Profile: Gordon Stewart: 'We call ourselves the on-time airline'

He saved Air Jamaica and now the island's wealthiest man is revitalisin g its economy. Phil Davison reports
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The Independent Online
Gordon "Butch" Stewart's beaming face is better known in Jamaica than that of the Prime Minister. And most Jamaicans will tell you the 55-year-old businessman, the wealthiest man on the island, is the more influential of the two.

It was Stewart, a white Jamaican of part-Scottish origin but with the distinctive local lilt, who in 1992 put up $1m of his own money to save the Jamaican dollar from collapse. Ordinary Jamaicans queued up at banks to follow his lead with small bills - and the move halted the currency's slide and put the black market out of business.

Stewart, now the island's largest private employer and its main foreign- currency earner, is spearheading a drive to improve Jamaica's image abroad despite continuing violence in the slums of Kingston.

A self-made man who started with $3,200 in 1968 selling air conditioners, he now owns or controls Air Jamaica, the Sandals resort chain, the local Observer newspaper and the Appliance Traders group that sells or services everything from air conditioners to cars.

With dual nationality - his father, a Jamaican, was born in England while his grandfather was serving in a Jamaican unit during the First World War - Stewart has also been called one of Britain's wealthiest men.

"What are you worth?" I asked him recently in his Kingston office, as he lounged in a beige armchair in open-neck striped shirt with one foot on a glass coffee table. "I don't have any money. I sank it all into this," he says, nodding at the model Air Jamaica airliner on the table.

Stewart is estimated to have put up $14m for his 47 per cent share of what was the state airline two years ago. He estimates that the carrier was losing up to $40m a year, but that this should be cut to $30m (pounds 18.5m) this year as business picks up. "From next March, we'll begin making money," he insists.

Although the government has retained a 25 per cent stake and there are several private investors, Stewart is the airline's chairman and has already shaped it after his own "go get 'em" image. Ask American Airlines, the major player in the Florida and Caribbean region, which has seen the revamped Jamaican airline reverse its majority share on several routes.

"When we took over in November, 1994, Air Jamaica had a terrible reputation. Only 27 per cent of Jamaicans used it, the rest preferring American Airlines," he says. "Now we get 64 per cent of Jamaicans' business.

"The old planes were dirty, the upholstery was terrible. Half the check- in counters weren't working, causing long lines, and delays were so bad that half the flights were yesterday's. Plus, the airline was paying a fortune in fines to the US for drugs found on board or on passengers.

"We had to get back confidence, build a new image. We inherited nine planes but within a few months will have 12 all-new wide-bodied A310s and MD83s. Now we call ourselves the on-time airline," says the father of four, who splits his time between Kingston, his family home in the northern resort of Ocho Rios and a town house in Knightsbridge, in London. The nickname "Butch" was coined by a passing US sailor when Stewart was only two. No one calls him Gordon.

The airline spruced up its image with gaudy new livery, catchy slogans such as "Love is in the air" and gimmicks such as "champagne flights" with free bubbly.

"The fact that the champagne is not of the best quality doesn't matter. Hardly anybody drinks it. Jamaicans just like the idea that they are on the champagne flight," one stewardess admits.

"Jamaica itself is woven in with this airline. If the airline does well, the country does well," says Stewart. "When we saw it go down the drain, we thought 'let's give it a try'. We come out of a culture that says everything that happens has to be done by the government. More and more people are realising you've got to do it on your own.

"I'm losing $40m but look what I'm getting. British Airways is the biggest ambassador Britain has. A national carrier is a war machine, a weapon. We feel we have to use this machine to drive the market."

Stewart denies he would ever go into politics. He doesn't have to. Apart from his key role in the economy, he went into the media business in 1993, starting up the Jamaican Observer, first as a weekly and now a daily, to compete with the long-established Gleaner. The Observer will soon be shipped to Britain (by Air Jamaica, of course) to serve the Jamaican community.

A more recent attempt to buy the local private TV station CVN failed but Stewart's response is typical. "I'll get in there. Yeah, man."

After getting the revamped Air Jamaica off the ground, Stewart is concentrating on his Sandals resort chain, popular for all-inclusive holidays for couples, as well as its all-organised "weddingmoons" where marriage service, licence and honeymoon are laid on for prices ranging from $750 to $10,000.

With his keen eye for marketing, Stewart attracted tourists to Sandals by sponsoring cricket matches and offering free holidays to relatives of serving soldiers during the Gulf War.

What is his next project? The launch of a new chain of resorts, to be known as Beaches. These will also be all-inclusive but will take in single people and children - not just couples. The first Beaches is planned to open in the west Jamaican resort of Negril in January.