Monday, June 2, 2008
Butch Stewart’s faith, hope and love
“Butch Stewart’s childhood was no easy street,” said the young voice on the call-in radio show. Jaime Stewart was 12 years old when she made her broadcast debut correcting a talk-show host’s assumption that her father was born into privilege. It was this challenging start as an early breadwinner for his humble Jamaican family, that helped mould Gordon “Butch” Stewart into today’s business titan.
Jaime, now a Director at Sandals Resorts Intl, reflects on her father’s unwavering ethics: “He makes decisions based on what is correct and then fights for them. This applies to the environmental issues with other properties. It all boils down to laws that have been broken. My Dad is a strong patriot and when it comes to his country, he will stand up and take the beating.”
Last Tuesday, hundreds of guests converged on a glittering Hope Gardens to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the ATL Group. In his trademark style, founder Butch Stewart shared the kudos with six ATL long servers who in turn paid tribute to their visionary leader. They had their own special stories about the man Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson saluted as “a guy who knows how to build a brand… a maverick (with) guts, determination.”
Long before branding became the hot marketing buzzword, Butch Stewart had slapped the Fedders logo on the side of his first luxury buy, a white Mercedes, much to public amusement. For him, it was simple: Fedders had helped him to buy his Benz and he was going to use his Benz to sell the brand. And how. Butch Stewart and his lean team became the talk of the middle and monied classes, as the folks you could call in the morning and know that by the time you had returned from the office in the evening, your home would be as cool as a Fedders breeze. ATL Technical Control Manager Errol Lee related the rush he was in during those early times, to deliver the instant gratification promised by his boss, resulting in three fender-benders.
It is this single-minded focus, that has seen Butch Stewart parlay a nine-man operation into the ATL Group of Companies that now employs over 10,000 persons throughout the Caribbean. The humble company has spawned the Sandals and Beaches chains, an automotive company and this venerable newspaper.
As Sandals Project Manager Betty Jo Desnoes tries to define the maverick style of Butch Stewart she describes a scene: “He gets a call, spins around in his chair, punches his calculator and gives an answer. Or he will call in about ten of us, listen keenly and quickly sum up. I have never seen anyone cut through the fog of indecision so quickly.”
In reading his marvelous book, “All That’s Good”, one discerns that the guiding force of the Stewart empire is the synergy of three basic Christian principles, faith, hope and love. Only a person of faith would have invested in the run-down Bay Roc Hotel in 1981, rapidly rolling out a gold-standard hotel chain that would cop the most coveted international tourism awards. ATL’s master plumber and jack-of-all-trades Aston “Plum-Plum” James remembers being told by his boss, “Plum-Plum, come take a ride with me. We’re going down to Montego Bay to look at something.” It was nine months before James returned to Kingston, leaving behind a shining restored property, Sandals Montego Bay.
And hope. Betty Jo remembers the devastating blow dealt by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 to the three Sandals properties in Montego Bay as well as two others being built in Ocho Rios and Negril. She said on hearing the news, “Mr Stewart…began galvanizing. He dispatched every truck he had and bought up every piece of lumber and nails.”
Butch Stewart decided that he would rebuild the properties even better and hastily called a press conference in New York to outline his plans. With their reputation on the line, every team member toiled ceaselessly, no one working harder than the boss himself. Hailed by travel writers as “a miracle”, the resorts were rebuilt and reopened three months after Gilbert in time for the beginning of the 88/89 winter tourist season.
Most obvious is the love. Former ATL Warehouse Manager Josephine Marshall who recently retired after serving the company for nearly 32 years recalls her trepidation in the seventies when people were selling out and leaving Jamaica. She said Butch Stewart called them into the boardroom to assure them that he was going nowhere and that their jobs were safe. “That’s why I stayed so long … Mr Stewart is a fantastic man!” she enthused.
Former ATL Branch Manager and now Sandals Projects Director Eleanor Miller remarked that Butch Stewart “never asked you to do something that he would not do himself … It’s very much a family environment.” The other 30-year veterans Larry McDonald, Phillipa Thomas, Carl Ennis and Checks Nichol all relate incidents of his quiet generosity: airlifts to Miami to get the best medical care, scholarships for children of team members, personal guidance and mentorship. This care is part of the ATL and Sandals culture, warmly extended to customers and guests.
But make no mistake; Butch Stewart has no patience for dishonesty. “There are only two things that will get you fired from this company,” says Betty Jo Desnoes, “lying and stealing. He won’t fire you for a bad decision and will even say a bad decision is better than no decision at all.”
Jaime Stewart recalls a business-imbued childhood where family vacations became trade show visits. “It was extraordinary, going to England, the ITB show in Germany. These were experiences that can’t be taught.” Jaime and her siblings share their father’s passion for the industry: “He lives, eats, breathes his work and makes room in his life for all those in his business,” comments Jaime. She says that growing up, her mother PJ “helped us to understand that he couldn’t be with us as much as he wanted because he had this huge commitment not only to us and customers but to his employees and employees’ families.”
But there was a great sadness in Butch Stewart’s life, the loss of his son Jonathan to a motor vehicle accident in the 90s. “A lot changed when Jon died,” said Jaime. “Dad became even closer to his family and more spiritual. Now, wherever he is traveling, he goes to Mass every Sunday and on his way he will call us to find out if we are planning to go.” She reflected that he also lost his father and brother in recent years and is very emotional when he prays. “This is why he wears dark glasses in church,” explains Jaime, “he hardly ever has dry eyes when he is worshipping.” The shades were very much in evidence on Wednesday, when Butch Stewart and his staffers attended a 40th anniversary service in downtown Kingston conducted by Father HoLung, who lauded Butch Stewart’s generosity to the less fortunate.
Butch Stewart has stayed a tough course, taking every challenge as an opportunity and every employee as family. Prime Minister Bruce Golding has observed that he will be remembered as the man who revolutionized marketing in Jamaica, and enjoys the fierce loyalty of his staff. No doubt, the annals of tourism will also record him as the man who redefined the “all” in all-inclusive.