The Legend, His Legacy, and the One Love that Drove Him
The true Gordon “Butch” Stewart story is proof that a person with big ideas and a huge heart can make a community, a country, and the world better for being in it.
An old fishing rod and the bluest ocean with no end in sight.
Before there were 19 Sandals and Beaches Resorts, before there was even much interest in Jamaica outside of Jamaica, there was this little boy on the coast of Ocho Rios, waiting for his fishing line to go taut. He didn’t hope for bites. He expected them. He would tell you that he lived in paradise, after all, on the rim of the gold pot at the end of a spectacular rainbow.
“There is no place I would rather be,” he often said, “than by the sea.”
Just look at the life of Gordon Arthur Cyril Stewart, from the time he was born on July 6, 1941, all the way to January 4, 2021, when he was memorialised a few steps from the ocean in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.
Family and friends on the island called him “Butch” because his size as an infant reminded them of a brawny cartoon bulldog by that name, but he answered to other names, too: The Chairman, The Boss, Mr. Stewart, Dad and so much more. Behind them all was a reservoir of passion so deep that no one could fully comprehend it or how it drove him.
Even for an ambitious kid with a fishing rod and limitless possibilities, what happened over the course of his life would far exceed even his own expectations.
The Self Starter
Before he turned 13, Gordon “Butch” Stewart had already figured out how to merge his gift for entrepreneurship and his caring nature. He’d sell the fish he caught to hotel restaurants on the north coast of Jamaica. He’d give the rest to neighbours.
“When I was at the sea,” he said, “I never felt like I was working.”
That was true when he fished and it was true when he defied all odds by building Sandals Resorts into the world’s pre-eminent luxury all-inclusive resort brand. For a long time, the beautiful water was his only tangible asset. But he also had something that no one could measure: love. This is what fed his ambitions and his decisions and transformed him into more than just a marketing genius or a creative hotelier. Little did he know, he was setting the stage to defy all odds and transform the travel world, one step and one island at a time, with love at the center of everything he did.
“Dad always believed in the strength of love and goodness,” says his son and Sandals Resorts International’s Executive Chairman, Adam Stewart. “He did not believe in the get-rich-quick concept. Integrity was too important to him.”
A question always lingered in Butch’s mind: What do people need? At the time, in Jamaica they needed relief from the heat. So, with about $3,000 saved up, Gordon “Butch” Stewart started selling air conditioners door to door, a business that eventually became Appliance Traders Limited (ATL).
Butch was just an island guy hiring other island guys and trying to compete against behemoths like General Electric and Westinghouse. So, he decided to do a few things they wouldn’t dare do. He promised each customer that he’d have their air conditioning installed and running within eight hours of taking an order. His installation techs would also take care of household repairs at no extra charge.
“Dad did not believe in the word ‘impossible,” says Adam.
Instead, he altered impossible into a self-imposed requirement that today permeates all Sandals and Beaches Resorts: “Exceed the expectations of the customer.”
In the area of Jamaica where Butch grew up, “home” was on the other side of whichever front door you happened to enter. Everyone was family. The doors were always open and food was served with each hello.
“Hospitality is a big part of who we are in Jamaica,” says Adam.
Butch’s upbringing on the island made him believe he could rebuild and reimagine the resort experience. He dreamed of guests coming again and again, as if Jamaica were a second home.
But when he bought Bay Roc, a smallish 99-room hotel on the beach in Montego Bay, and its sister property, Carlyle on the Bay, no one could look at the aging structures and envision what he had in mind. Tourism had been spiralling. Jamaicans were losing jobs. Business interests were leaving the island.
“Some people are dreamers and some are doers,” says Adam. “My dad was a magical combination of both.”
He did not buy a hotel to merely clean it up and turn a profit. He wanted to transform it so guests would acquire a new perspective of Jamaica. Over time, he’d coin a new term: Luxury Included®, which at its core, meant giving guests more than they’d ever expect.
It seemed… impossible.
“He looked at the all-inclusive resort experience like no one else had ever looked at it,” says Eleanor Miller, Sandals’ Director of Standards.
At his resorts, guests would enjoy romantic gourmet meals instead of standard buffets. They would be served unlimited pours of quality champagne and premium liquor. They would wake up in luxurious suites with breath taking views of the sea from angles even Butch had never seen.
“I want you to know you’re in the Caribbean no matter where you are on the property,” he said.
The guest experience would be so central to his vision that Stewart didn’t spend much energy on a name. A friend suggested “Sandals,” and Stewart liked the sound of it. He believed if what you offer is excellent, then people will remember it — which tells us why Sandals has become a household name today. Dalton Smith, the second Sandals team member to join the company, put it this way: “The success of Sandals has come from three components. The people. The product. And the service. That’s what it’s been all about from day one.”
The success of a resort is also typically measured by its guest return rate. The rate for Sandals is nearly 50 percent, the highest among all hospitality brands in the western hemisphere.
Butch was confident back in the early 1980s that he had the surroundings and imagination for the holiday of any lifetime. Bay Roc’s capacity of 99 rooms, however, placed a limit on how many lifetimes he could impact. Going against traditional financial advice, he decided to invest heavily on the guest experience.
He built better suites. He added more amenities. But the most important amenity had been here his entire life: Beautiful sprawling beaches. What could exceed a guest’s expectation more than relaxing on the Caribbean’s very best beach, eating sliced mango and listening to the Chairman’s favourite sound — the shushing of the sea.
One of his greatest innovations was his method to find those beaches: he’d fly by helicopter to scout for properties that might otherwise be hidden.
A resort on a spectacular beach would always be the starting point. Then, whenever he travelled the world, Butch would take notes. When he saw hair dryers in Europe and clock radios in the U.S., he made sure they were in each Sandals suite – at the time, novel innovations. If a resort had one whirlpool, he’d tell the architects to add in four more.
Every few months, he would add another “what if.” What if we introduced Butler service, what if we introduced the longest pool in the western hemisphere, what if we invent a bar in the pool, what if we… yep, he did that all.
The biggest swimming pool in the Caribbean. Pizzas made to order in outdoor brick ovens. Complimentary bars appeared in suites. They also appeared in swimming pools and, in the case of the region’s first speakeasy, in Ocho Rios.
He wanted SkyPool suites to practically float on the tropical breeze. A pool needed to meander through gardens and kiss the patio steps of private suites. Rondoval suites would honour their centuries-old Caribbean heritage. He brought Over-The-Water Bungalows and Villas to the Caribbean when they were thought to be impossible outside the South Pacific.
Do something amazing was always the goal. Butch didn’t set out to be hailed as an innovator. He only wanted people to fall further in love with the islands and each other.
The Proud Jamaican
Butch Stewart has often been called a great brand builder. Picture perfect couples walking next to the fantastically blue sea are immediately associated with Sandals.
“He wanted visitors to experience Jamaica in its glory, first-hand,” says Adam.
Stewart also led a group of investors who purchased the struggling Air Jamaica, allowing him to ensure more flights to the island. On those flights, passengers were treated to champagne, entertainment, and warm meals from chefs.
“A trip to the Caribbean is supposed to be fun,” Butch said. “It should be that way from the time you arrive at the airport.”
After re-imagining air travel for a decade, his group returned Air Jamaica back to the government. “If I were called upon again, I would assist the airline,” he said. “There is nothing I would not do for my country.”
He meant it. When Jamaica’s economy began to spiral in the early 1990s he vowed to deposit $1 million US into Jamaican banks every week at a terrible exchange rate. In his country, it became known as “the Butch Initiative.” In business circles, it was considered crazy.
Letters of thanks soon poured in from government officials, CEOs of companies, and students. One letter said: “Thank you for stabilising the Jamaican dollar. This has made things easier on our parents.”
“Dad was always an eternal optimist about Jamaica,” says Adam. “The initiative was his way of spreading confidence to people who needed it.”
In his youth, Butch provided fish. In adulthood, he provided hope.
He hired staff from the islands rather than the industry practice of hiring from overseas. He and Adam made sure more than 90 percent of all produce used at the resorts is purchased from local farms. Every coffee bean — and guests go through a lot of them — comes from the island.
It’s the kind of difference that Butch Stewart made throughout the Caribbean. Not for branding or blogs. Truthfully, he didn’t want people to even know about it.
The World Changer
There is no textbook for the way Butch Stewart went about his business.
He hired people on instinct. Rather than ask for certificates of basic education, he provided them.
Guests looking to book rooms at Beaches Resorts, would sometimes see dates blocked off for the entire resort, not knowing Butch had reserved it so children from underserved areas could come and see something positive in the world.
He saved the cards and the thank-you letters.
“I really appreciate what you did for us,” starts one. “Being there allows me to forget about the troubles I left behind for once. I felt peaceful and happy.”
The spirit that moved Butch to reach out was passed down to his son. But while Butch preferred to keep philanthropy personal and quiet, Adam would say they could spread a lot more love by being open about educational, community and environmental needs on the islands.
In 2009, Adam launched the Sandals Foundation, the company’s formal way of changing the world and bettering the Caribbean, one island at a time.
The response? It has exceeded expectations.
“For all those years I had no clue that guests would be happy to give, too,” Butch said. “To see them arriving with suitcases full of toys and books, or giving back … knowing that every single dollar goes directly to needs… I cannot tell you the joy it brings.”
The joy has spread into more than 800 schools, into hospitals and medical clinics, into forests and mountain villages, into shelters for girls and women, into the fields where crops are thriving under organic methods, into eye clinics where people can see again and dental clinics where they smile for the first time since they can remember, into ocean sanctuaries with restored reefs and healthy fish populations.
On a warm Saturday morning, a Sandals staff member uses her day off to read books to children. Then she helps them pick up litter. A little boy points to the Sandals logo on the employee’s shirt. “I want to work for them someday. They love us.”
Butch often used the phrase, “Love is all you need.” For him it was not just a song lyric. It was his driving force. And he spread it, first across a tiny village, then an island, a region, and literally the world.
Think of it. Butch Stewart was just a kid who loved to fish. He used his love to share a meal with a hungry friend. Whether anyone knew it or not, he was showing way back then that you don’t need much to change the world.
Just a big heart, a dream, and lots of love.