Butch Stewart The Enigma

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The lionization of Gordon Butch Stewart; the recently departed Jamaican hotel mogul and businessman began as soon as news broke in his homeland; Jamaica. Frankly, I for one am at a loss or better yet, flabbergasted at the outpouring of encomiums. I am left to wonder, am I the only one who has a different view of the man whom I do admit is Jamaica’s greatest hotelier?  Could I have been wrong about him all these years?  I ask myself if I have been too harsh or judgmental with regards to him the man praised by many Jamaicans or am I among the minority who have seen him clearly despite his massive PR persona?

Let me be clear, this column is not meant to be used as a hatchet job against Stewart, at worst; it is meant to be a questioning of the enigma known as Gordon Butch Stewart.  His meteoric rise from a salesman to a world-renowned hotel mogul has served to be an inspiration to many here in Jamaica, the wider Caribbean and its Diaspora community.  In that regard; I say kudos to him. However, I have lingering questions as the his “saving” of Air Jamaica and its subsequent sale, his saving of the plummeting Jamaican dollar and his involvement in the White House resort in Westmoreland.  At this time I will focus on his Air Jamaica tenure. Was he good for Air Jamaica? Did he force the government into giving him a sweetheart deal as it relates to Air Jamaica?  Thus, in that sense I will start the following and hope that you will form an unbiased opinion.

In an April 10, 1998 New York Times feel good article written by Laurence Zuckerman, I found a few gems which tracks with my opinion of the man hence I quote the following snippets from said article; (a) In 1993, American Airlines gave Gordon Stewart, owner of 10 Caribbean resorts and this island’s most celebrated entrepreneur, an award for his contribution to developing tourism in the region.

Three years later, after Mr. Stewart took control of Air Jamaica, the troubled state-owned airline, and began adding routes and improving service, the folks at American gave him something else to remember them by: They slashed fares by 50 percent, driving an already shaky Air Jamaica to the brink of collapse.

And that wasn’t all. A short time later, Mr. Stewart recalled in an interview at his office here, a spokesman for American implied on a local radio show that Air Jamaica’s planes were unsafe. ”It was ruthless,” he said. ”Airline competition is kill and destroy. It is worse than any industry I have ever seen.” (American said it was unaware of the incident.)

As it turned out, Mr. Stewart gave as good as he got. Since that near-death experience, he has grabbed market share away from American — Air Jamaica says it now carries nearly half the air passengers who arrive on the island, more than double the total of three years ago — and increased revenues to $225 million last year, from $128 million in 1994. He has increased Air Jamaica’s reliability and reach, and won over customers with touches like free champagne. And he has survived a drawn-out battle with regulators in the United States and the abrupt departures in the last two years of three senior executives. For all his doggedness, the airline is still bleeding red ink, losing $145 million in the last two years. 

(b) He also exerts huge political influence in Jamaica, where he is considered by some to be more powerful than the Prime Minister. In any case, the Government is unlikely to let Air Jamaica — with all its jobs — fail. It is still a shareholder and has already agreed to extend a $110 million loan guarantee to the airline — as compensation for its regulatory problems with Washington — that will enable it to keep more spare parts on the island, decreasing costly delays.

(c)  Mr. Stewart did not jump at the chance to buy Air Jamaica when the Government put the airline up for sale in the early 1990s. It was only after two other deals fell apart, with no other buyers on the horizon, that he put together an investment group in 1994 that paid $37.5 million for 70 percent of the carrier. His 46 percent stake is the single largest; the Government holds 25 percent and employees 5 percent.

The move was the kind of grand public gesture Mr. Stewart has become famous for. In 1992, when the Jamaican dollar was under pressure, he vowed to spend $1 million to support it, raising confidence in the currency. In 1995, he founded a daily newspaper that forced the venerable Jamaica Daily Gleaner to buy color presses and improve its coverage.

(d) After taking control of Air Jamaica, he set out to improve the airline’s notoriously unreliable service. He leased new Airbus wide-body jets and painted them bright yellow, orange, blue and magenta. He gave the flight attendants new uniforms and more training, and he offered coach passengers a choice of hot meals and free champagne, rum punch and beer. He won back many ethnic Jamaicans in the United States and elsewhere who had abandoned the airline with marketing that appealed to their national pride. And last summer, he opened a hub in Montego Bay, expanding the airline’s service to other Caribbean islands.

(e) Robert Booth, an aviation consultant who specializes in Latin America and the Caribbean, said that the hub was a good idea but that it was too small. ”A hub works when you have 15 flights coming from 15 different points connecting and going on to other points,” he said. Indeed, last month, Air Jamaica announced that it was cutting service to two islands because of a lack of passengers.

(f) Certainly, American Airlines, a unit of the AMR Corporation, now regards Mr. Stewart with heightened respect. He believes he has finally won admission into the club of established industry players. He recalls how he stopped talking to Mr. Dolara, the American Airlines senior vice president, for six months after the bigger company put Air Jamaica in its cross hairs. Tensions have since eased, and American now seems resigned to letting Air Jamaica have its share of the market. ”I like Dolara a lot and respect his talents,” Mr. Stewart said, ”but I think Dolara likes me a lot more now because he has felt my talents.” 

From the quotes above, I must ask whether or not Stewart’s much publicized role as a benefactor to the nation was driven by a genuine love for Jamaica or ego and self-interest. Many are going to lambast me but let us look at the facts as dispassionately as is possible from our varied vantage points and try to decipher the man known as Butch. Peace!mocobarrett@yahoo.com