The Sandals Resorts chain founder turned a tiny business into a billion-dollar empire.
The Sandals Resorts chain founder turned a tiny business into a billion-dollar empire.

Butch Stewart Q&A

The Sandals Resorts chain founder, who died last year, turned a tiny business into a billion-dollar empire.

Gordon ("Butch") Stewart had a comfortable middle-class childhood on Jamaica's Honeymoon Bay, so his story doesn't qualify as a rags-to-riches tale. But he most certainly went "to riches."

Stewart began his career at the Dutch-owned Curacao Trading Company, where he earned enough in five years as a sales manager to open his own air-conditioner service and distribution business in 1968. That company, Appliance Traders Ltd., expanded rapidly and now sells a wide assortment of household and commercial appliances and supplies.

But Stewart was just getting started. In 1981, he bought the Montego Bay property that launched his wildly successful couples-only Sandals Resorts chain. And today, he oversees a billion-dollar, 9,000-employee empire that includes 12 Sandals Resorts, six other high-end Caribbean vacation properties, Appliance Traders, and a leading Jamaican daily newspaper. All together, he owns and operates two dozen companies that collectively constitute his country's largest private-sector group, biggest foreign-exchange earner, and largest nongovernment employer.

As Stewart explained in our interview, private aviation helped him achieve his remarkable string of successes. But after talking with him in New York City recently, we suspect that his ultra-upbeat demeanor deserves some credit, too. True, he had a few negative things to say about the Jamaican government and about the newspaper that competes with his, but a smile rarely left his face as he discussed his resorts and career and told us how much fun he is having.

He even praised New York's weather—which on the day we met featured a cold, drenching, and windswept rain. When we commented that he probably hadn't left the Caribbean mainly to experience conditions like this, he replied in his thick Jamaican accent, "Oh, I love this weather. If it would snow later on, it'd be all the better."

Tell us about your childhood.
I had a great childhood, one of the best. When you grow up by the sea, you do a lot of fishing and swimming. You do what comes naturally. And the communities I grew up in were so protective; everybody looked after everybody. I think it does an enormous amount for you later in life. It allows you to look after yourself. It allows you to be protective of others. It makes you realize that you're no more special than the rest.

Why did you leave school at 16?
There were gangs in the school and I was fed up with school. I wanted to work. So I hopped a motorcycle and left.

How did you end up as a sales manager for Curacao Trading Company?
My mother had a little appliance shop and I loved going there to sell people toasters or fridges. So I got a job selling. I always wanted to sell.

What were you selling at Curacao?
Radios, stoves, refrigerators—that kind of thing. My department just got bigger and bigger. It was much bigger than the rest of the organization.

Why did you do so well?
I just loved selling things and pleasing people. Every customer I had became a permanent customer. I had so many customers that told everybody, "Look, you have to buy from Butch. This stuff that Butch is selling—not only is it best, you get the best service."

Why did you leave Curacao to start your own business?
I'd wanted to start a business from the time I was 13. I just felt strongly that I could do it.

You once said of your early years in sales, "Time meant nothing to me. I was getting up at 5 a.m. and going to bed at 1 a.m. and frequently enough at 8 a.m. the next day." Was it simply that you enjoyed your work so much or were you driven to make money or beat the competition?
I just found an excitement with life and with the job. Sales took me all over Jamaica and life was for living, and I was out there. Money has been important to me to the extent that I have bills to pay. After that, I've never been driven by money in any way, shape, or form. Living a big lifestyle for me has never been a big deal.

In 1981, you bought the run-down hotel in Montego Bay that you turned into the first Sandals Resort. What made you see potential in it that other investors missed?
It was completely dilapidated, but it had character and the price was right. It was designed by one of the great architects, Edward Durell Stone.

You had no hotel experience. Were you nervous about taking on such new turf?
No, but we went around in circles for about three years. First, we didn't know what to call it and we didn't know what the concept was. I didn't like the size of the bedrooms. I didn't like that they didn't go more overboard with the food. I get enthusiastic about products, but if I'm not in love with the quality, I can't sell it. From day one, to keep my own motivation, I have to have what I think is the best. So we stripped that hotel until it had no electrical wires, no plumbing. We redid the whole thing.

And now you have 18 Sandals, Beaches, and Royal Plantation resorts on five Caribbean islands. What fueled your growth?
If something's going to make the guests happy, we'll put it in even if we can't recover the cost. And I think that's probably the single best part of our success. You make customers happy, they're going to stay with you.

When you started, did you at all conceive that your resort chain would get so big?
I just wanted to meet my payroll. But each week, you realize you can go further. I have a lot of friends who have 10-year plans. If I work on an 18-month plan with maybe a dream at the end, that's the best I can do.

Your companies are still privately held?
Yes. That makes life easy. I can make a decision on the way to work; I don't need a board and we don't get mixed up in a bureaucracy.

In 1994, you took over operation of Air Jamaica, but it's now back in the government's hands. What happened there?
Air Jamaica was a tremendous experience. We developed a beat-up airline into a world-class airline. But we were dealing with a bunch of fellows [in the Jamaican government] who had no idea what money's all about; it's all political. And I've always been far too independent to live in that environment with a bunch of jokers who don't know what they're talking about. I never learned to be subservient and that's what they wanted. So I said, "Take [Air Jamaica] back." And they've destroyed it. It's back to the way it was.

Meanwhile, you acquired a daily newspaper.
We started it from scratch. I was very unhappy with how the paper in Jamaica protected the establishment and went after up-and-coming people. So I figured the country deserved two newspapers. I was very friendly with the people who ran The Express in Trinidad, and we joined hands and started The Jamaica Observer. It's been a struggle; a newspaper is a tough thing. But we're now the number-one-read paper five days a week in Jamaica. We also want to have a Caribbean communication network-television, radio. We'll get there.

When did you first fly privately?
I had half ownership of a Beechcraft Baron a year before I was in the resort business. And my partner was a pilot, which helped a lot. I went everywhere in that plane—from Jamaica to Panama to Miami to Atlanta to Puerto Rico and back and forth. People think that in the Caribbean, you just step from island to island. But Jamaica to Trinidad is 1,200 miles and Jamaica to Miami is 660 miles. So it's not just a string of islands that you hop to by canoe. Getting around is tough. Having your own airplane is money in the bank.

How did you use the Baron?
I used it as a freighter when we started in the hotel business. We were novices, so we forgot to order this or short-ordered that. I had a Chevy Caprice in Miami at the time and this little plane would hold one-and-a-half loads of a Chevy Caprice. We'd load up the Caprice to load up the plane.

What I learned is that an aircraft used properly is the most unbelievable tool—especially if you are dealing with different cities or countries. I was based in Kingston but I opened our first hotel in Montego Bay. In those days, it was a four-hour drive, but it was a 25-minute flight. I'd wake up the pilot at three in the morning, go talk to staff for one reason or another. We could work until we were finished, go to the airport, catch the plane, and go home.

What other aircraft have you owned?
I have a brand-new Baron now, the third we've had. That's a great aircraft for short runs. We also had a King Air for probably a year that allowed us much longer legs. Then I bought a Citation II, which I think is a great airplane to start jet life with. And from there we bought an [Israel Aircraft Industries] Astra and then another Astra. And after owning all those planes, you get a sense of what's a perfect aircraft for you and I think the [Bombardier Challenger] 300 that we bought in 2006 is perfect for my use. We also have a [Cessna Citation] CJ3.

How are you using these aircraft?
A lot of our executives use the Baron to get around Jamaica. We have 12 hotels there, so there's a lot of moving around. Running hotels in the Caribbean, you need a very hands-on approach, and having an airplane saves so much time. And you know, I want to go everywhere and see what are the best sites to put hotels on. I want the best beaches. I don't want to be facing the wrong direction when the weather comes in.

How many people are using your aircraft?
Probably 50.

You must have a flight department.
Oh yes. Six full-time pilots and we're about to have a seventh. We have our own senior maintenance man. We have a great administrator. And we have a few people who help in the hangar.

Did you get involved in the selection process for the 300?
Very much so. I love airplanes. I love new technology. And for me, the Challenger was a hands-down winner. I liked the clean-sheet design. It's not an aircraft that came out years ago and they keep modifying it.

How would your life be different if you were flying everywhere commercially?
I think I would be less than halfway to where we are. For people who run organizations, time is the most vital thing. If you can't use your time—think smart, move fast, get there quickly—you're not going to go too far. Not in the environment I work in, where you have to hop around the islands. An aircraft is probably the single biggest tool that I've ever used to help a business.

You're 67. Any plans to retire?
As long as I'm feeling well, as long as I'm excited, I'll be around. If I lose that excitement, I'll jump out of it as fast as I jumped in. I have some kids who are doing particularly well in the company and a tremendous management team. So I could bail out now. But I think I'll do another 30 or 40 years.

Fast Facts

NAME: Gordon "Butch" Stewart

AGE: 67

CURRENT AIRCRAFT: Bombardier Challenger 300, Cessna Citation CJ3, Beechcraft Baron.

HOME: Jamaica

PERSONAL: Wife, Chyril. Seven children living, including several who are active in Stewart's resort business.