Gordon 'Butch' Stewart: 'It's been a great 25 years, man'

And that's despite the Caribbean resort king having to admit gay couples to his hotels
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The Independent Online

"If I'm honest, probably no." Gordon "Butch" Stewart, the larger-than-life Jamaican owner of Sandals, is talking about gays - or more specifically, whether he would still have lifted the ban on same-sex couples at his chain of Caribbean resorts had it not been for the furore about that rule. "It worked fine - don't fix what is not broken."

In the end, it was London Mayor Ken Livingstone who demanded that, broken or not, the rule be abolished. Two years ago he banned Sandals from advertising on the Underground, prompting the company - based in the notoriously homophobic Jamaica - to relent.

"I thought it ran the risk of being taken over by gay culture," says Stewart, 65, in his broad Jamaican accent. "We stayed with heterosexuals because that was how we started. We were very successful. Opening it up was an unknown quantity- it was taking a chance.

"But any fears we had never materialised and the quality of our clientele remains the same. The behaviour of the same-sex people has been tremendous. Our staff have not been shocked at their behaviour."

Stewart is recalling the policy shift from his London office, which is heated to near-sauna levels to compensate for the rainy winter raging outside (he splits his time between Jamaica, the UK and the US). Heavy-set, he dominates the plush room, which is adorned with pictures of himself, the West Indies cricket team and garish photos of sun-drenched Sandals resorts. Deferential staff pop in from time to time to pass on messages, bring coffee, fuss over him and generally make sure their boss is treated in the manner he evidently expects.

Stewart was already an established businessman, having set up the electricals company Appliance Traders in 1968, at the time he bought his first hotel, a run-down property in Montego Bay, in 1981.

"We lost our shirt for one and a half years because we didn't know what we were doing. We slowly got the hang of it. Some people in the company were saying, 'Let's get out of this, it's losing a lot of money.' But hotels do - we expected that. And then it started to turn."

The company now boasts 12 couples-only Sandals resorts, where everything - from the rooms, through food and drink to water sports and excursions - is included in the price. Families are catered for at four Beaches resorts, again all in the Caribbean.

Stewart says the resorts remain immensely successful, despite the waning demand for all-inclusive, packaged holidays in recent years, and that he has considered opening resorts beyond his native Caribbean, although nothing has come off so far.

"We have had invites from the Far East, the Middle East, Dubai. But when you start stretching yourself, you lose that personal side. We could do it, but it won't be on my watch. We know the Caribbean. It will happen - we're just not in a rush for it."

So he is getting on with running the resorts he already has - "we have just had the best five years, we go from strength to strength" - and dabbling in other businesses. He still owns Appliance Traders, which supplies the resorts with air conditioning, and until recently he ran Air Jamaica. He led a group of investors that acquired a majority stake in the ailing airline in 1994, but bailed out two years ago.

"The government was a joint- venture partner and they just kept getting in the way. All of the problems [with the airline] were inherited from the government, and we got to the stage where we said, 'It's not worth it, we don't need to play games.' So we gave it back and wished them the best.

"Air Jamaica cost us a lot of money. I showed that a small country could develop an incredible airline. But if you are going to have a government as a partner, it has to be a good government. It's the same as the way they run the country: it's not very good. And I don't mind you quoting me on that."

Not that he thinks he could do a better job: despite being an influential figure in Jamaica, he has no desire to get involved with politics. "I'm a straight talker and I don't believe that because someone has been lucky in business, they will make a good politician."

A biography of Michael Foot sits on his bookshelf, though this is not an indication of his own politics. He worked with Hugh Foot, the former Labour leader's brother and one-time governor of Jamaica, and got to know Michael Foot in the process. "We brought him out to Jamaica and he really liked it - he was a big hit out there. I loved his intellect and the cleverness that went with it. He's an enjoyable man."

What about Foot's politics, though? "We never got into that, man. Politics attracts some of the most attractive people, but we didn't get into his brand of politics," he says, pointedly.

For all his empire building, influence and political opining, there is still something of the playboy about Stewart, a twice- married father of three. There's even a book you can buy all about him - a big, shiny tome suitable for coffee tables everywhere. As well as a foreword by Sir Richard Branson, it includes various pictures of Stewart as a young man - posing with fish, with women, at his resorts, in his cricket whites. The book explains how his nickname derives from a cartoon bulldog called Butch, which his father, "Daddy Stew", believed was a ringer for his big new baby.

Stewart talks at length and with pride about his deep Jamaican roots, and his spare time is spent not on the golf course, as befitting most businessmen his age, but in the terribly Caribbean pursuit of fishing.

"When I get the time, I go fishing - by which I mean swimming, hanging out with friends, playing dominoes, talking a lot of nonsense. It's been a great 25 years, man."

Yet despite that quarter of a century building up his business, Stewart appears to be in no hurry to relinquish control and take up fishing full time. Instead he's made one of his sons a senior executive and is planning neither a sale nor a listing of the business.

"When you float and end up in a public company, you have to up the profits for the dividend for the shareholders," he says. "You can't make instant decisions and you can't plough most of your money back into the product. We're extremely proud [of the business] and want to stay ahead. It's just a way of life."

As the row over same-sex couples proves, it is a way of life that is changing. But it's also one that Butch - with his Jamaican roots and hard-nosed business approach - clearly doesn't want to see change too much.

BIOGRAPHY

BORN 6 July 1941.

CAREER

Early 1960s: joins Curacao Trading Company, working his way up to become sales manager.

1968: sets up Appliance Traders, an air-conditioning service and distribution company.

1981: buys first hotel in Montego Bay, which is renovated and reopened as the all-inclusive Sandals Resort Beach Club.

1984: appointed president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association. Holds position for four years.

1986: Sandals acquires the Royal Caribbean Hotel.

1991: opens his first resort outside Jamaica, in Antigua.

1994: acquires majority stake in Air Jamaica.

2004: returns stake to government.

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