How I Did it – Entrepreneur Butch Stewart
Gordon “Butch” Stewart’s voice is deep and slow, and he speaks with melodic phrasing, suggesting the sun-soaked climate of his native Jamaica, where he started Sandals Resorts, in 1981. Today, Stewart owns and runs 20 resorts under the Sandals umbrella, including the original Sandals all-inclusive, couples-only resorts, the Beaches resorts for families, and four boutique hotels. Stewart serves as company chairman, while his son Adam, 27, is now the CEO. The resorts are sprawling, with flourishes like multicolored pagodas, swim-up bars, and poolside Greek temples. One resort boasts 100 separate swimming pools. From its small beginnings, Sandals, based in Montego Bay, has grown into a multibillion-dollar company.
I was born in Jamaica. My mother had a little business as a dealer for appliances, and I used to go and help her. I loved it. I used to catch fish and sell them as a 12-year-old, and between fishing I used to love being in the shop with her.
I started working just before I turned 17, but then I went to England to round off my education and came back to Jamaica full of vim and vinegar. I got a job at a trading company and was in charge of the appliance department. After five years, I was able to save over $3,000. That was 1968. Then I realized Fedders air conditioners were not represented in Jamaica. I bought an airplane ticket and I headed to Edison, New Jersey. I met with the president’s nephew. We really hit it off. He said to the finance people, “Look, he’s paying cash for the first shipment, so there’s nothing to lose; give him a chance.”
I rented an old doctor’s office in Jamaica, a secondhand car, and a secondhand pickup. I was able to buy 27 room air conditioners. Before they arrived, I had them sold. I would install them in half a day, and so we made our money out of making people happy. Today, that company, ATL Group, is also in the office equipment business, we are the distributor for Honda motorcars, and we have a newspaper called The Jamaica Observer.
Jamaica had gone through a period of upheaval in the ’70s. It was a time of radical socialism, and the economy went to tatters. But we survived, and in 1980 we had a new government. We were so enthusiastic. I ended up buying two hotels. They were all in shambles. If I had known what I was doing, I would never have bought those hotels. The amount of Pandora’s boxes that were in there! We had to find out how to market and how to cook the food, and the kind of décor and rooms people wanted. That was 1981.
We set about trying to provide more than people expected. I was in Italy and I saw this hair dryer in the bedroom. I found out the manufacturer, and we were the first hotel to have hair dryers in the Caribbean. It’s not a big deal today, but in 1983, it was. We did our first swim-up pool bar in 1984. We were the first in the Caribbean to do it. When we were putting in our first hot tub, the people in the hotel association said, “Butch, take it easy, man, you don’t need to waste your money that way.” While they were talking, I was building a second and a third in different parts of the property, because I realized people like different locations to soak in the tub.
Everybody thought we’d be out of business the first month because the hotel is very close to the airport. We came up with the idea of everyone waving to the people that were leaving in the plane, and kissing the one you love when a plane flies by. I don’t think we had five complaints after that. Then the Concorde started flying to Jamaica once a week, and it made more noise than any airplane I’ve ever heard. The buildings shook. So we turned all the beach lounges to face the airport, and that magnificent airplane would get up right in front of everybody on the beach. Guests would come rushing in: “Has the Concorde taken off yet?” We made a promotion out of it.
The first two years, we lost more money than I ever dreamt possible. We realized that we didn’t have enough bedrooms. We only had 100 rooms, so I went in and built more rooms, and that same hotel now is 251 bedrooms.
In 1986, we were able to buy another hotel, Sandals Royal Caribbean it’s called today. And we’ve been able to build more. One is Sandals Grande Riviera Beach & Villa Resort, in the area where I grew up; in fact, the piano bar is built right where my grandmother’s home was. Sandals Negril ended up being the most successful hotel that the Caribbean has ever had. We opened it in November 1988. It opened full, and it has been full ever since.
Beaches came straight out of guests saying to me, “Butch, we have been here 15 times, 20 times. But now we have kids; we need a place that we can take the whole family.” So that’s how Beaches evolved, starting in 1997. We never realized that you needed to do so much to keep the entire family happy. Kids get bored if you don’t have organized things for them to do. The smartest thing I ever did was to make my second-youngest son, Adam, chairman of the youth committee to come up with creative ideas to make the younger people happy. We have water slides, swimming bars for kids — so it’s only juice and nonalcoholic drinks — and we have a little disco that converts into a movie theater.
We have spent $370 million over the past three years modernizing, redecorating, and expanding. Women — I mean, I hope I’m not saying something wrong — but women just want bigger and better-quality bathrooms every year. They want bathrooms that are like palaces, that have Jacuzzis in them, separate showers, bidets, twin basins, and now they want those big overhead showers, also soaking tubs. And our job is to please those requests.
My darkest period was in 1990, when I lost my son Jonathan. He was the third of my five sons; he was killed in a tragic car accident at age 24. And nothing meant anything for a while. But I’ve never had any doubts about the business. I run on gut instinct to a large extent, but at the same time I never make a major decision without bouncing it off of a circle of people that I work with. Right now, we have an organization that has everybody in it. You want lawyers; we have them. Engineers; we have them. Accountants; we have them. Marketing people; we have them. People that understand how to cook the best food in the world; we have them.
I get up every morning, I can’t wait for the sun to get up. I don’t have that much longer on the planet, and I’m just going to enjoy it in the way that I have for 66 years. I still water-ski. I love boating and fishing, and any opportunity I get, I do that. I play dominoes with friends. I love sitting on the veranda and talking absolute nonsense. I hope most of it will make you laugh.
How I Did it – Butch Stewart