How the Observer editor remembers ‘Butch’ Stewart

First published February 7, 2021

Stewart and I first crossed paths in 1990.

We were among the throng of people lining the sidewalk on Old Hope Road, near the intersection with Ardenne Road, watching costumed revellers playing mas in the first-ever Jamaica Carnival staged by Byron Lee on the streets of the capital city.

I, in my role as a public relations officer at the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), had been responsible for transporting visiting journalists from other Caribbean islands covering the event which, at the time, culminated at Police Officers’ Club, a few metres from where we were standing.

Butch, sporting his signature sunglasses and usual broad smile, was approached by a local television reporter who sought his views on the event.

Not known to be media shy, he obliged the reporter. At the end of that interview, the reporter turned to me for a view from the JTB. I really hadn’t expected the reporter’s approach; however, I spoke about the carnival and, like Butch, pointed to its visitor attraction potential.

After the interview ended I expressed a bit of concern at not seeing many tourists, but Butch, still smiling, said: “No man, quite a number of visitors are here.”

I took him at his word. After all, he was very knowledgeable about the industry and I, having been at the JTB for a mere three years wouldn’t even think of challenging him on the point.

Fast-forward to November 1992. Desmond Allen, an already seasoned journalist whom I had known from my days at the Jamaica Daily News — where he was first stationed with global news agency Inter Press Service, before joining the newspaper — called me one day to say there is a new newspaper being established and he invited me to come on board as chief sub-editor.

After thinking seriously about the offer through Christmas, I eventually decided to accept.

By that time I had learnt that the same Butch Stewart with whom I shared sidewalk space was one of the principals of this new newspaper — the Jamaica Observer.

To say that I was thrilled would be an understatement, because, in addition to the journalistic lure, I had heard good stories about how Stewart treated his workers. Those stories turned out to be true.

Over the years I’ve never had a more caring, hospitable and generous boss; a man who would move heaven and earth to ensure that his workers were comfortable. One of his enduring beliefs was that people are able to realise their full potential when they are not distracted by problems, be they personal or professional.

I also found him to be a hard worker who went through the day like the Energiser Bunny, all in an effort to secure increased sales for his businesses and for his beloved Jamaica.

I got a ringside seat to that work ethic some years ago when he arranged for me to travel to England to meet Guy Zitter, who was managing director of the Daily Mail.

We used the opportunity to include Ross Sheil, who at the time was starting the Observer’s online product, on the trip, as Butch had wanted to explore collaboration possibilities with the Daily Mail editorial team.

The day after I arrived in London I got a call from Butch’s office: “Vernon, Mr Stewart would like for you to come to his office.”

The office was about 15 minutes walk from my hotel. On being informed that I had arrived, he told the receptionist to escort me upstairs to where he was meeting with his three key people in London who were updating him on new developments in the travel trade there and in continental Europe.

That was about 9:00 am.

That meeting went for another hour during which I sat, listened, and watched as the marketing genius made decisions, quickly, on strategies and programmes to boost his Sandals brand.

“Who do we have next?” he asked. I don’t remember the names, but it turned out that they were two women from an advertising and marketing agency. I got up to leave, but Butch encouraged me to stay.

I could almost see his mind working as he asked the women about ad placements — which television stations were best to book spots and at what times. I marvelled at the mere seconds it took him to make decisions on where to buy spots and how many more Sandals-branded taxis should be travelling the streets of England, Ireland, and Scotland.

That meeting ended about midday.

“Who’s next?” he asked again.

“You have a lunch meeting with tour operators,” came the reply. We thus went downstairs to another meeting room where the working lunch commenced.

Butch was in his element, making deals and I saw the master salesman at work.

At one point one of the tour operators wanted information on forward bookings at Sandals. Instead of looking to his three key people for the data, Butch reached for two folded sheets of letter-sized paper in his back pocket, took them out, studied the information on them, and reeled off the figures.

I couldn’t help but notice two of the tour operators looking at him in amusement as they had most likely never before seen the head of a major resort chain deliver such information in that format.

“He walks around with his office in his back pocket,” his son Adam joked to me, in his father’s presence, a few years later.

The lunch meeting over, another group of tour operators entered the office, setting Butch on another round of deal-making in which he threw in some generous offers that no doubt kept those travel partners loyal to Sandals.

That meeting ended near 5:00 pm and the decision was taken to walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner, which turned out to be a mix of leisure and business with the second set of tour operators.

It was near 9:00 pm when we left the restaurant and walked back to our hotels.

“Vernon, yuh want to have some coffee?” he asked.

“No, boss. I really just want to sleep. Remember, I got here yesterday and am still feeling a bit jet-lagged,” I replied.

“Alright, see you tomorrow, mi luv,” he said. Everybody was ‘baby’ or ‘darling’ or ‘mi luv’ to Butch Stewart.

I slept like a baby and got up very early the following morning, left the hotel to find a café, only to see Butch and one of his executives from Air Jamaica Vacations dressed in track suits and sneakers walking towards me.

“Where yuh coming from, Chairman?” I asked.

“We went walking in Hyde Park,” he said.

The next four days were a whirlwind of activities — meetings with travel agents, Butch doing sessions with trade, consumer and traditional media. Add to that our meetings with Daily Mail staff and a dinner hosted by Zitter on the roof of the Mail building, followed by late-night drinks at a bar on the way back to our hotel.

On the long flight back to Jamaica I analysed the trip, coming to the conclusion that Butch was helping to further my knowledge of what goes into making Sandals and Beaches such successful brands. And, of course, he seriously wanted the Observer to establish and maintain a collaboration with the Daily Mail. We did, and the popular People Post page we produced for a while was a result of what really was a gentleman’s agreement.

Since that trip, Butch has had myself and Desmond attend Sandals/Beaches strategy meetings, first in Ocho Rios, then in Montego Bay, at times sending his private plane to take us from Kingston and back. He really never had to be that accommodating, but that was the measure of the man.

On occasions when he was at his office in Kingston he would ask us to join him either for lunch or a quick discussion, both of which would not be completed without some amount of jocularity.

Although Butch Stewart will mostly be remembered for his tourism ventures, his legacy would not be complete without serious examination of his commitment to a free press.

That he made every effort to keep the Observer afloat, especially during tough financial times, speaks to his unwavering support for the preservation of our democracy and his firm belief that the Jamaican people deserve a variety of outlets for news.

Anyone who doubted his strong commitment to that belief can simply look to the fact that he launched two radio stations — Fyah 105 FM and The Edge 105 FM — during a tight economic environment, creating what is now the Observer Communications Group.

Each time we spoke, Butch would always enquire about the welfare of the Observer staff and never failed to remind me to extend to them his gratitude for the work they are doing.

On a personal note, he had a habit of calling on Christmas Day — I know he did it with other members of his vast empire — to wish me and my family all the best and again say thanks for working with him.

Sometimes I would call before he could. I miss those conversations, especially when they cross into the realm of journalism and the responsibility of the Observer to help create a better Jamaica. We will not shirk that duty.

I will extend Butch Stewart’s own words to him: “You did a fabulous job, mi luv. Thank you, thank you so much.”

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