‘Butch’ Stewart passes

‘There will never be another quite like him’

Founder and chairman of the ATL Group of Companies, Gordon “Butch” Stewart passed away last night. He was 79.

Stewart, who is also chairman of the Jamaica Observer, will be most remembered for his multiple award-winning Sandals and Beaches Resorts, which helped to establish the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, as a world-class tourist destination.

Last night, his son Adam, who is deputy chairman of the ATL Group, said his father’s passing was “almost unbelievable”, since he was as involved and forward-thinking as ever.

“He chose to keep a very recent health diagnosis private and we respected that wish,” the younger Stewart said.

“He was a marketing genius and talented showman, but those who knew him best recognised 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.’ That’s why he always credited his success to the incredible team around him, why he listened intently when it came to creating innovative things that would excite and delight our guests, and why it is so important that I remind you today, of all days, that we will all continue to be his dream catchers.”

“Together, we have all been part of something bigger than ourselves, led by a man who believed in us and who gave us opportunities to learn, grow, and the tools to make dreams real. For him, and because of him, we will continue to dream big and deliver on his certainty that true luxury is always best enjoyed by the sea.

“My Dad lived a big life – husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, entrepreneur, statesman, dreamer. A singular personality and an unstoppable force who revelled in defying the odds, 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.

“There will never be another quite like him and we will miss him forever.”

Stewart’s accomplishments in tourism and business in general won him many awards and honours, most notably the Order of Jamaica. He was also invested as Commander of the Order of Distinction.

In 2001 he received the honorary Doctor of Laws degree from The University of the West Indies and then from the University of Technology, Jamaica in 2009.

In 1992, Stewart was presented with the Dr Martin Luther King Jr Humanitarian Award from the Jamaica/America Society, and Ernst & Young saw it fit to name him Master Entrepreneur of the decade of the 90s.

Born on July 6, 1941, the first child of Jean Patricia nee Rerrie and Gordon Leslie Stewart, at Nuttall Memorial Hospital near Cross Roads in Kingston, Gordon Arthur Cyril Stewart, simply “Butch” to his legion of admirers, was truly Jamaica’s first international superstar of business.

The virtual hero-worship which surrounded him was 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.

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. He was a man of the people; 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.

His father, Gordon Leslie Cox came to Jamaica 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. 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 practice for the empire on the horizon.

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 that 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.

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