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‘He saved Jamaica from an economic tsunami...’

As others see Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart

Monday, November 26, 2012    

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In the latest issue of SilverSkies, the inflight magazine of Silver Airways, writer Diane Phillips titles her cover story on Sandals founder and chairman, Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart “Without Peer or Pause”. “He loves what he does and it shows — in his properties, in Sandals' accolades and awards, in over-the-top occupancy rates even in the most challenging economic times. And most especially it shows in the twinkle of his eyes. Clear blue as the water below his balcony, warm and smiling, his eyes hold a world of positive promise,” she writes:

IT’S 4 o'clock on a steamy Saturday afternoon and Gordon 'Butch' Stewart hasn't stopped all day. He worked through lunch. As usual. The phone rings. He makes plans for church, a 6:30 mass this evening. The phone rings again; he accepts a dinner invitation to an old friend's house next door after mass. He's going to church tonight so he can go fishing early tomorrow morning without missing a catch, a prayer or a beat. Sunday afternoon he'll be back at work, studying business reports, before flying off the next morning to Florida for a week when he will have to meet and handle the next round of meetings and hotel visits and designers and chefs and marketing people and everything else that demand and win his personal attention.

At 71, the best-known hotelier in the region, Butch Stewart, founder and father of the Caribbean's most successful hotels, Sandals, shows no sign of slowing down.

Why should he? The hotelier without peer or pause loves what he does, and it shows — in his properties, in Sandals' accolades and awards, in over-the-top occupancy rates even in the most challenging economic times. And most especially it shows in the twinkle of his eyes. Clear blue as the water below his balcony, warm and smiling, his eyes hold a world of positive promise.

Here, they say, is a man happy with life, in love with his surroundings and their bright colours, not ready to rest, still curious and very much alive. We catch up with Butch Stewart at one of his homes, this one on Paradise Island in The Bahamas. Whistling distance from the omniscient pink presence of Atlantis, Stewart's four-storey home is a world unto itself, filled to overflow with colour.

We ride up a polished stainless steel elevator and that's the last symbol of sterile we see. We reach the top level with an expanse of living space that stretches from view to view of the surrounding waters. Tall panes of glass, deep emerald green walls with a suede finish, oversized glass dish sculptures on the walls in hues of blues and purples and golds, a huge custom-made circular carpet with red, tan and black swirls, custom-made upholstery on couches and chairs and pillows. And somehow all the colour and combinations go; like living in the middle of happiness. For a moment, I envision Butch Stewart as a kid with finger paints and no supervision. Just mischief in his eyes and the knowledge he's going to get away with it. Not sure if it's the disarming cherubic face or the colour itself, but suddenly you can't picture him in a place without colour. Not surprisingly, it's one of the biggest fights he has with his team.

“Designers,” he says, as if he is talking about unidentified flying organisers. “They all want you to go towards the sophisticated colours, earth tones, beiges, grey. They say it's elegant.” He shakes his head as if those who like bland ought to be examined. “I like colour and I do have my arguments with designers.”

The very mention of designers is an example of how much the industry has changed since Stewart bought his first hotel in his homeland Jamaica in 1981, not because he had any experience in hospitality, but because the country was struggling and the family's main business — appliances — could benefit from having a place to sell a surplus of air conditioners, fridges and other equipment. It would not be the last time that Stewart's purchasing power boosted, some would go so far as to say, save, Jamaica from an economic tsunami. “When we first started, you built a hotel room and asked: 'What colour do you want to paint it?” And you were done,” said Stewart. “Now, there are bathroom and spa designers and space designers. We have designers for the gardens, the pools, the restaurants.” One of his properties, the Sandals Grande Antigua Resort and Spa, has 11 restaurants. Sandals Royal Bahamian Spa Resorts and Offshore Island in Nassau has 10 and every one is different.

Attention to design is not all that's changed. Over the years, Sandals itself — a brand that has grown from the old Bay Roc and Carlisle hotels in Montego Bay, Jamaica, to an empire of more than 4,700 rooms in 22 hotels in five countries, serving more than one million guests a year — has catapulted from becoming the first all-inclusive resort when the term conjured up images of frugal to the butler-served allinclusive, where you never leave the property because there's no place you'd rather be.

Branding has changed and the hotels have evolved from the mid-90's names like Classic and Signature to Luxury Included® as the slogan in the 2000s to the most recent incarnation of romance ultra-suites, Love Nests.

“That's what it's all about,” he says. He is not exaggerating. Five of his properties this year have enjoyed a repeat visitor rate of more than 50%. The success has not gone to his head. With obvious pride in his three grown children — all success stories in their own right, with the oldest Adam now serving as CEO of Sandals, and Robert 'Bobby' as head of IT; he jokingly laments the cost of his daughter Jaime’s wedding, acknowledging that Father of the Bride was his favourite movie.

“I felt so sorry for Steve Martin pouring out his last penny, I wanted to cry”, he says. “Until my daughter got married and I felt so sorry for myself.”

Crocodile tears about costs aside, he's as proud of his pride as he is of his hotels. (Jaime’s since been featured in magazines including Haute). The dichotomy of financial prowess with the treasuring of simple pleasures — a good day's fishing; a great meal, a stack of architecture, fashion and motor car magazines while flying on his private jet — keep him grounded.

Even today, as afternoon gives way to early evening and it is almost time for church, we are in a room with a dozen couches and thick upholstered chairs and artwork galore, but most of the interview takes place where Stewart is clearly accustomed to sitting — at a plain, small square table in a corner with a view of his 73-foot Hatteras below.

A member of staff knows his habits, brings him a yogurt, no designer label, just plain Activia, a little bran on the side, which stays there, and a black coffee. The two local daily papers are laid out in the order he likes to read them. When the phone rings, he picks it up. ‘A-lo,’ he says, the Jamaican dialect making distinct singing notes of what would otherwise be an ordinary hello. No pretenses.

He calls another member of staff to bring him the new cellphone he requested. It's a bottom-of-the-line model with a single compelling feature. It makes calls. “That's all I want,” he says. I tell him my husband shares his views of phones that do everything but the laundry. “He just wants one that when you use it, the person on the other end can say, ‘Datchu?’ (Bahamian for “Is that you?’), I explain. “Your husband is a very smart man”, says Stewart. I'll pass along the compliment.

Despite his refusal to join the rush to iPhone and androids, Stewart is very much a man of the times, knowing he has to be able to keep pace with a hotel industry that's constantly evolving. And he has been that way from the start.

“We were the first to put a hair dryer in a hotel room,” he says. “We were the first to coin the phrase 'special' in the restaurant.” Now, sector evolution has reached new sophistication, ranging from going green to preserve the environment and the bottom line, to designing plunge pools for those Love Nests that are all about enhancing romance.

“I really try very hard to keep modernising,” he says, “without losing the basics of what makes Sandals Sandals,” The key — keeping everything as close to the beach as possible. Over-thetopness-water, fine sand beaches, lush landscaping everywhere, excellent food, offshore islands, colours, luxury, service, constantly exceeding expectations.

Stewart has a name for what he does when he buys an existing property like his two Bahamas resorts, the former Four Season in Exuma and the Royal Bahamian in Nassau. He ‘Sandalises’ them.

But long before he discovered the secret of Sandalisation, Stewart endured tough times as the new kid on the hotel block. “You expect to lose money the first six months,” he said. But when six months turned into 12 and he was pouring money down what seemed an endless hotel drain, he called his old friend, George Myers in Nassau, then VP at Paradise Island Resorts (now Atlantis) and asked for help. The two had gone to school together in Jamaica and remained friends after Myers moved to The Bahamas.

“I can't tell you what to do,” Myers said. “But come to Nassau. Maybe you will see something that will help.” Stewart did. He shadowed his buddy for a weekend and realised it was in the attention to the individual. The turnaround began. Today, he goes from hotel to hotel, criss-crossing the region, watching every step of the process.

“I want to see how check-in goes, how people are treated. I love all the new things we do to increase satisfaction levels.” He looks at how the grounds are watered. He studies the big picture and the details of what goes into making that picture.

Isn't it about time he began to slow down, you ask. “I'd drive everybody crazy,” says the man who, by his own admission, has not had time to read a book in five years though he keeps up with business magazines and industry trends. “I'm so motivated I can't wait to get up each morning. I guess I will give up when I can't get up.”

And that could be a very long time from now. Accompanied by his two golden retrievers, Monty and Alex, who clamber all over dogloving guests as if they were family, Stewart says goodbye for now. You turn for a last look at the man who has become a legend in the hotel industry and in business circles, though he has never owned a share or stock in his life. And you realise that from the rear where the slight paunch of the good life doesn't show, this 70-something in blue jeans and a pullover looks just like a teenager about to head out for any Saturday night.

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