Gordon “Butch” Stewart, the Jamaican-born hospitality and hotel mogul who founded one of the most well known all-inclusive luxury vacation brands in the Caribbean, Sandals Resorts International, has died. He was 79.
Son and business partner Adam Stewart announced his father’s death Monday in a memo to corporate employees. He described the ground-breaking entrepreneur’s death as “almost unbelievable” given his continued involvement in the business and his “forward thinking” about the company’s future.
“He chose to keep a very recent health diagnosis private and we respected that wish,” Adam Stewart said in the memo shared with the Miami Herald. He did not give a cause of death. The Jamaica Gleaner reported that he died on Monday in Miami.
Once described by late Miami Herald Latin American Editor Don Bohning as “a one-man Caribbean conglomerate,” Stewart owned or controlled during his career a resort chain, an airline, a newspaper and a trading company that dabbled in everything from air conditioners to automobiles.
At one point, he was considered Jamaica’s largest private employer..
“He was a marketing genius and talented showman,” Adam Stewart said. “But those who knew him best recognized that he was a dreamer who could dream bigger and better than anyone. It was often said ‘the best thing for people around him to do is be dream catchers.’”
He added: “I remind you today of all days, that we will all continue to be his dream catchers.”
Jamaica Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett called Stewart a “tourism stalwart.”
“Butch was truly an icon and innovator, philanthropist and perhaps the greatest marketer tourism has ever seen,” Bartlett said. “Sandals is indeed the largest and most enduring brand created by a Caribbean entrepreneur in tourism and arguably the world today and the standard by which luxury All Inclusive is judged. I hail him as a father, leader, benefactor, and the greatest tourism entrepreneur of our time.”
Born in Kingston on July 6, 1941, to working-class parents, Gordon “Butch” Stewart grew up in Ocho Rios on Jamaica’s northern coast. He was self-made and started his entrepreneur career in the late 1960s in the air conditioning business. In 1968, he left a Dutch trading company and with $3,200 launched Appliance Traders, which at the time distributed and serviced air conditioners.
The business was so successful, largely in part due to air conditioning just becoming a big deal in Jamaica, that a year after founding the company, Stewart bought the office and warehouse he had rented with cash.
But it would be Stewart’s hotel business that would make him one of the most recognizable names in Caribbean tourism and give him the reputation as a shrewd businessman around the region. Politicians butted heads with him, feared his wrath and welcomed his deep pockets.
Stewart got into the hospitality business in 1981 when he bought a rundown beachfront hotel in the Bay Roc area of Montego Bay as a real estate investment. He then turned it into Sandals Montego Bay, the precursor to his chain of resorts. He would launch Beaches in December 1996.
Not everything he led would become a success. He privately invested in Air Jamaica in the 1990s, serving as its chairman, but struggled to keep the business afloat. The airline, Jamaica’s national carrier, eventually changed hands before ceasing operations in 2015.
In the 1990s, Stewart made South Florida the gateway to his resorts as he expanded across the Caribbean region. Located in Kendall, Stewart’s Unique Vacations was the worldwide telemarketing representative for Sandals and in the late ‘90s employed more than 200 workers, including reservation agents.
While Sandals resorts are designed for couples, sister chain Beaches welcomes families and singles for all inclusive vacations where room, meals, snacks, sports, entertainment and drinks are included in a single price.
In 1997, while discussing his business ventures and travel between four offices in Kingston, Montego Bay, London and Kendall, Stewart told the Miami Herald, “This past year, I don’t think I’ve been in one of them for more than two days at a time.”
At the time, Stewart was not just running Sandals and Beaches, but also Air Jamaica and 24 other businesses under his ATL Group holding company. They included automobile franchises and companies that made brake fluids, air filters and clutches. He also ran Canon copiers and office supplies distributorships.
At the time of his passing, Stewart was working on plans for the recently announced expansions to the Dutch island of Curaçao, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
In a statement, Turks and Caicos Islands Premier Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson called Stewart’s passing “a Caribbean loss.”
She and the businessman, as of late, had an often contentious relationship.
Four years ago, Cartwright-Robinson was forced to defend her campaign’s relationship with Stewart amid accusations that she and her slate of candidates in the People’s Democratic Movement had cut a secret deal with the Jamaican hotelier involving unpaid gratuities for hospitality workers and work permits for foreigners. Cartwright-Robinson said at the time there was “absolutely no deal” with Stewart.
Most recently, the two had been in a bitter public dispute over Stewart’s decision to delay reopening his resort there amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as taxes. Cartwright-Robinson accused Beaches of publishing unnecessary and misleading press statements.
Not known to mince words, Stewart referred to the current Turks and Caicos government in an October 2020 statement as “the most ineffective” Sandals has ever “had to deal with when compared to the other jurisdictions in which we operate.”
Local press in the Turks and Caicos reported last month that both sides eventually resolved the controversial accommodation tax issue, though details were not disclosed.
“We as a region should be proud of his achievements and what he has done for the Caribbean internationally and locally in the countries where he has invested,” she said.
In 2013, Sandals found itself entangled in another controversy in the British dependent territory after a former senior Sandals employee was linked to transactions involving former Turks and Caicos government officials in the Progressive National Party during a corruption probe by the British and U.S. governments.
A statement issued by the Special Investigation Prosecution Team from the United Kingdom said that an agreement had been reached with Sandals to recoup $12 million.
Stewart’s companies are wholly owned by the Stewart family, who has named Adam Stewart the chairman of Sandals Resorts International. In addition to Adam, Stewart is survived by his wife, Cheryl, and six other children, 12 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his son Jonathan, who was killed in 1989 at the age of 24 in a car accident in Miami.
A private funeral service will be held. Those wishing to share memories, condolences or personal stories are invited to do so at [email protected].