claim to inventing the all-inclusive concept, he is recognized worldwide for his tireless effort to elevate the experience, delivering to his guests an unsurpassed level of luxury, and to share his certainty that a Caribbean company could successfully compete with any organization in the world.
A lasting legacy
According to the JTB, Stewart was “not only a champion of hospitality, but his philanthropy and generous spirit was evident in many other areas of his life, having contributed to education and to community with the establishment of the Sandals Foundation.”
Mr. Stewart, notably, served two stints at the JTB as a member of the Board of Director.
From September 1984 to March 1986 and February 1989 to July 1997, his contribution “helped to make Jamaica a world-class destination,” said the JTB.
Donovan White, Jamaica’s Director of Tourism, Jamaica’s “tourism is richer” for Mr. Stewart’s “exceptional leadership and unstoppable vision,” a legacy that he said the country will continue to build upon.
“The industry has lost a tourism giant, and though I never had the privilege of working with Mr. Stewart, I feel like I know him personally, because the evidence of his hard work, passion, love for Jamaica, dedication and commitment to excellence is unmistakably evident around us,” said Mr. White in a statement. “Jamaica and the Caribbean have benefitted significantly from his insights and investment in travel and tourism and there are many who’ve attested to the impact of his tutelage.”
“We wish his family and the wider tourism and business community strength and comfort during this time. May his soul rest in peace and God grant strength to his bereaved family.”
Stewart’s leadership helped resurrect Jamaica’s travel industry and earned him the respect of his peers and the admiration of his countrymen.
He was elected President of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica in 1989 and was inducted into its "Hall of Fame" in 1995.
He served as a Director of the Jamaica Tourist Board for a decade and as President of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association in the mid-80s, ably balancing government and private sector priorities, reconciling the concerns of large and small Jamaican hotels, and raising public understanding of the tourism industry.
In 1994, Stewart led a group of investors to take leadership of Air Jamaica, the Caribbean’s largest regionally based carrier.
With this, he opened new routes in the Caribbean, brought on new Airbus jets and established a Montego Bay hub for flights coming from and returning to the United States.
Just as with ATL and Sandals Resorts, Stewart’s formula proved successful and in late 2004, Stewart gave the airline back to the government with an increase in revenue of over US$250 million, his company said.
It was not the first time Stewart would come to the aid of his country.
In 1992, he galvanized the admiration of Jamaicans with the “Butch Stewart Initiative,” pumping US$1 million a week into the official foreign exchange market at below prevailing rates to help halt the slide of the Jamaican dollar.
Less well-known may be the extent of Stewart’s considerable philanthropy, where for more than 40 years he has helped improve and shape the lives of Caribbean people.
His work, formalized with the creation in 2009 of The Sandals Foundation, offers support ranging from the building of schools and paying of teachers to bringing healthcare to the doorsteps of those who cannot afford it.
This in addition to his tireless support of a wide range of environmental initiatives.
Beyond the work of the Foundation, Stewart has given millions to charitable causes such as celebrating the bravery of veterans and first responders and helping those in the wake of devastating hurricanes.
Stewart’s successes in business and in life have earned him more than 50 well-deserved local, regional, and international accolades and awards.
“There is an indomitable spirit that resides in the bosom of Jamaica, and when liberated with focus, discipline, and purpose rises and takes the world along with its imagination and energy. Our “Butch”, like Bob and Bolt, represents this cultural spirit of the ages. It is born to be brash, brave and brilliant, constituting a cascading commitment to nation building and regional renaissance,” wrote Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of The University of the West Indies on Tuesday.
“Our Butch was the ‘stewart’ of this spirit and gave to Jamaica, the Caribbean and the world a performance of sheer class with cool runnings—a ‘sandalization’ of awe and amazement.”
“If you are going to lead, you have to participate"
Mr. Stewart’s greatest test came in 1989 when his beloved 24-year-old son Jonathan was killed in a car accident in Miami.
Stewart recalled the incident in a 2008 interview: “For two months after he died, I was absolutely useless, and after that I was sort of running on remote control. Things were a blur. It’s every parent’s nightmare. After a year or so, I started to see things in vivid detail. You have to get busy, be close with your family. It did a lot in terms of me getting closer. There’s a lot more satisfaction.”
Stewart was able to return to his relentless pace, and the consensus among those who knew him best is that he did it by leading by example, the company said.
“If you are going to lead, you have to participate,” Stewart was fond of saying.
An "unstoppable force"
Speaking on behalf of the family, Adam Stewart said, “our father was a singular personality; an unstoppable force who delighted in defying the odds by 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.”
“Nothing, except maybe a great fishing day, could come before family to my dad. And while the world understood him to be a phenomenal businessman – which he was, his first and most important devotion was always to us.”
“We will miss him terribly forever.”
Andrew Holness, Prime Minister of Jamaica, expressed his condolences via Twitter on Monday night, writing:
"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 endeavour 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 & the world & we shall miss him dearly.”
The Prime Minister added that "this loss is not just Jamaica’s it is the Caribbean’s."
Gordon “Butch” Stewart is survived by his wife, Cheryl, children Brian, Bobby, Adam, Jaime, Sabrina, Gordon, and Kelly; grandchildren Aston, Sloane, Camden, Penelope-Sky, Isla, Finley, Max, Ben, Zak, Sophie, Annie and Emma; and great grandchildren Jackson, Riley, Emmy and Willow.
A private funeral service will be held, Sandals International said.
Those wishing to share memories, condolences or personal stories may do so at AllThatsGood@sandals.com.
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