Recalling 15 years of observing ‘Butch’ Stewart

Excerpts of the tribute to Gordon “Butch” Stewart by award-winning journalist Desmond Allen, founding editor of the Jamaica Observer, who saw the business mogul up close and describes the wonder of it all.

First published February 7, 2021

An old journalist gave me two bits of wisdom that I have carried throughout my 47-year career.

First, “do not have any friends in high society”, because that would kill any chance of me being an independent journalist.

Second, “don’t let anyone pay you so much that you can’t leave” which, in a sense, is another way of saying the same thing.

Until I met Gordon “Butch” Stewart, I had never been tempted to discard those gems offered to me by my late friend Fred Wilmot.

Butch had seen my writing and liked it. One day he asked me what was the secret behind it. I told him that my pen could ooze honey when necessary but could just as easily drip blood. He laughed heartily, but that was to be the beginning of 15 years of a close relationship in which that pen and its dual qualities would accompany him across Jamaica, the Caribbean and other parts of the world.

Butch Stewart first came into my orbit in 1983, after the Jamaica Daily News folded, leaving me — and I should mention, a certain Vernon Davidson who was, unknowingly to both of us, also fated to be part of the Butch Stewart story — without a job.

Carmen Tipling, Berl Francis and Eunice Bent started giving me freelance assignments for their Communications Consultants Limited public relations outfit. One of the most significant was to do a series of feature stories about senior managers of Appliance Traders Limited (ATL) for a big fifth anniversary supplement they were planning. Butch, the owner, was scheduled to be the last of my interviewees.

Regrettably, the interview was postponed twice before being finally called off, at the last minute, because he was travelling overseas… a lot. I was terribly disappointed as I was looking forward to meeting this man about whom all the ATL managers seemed to be trying to outdo each other in paying homage. But that would not, by any means, be the end of the story.

A newspaper graveyard

The closure of the Daily News had left Jamaica with one daily newspaper, The Gleaner, albeit a revered broadsheet that had survived the vagaries of time, dating back to apprenticeship in colonial 1834.

Men, some of them from the vantage point of their watering holes, talked optimistically about starting another newspaper. But every time they crunched the numbers they came face to face with a chilling reality. It was not for nothing that Jamaica had developed the dubious reputation as a dark cemetery for failed newspapers that had drowned in their own red ink.

It was against that fearsome, foreboding background that Butch Stewart teamed up with banker Delroy Lindsay and Trinidadian media mogul Ken Gordon in 1992 to establish the Jamaica Observer which hit the streets on March 7, 1993.

For Butch, Jamaica was too sophisticated and dynamic to be a “one-newspaper society”. He regarded the Observer as a gift to Jamaica, charging the staff to produce a different type of journalism that was focused on mirroring the best of Jamaicans to themselves and to celebrate the daily heroism of the ordinary people.

I was tapped to be founding editor and in turn invited Vernon Davidson — a man with great skill and superb temperament — to join me in running the editorial department as chief sub-editor.

By 1994, Lindsay had ceded his 45 per cent of the ownership of the paper to Butch. In 1996, I moved on to become executive director of Jampress, the State news agency which eventually merged with the Jamaica Information Service. Before that, however, I was to get my first real glimpse of the man they called Butch Stewart.

The year before that, while on editing duties, I noticed something strange. A series of nine letters to the editor had come in, all with two paragraphs and different addresses from several of the main towns but saying essentially the same thing. They bitterly criticised the Government for awarding Butch the Order of Jamaica, the country’s fourth highest national honour.

The letters could not have come at a worse time. Butch was on a high in New York with a Sandals entourage receiving one of the numerous accolades which followed him throughout his life.

I had no doubt that the letters were orchestrated by a Butch detractor.

Should I ignore them and give life to accusations that the paper did not carry criticisms of our publisher? I decided against that. Should I publish them one by one and allow them to pass innocently into the daily discourse? That, too, was a no-no for me. Instead, I decided to expose the letter-writer(s) by running them all at once.

My innocent, if naïve action stirred up a hornet’s nest in which nasty people said I had been paid to embarrass the chairman in his own paper. I remember thinking to myself that if no one could pay me so much that I could not leave, how much would they have to pay me to do that to my chairman? Moreover, I had no friends in high society on whose behalf I would be acting.

But Butch had been wounded and wanted me out.

To his credit, Dr Phillip went to bat for me, insisting that I would be the last person to accept bribes to hurt Butch. In time, the storm subsided.

The matter was finally put to rest when Butch invited me to an event one morning on his yacht in the New York harbour to tell me everything was okay and the matter was behind us. I never forgot that gesture, thinking here indeed was a big man.

Although I had immersed myself in work during the cacophony, I, too, had been deeply hurt by the bribery accusation and I was seething. I began to plot my way out of the Observer. As soon as I had completed some key projects I had been working on, I tendered my resignation effective September 1, 1996.

In the ensuing 10 years, Butch continued to invite me to his events, always making sure to inquire about my well-being, or to congratulate me on personal achievements, including when I became president of the Press Association of Jamaica and when I started the hugely popular The Spike column, a rarity for being syndicated in The Gleaner and the Herald at the time. The Observer had politely turned it down.

However, in 2004, while I operated my own company, Desmond Allen and Associates, I was offered freelance editing assignments by the Observer and the paper accepted my celebrated series called the ‘Desmond Allen Interviews’.

These interviews were wondrous tales of extraordinary Jamaican trailblazers whose rich lives had touched so many others and helped to shape the destiny of our country. I ended the series with Butch as my final interviewee for what would turn out to be my magnum opus.

Butch Stewart of Jamaica, a touch of class

Here now began a new chapter of my life that would revolve around Butch Stewart and the sheer magic that was this beloved chairman to so many. I was not planning to join up with Butch or the Jamaica Observer, though I sentimentally considered it ‘my baby’.

My little business as a public education specialist was paying the bills and schooling the children. The rest of the time I got to spend pursuing private dreams of personal satisfaction. I could not foresee that I would soon be swept off my feet, journalistically.

A year later, the world was heading into a recession. When I lost the first of my several key clients, I thought maybe the writing was on the wall, or more so up against the wall. I began to contemplate what might be the future.

About the same time, Butch was making some big chops in the management of the Observer where things had slipped somewhat. Staff morale was low and Davidson, the wildly popular manager of the newsroom, was being unjustifiably sidelined.

When Butch asked me to return to the Observer, it was timely, and I could hardly resist. It was decided that too much power had resided in one person in the editorial department and to prevent that from happening again, there would now be an executive editor for publications — Davidson — and an executive editor for operations — me — on an experimental basis, beginning March 2006. That would be a success and the Observer grew exponentially.

With the paper back on its feet, Butch obviously had other ideas for me, which he had probably telegraphed when he held a lunch in my honour upon my return, introducing me to some of his key people and, importantly, his son Adam Stewart, who is now executive chairman.

Butch would ask me to accompany him on many events across the Caribbean, where he had resorts, the United States, Canada, etc. He was routinely greeted like a rock star by thousands of travel agents, tour operators, airline representatives and, of course, resort staff who adored him. Governments begged him to bring Sandals to their shores.

He basked in the adulation of staff and left onlookers dumbfounded by his ability to remember names of even janitors as he walked the hotel properties, a favourite practice of his. I watched as he moved from meeting to meeting, many in one day, never tiring, recalling details, sharp as a razor, always held in awe by the scores of degreed people with whom he surrounded himself.

And I wrote about those events like a man on a mission. My pen had found a new purpose, documenting some of the major events in the life of one of the most extraordinary men of our time.

‘If a man hits you, hit him harder’

Yet, for all of his superlative success, his magnanimity and endless generosity, Butch Stewart was not short of detractors.

I can testify now that success is both a blessing and a curse. But I saw too that he was almost always reacting to their attacks upon him.

To my advice one day that he ignored some people whom I figured were just jealous of him and seeking attention, he gave me this gem: “When somebody hits you, hit him back harder. That way he will think twice before hitting you again!”

He was a hard and astute negotiator, demanding value for his investment but exceeding the value of the returns to the territories in which he operated.

His run-ins with politicians were always being misrepresented.

Once he signed a concession agreement, he insisted it be honoured. Unfortunately, politicians have a way of tearing up agreements when they need to extract taxes to shore up mismanaged governments. Butch was not having it.

He was often forced to flex his considerable financial muscle to fend off a politician whose attitude was, ‘Even though you are the biggest contributor to my country’s economy, I’m the prime minister here and I’ll do as I see fit’. In a few cases, some betrayed an anti-Jamaican attitude which always made the Sandals boss furious.

If things got out of hand, Butch would sometimes threaten to close the hotel until reason had prevailed. Reason usually did, unless an election was near and the politician needed to show ‘strength and fearlessness’.

In some islands, when his resort closed, even for routine renovation, the place instantly became a ghost town for employment. Most visitors stopped coming; two-thirds of airlines stopped flying; taxis idled; utility spend nosedived and so on.

This has a boomerang effect throughout the economy as nearly all the other hotels benefited from Sandals’ powerhouse advertising campaign in the big markets or North America and Europe to fill their resorts.

But Butch rarely carried out his threat because he was deeply concerned about the welfare of the Caribbean people whom he loved as if they were blood relatives. That was one of the few chinks in his armour. The colossus had a soft heart.

Private chapel for Sunday mass

Nothing delighted him more than seeing the job numbers rise — 15,000 at last count. He also relished the idea that his Sandals chain was routinely the largest foreign exchange earner, private employer and taxpayer in most of the islands. And that wherever Sandals turned up, the economy did too.

It could be that his love for people stemmed from his love for his God whom he never left out of his conversation and referred to as “the man above”. To not miss his Sunday mass, he built his own private chapel at his Rico Chico property in Ocho Rios, St Ann.

I also found that with all his wealth he was not spoilt by money. No man was too lowly for him to stop and chat with or just to drop them a money, including the man at an intersection near his Barbican home, and whose absence he would notice and wonder about every time. It was a sight to behold him driving himself while his driver, Byron, sat in the front passenger seat.

I laughed raucously when he shared with me that he had taken a bet with a rich politician — Peter Bunting, if memory serves me right — that the politician could not win his seat in the coming 2011 election.

So how much was the bet? I asked.

J$500, he said!

Two rich men betting J$500?

His reply was that it was not the money, it was the principle.

It is not telling tales out of school to mention what former policeman James Forbes told me at the time he was recruited by Butch. The chairman asked him what kind of salary he was looking for. When James mentioned a figure, Butch’s response was: “I can see you are accustomed to being underpaid!”

I witnessed that Butch was big on loyalty but he did not demand it and always seemed to be trying to earn it. We would travel together on his private jet to many of his events. Yet there were also times when he would send me alone on the plane or helicopter to an important assignment. It was always clear to me that he did not have to. It’s how he valued service. Many of his executives have similar stories, notably his top legal man, Dmitri Singh, one of his obvious favourites.

He took extraordinary personal pride in the Jamaica Observer but allowed the paper to operate as the freest news medium in the country, often boasting that it would be around for centuries… Taking advantage of this affinity for the Observer and my proximity to Butch, I secretly advocated for benefits for the staff, including a pay increase one year when the company had decided to forego a wage increase because the numbers were going south. Secretly, because I knew the then CEO and financial controller would have been, understandably, livid.

But all the stories are too numerous to mention. Some of it will be told in this publication but it will still not be enough, for the half has not been told.

I’ll miss Butch Stewart more than words can tell, and I’ll especially miss our chats on those cherished occasions when he would invite me to an early morning swim, wherever we were, in the Caribbean Sea. He believed that sea water was of great therapeutic value and would not be convinced otherwise.

I know that my friend, Fred Wilmot, would not mind terribly if I told him that in Butch Stewart I had found someone I could regard as a friend in high society.

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