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This story originally ran in the November 22, 2018 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.
TORONTO — It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Sandals Resorts International owes much of its success to an air conditioner.
Of course, this isn’t to dismiss the hard work put in by its dedicated staff over the years. But few people outside of Jamaica know that the story of the resort company is closely intertwined with that of Appliance Traders Limited (ATL), which started as a small air conditioning business in Jamaica 50 years ago.
What the two companies have in common, besides their Jamaican roots, is Gordon “Butch” Stewart, who founded both ATL and Sandals and helped make each a leader in their respective industries.
The story begins in 1962 with a young Stewart returning home to Jamaica following two years of studying abroad in England. He landed a job selling radios and phonographs at the Dutch-owned Curacao Trading Company, driven by his natural ability to sell and make instant connections with clients. After just two years driving the streets of Kingston in his station wagon laden with small appliances of all kinds, Stewart helped propel Curacao to the top of the pack where it dominated the market.
But his entrepreneurial spirit kept calling him down another path. So despite a promotion to the role of Sales Manager, Stewart, then just 27 years old, put in his notice and started Appliance Traders Limited on June 1, 1968 with just £5,000.
“In those days, having an air conditioner in your home was a real luxury. It was like buying a Cadillac for your wife!” he tells Travelweek in an exclusive interview. “But I was determined. I pounded the pavement, knocked on door after door in Kingston and sold in-room window air conditioners for people’s houses. The only problem? I didn’t have one single air conditioning unit to install.”
This, however, did not deter Stewart. He contacted Fedders, an air conditioner manufacturer based in New Jersey, with hopes of gaining exclusive distribution rights in Jamaica.
“They didn’t know me, I was just some young man from the Caribbean. So I bought a plane ticket and went to the U.S. to pitch them in person. That meeting changed my life,” he says.
Stewart came back to Kingston, this time with exclusive service and distribution rights to Fedders air conditioners, and hit the ground running. But despite his new credentials, he faced an uphill battle.
“We were the new kids on the block, the underdogs in Jamaica’s growing air conditioner market,” he recalls. “We were competing against big brands like Carrier, York and General Electric, but we had the desire to be #1.”
To beat the big guns, Stewart offered something that no one else could at the time: quick installations within eight hours, anywhere in Jamaica. “A customer could order an air conditioner in the morning and by the time they came home from work, their house was nice and cool,” says Stewart.
Not surprisingly, ATL became #1 in the market within a year.
“The pursuit of excellence in quality and service was at the core of ATL in the early days, and remains so today, 50 years later. I knew back then that I wanted to only sell the best products and deliver the best customer service. I wanted our clients to know that the brands ATL represents and services are the best, hands down,” he adds.
Before long, ATL scooped up numerous big-name clients, including hotels and resorts. It was at this time that Stewart first got the crazy notion of switching careers once again, this time within the hotel industry.
“Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the government of Jamaica stipulated that foreign exchange for imports was limited to foreign exchange earners. So I knew that I needed a vehicle where I could earn foreign exchange,” he says. “I had been selling air conditioners into hotels and resorts in Jamaica, so I thought to myself, ‘Why not buy a hotel of my own?’”
With no previous hotel experience, armed only with good business sense and an unmatched dedication to customer service, Stewart purchased the old Bay Roc hotel in Montego Bay in 1981. Just seven months and US$4 million in renovations later, Sandals Montego Bay opened its doors, ushering in a new era of all-inclusive luxury on the island and, ultimately, throughout the Caribbean.
Not bad for someone who as a young boy grew up on the water and dreamed of becoming a fisherman. But the drive that led him to launch ATL, and the lessons he learned there, inevitably altered Stewart’s course to build one of the region’s most successful resort chains. At last count, the family-owned Sandals Resorts International comprises four brands, 21 resorts in seven Caribbean countries.
“Without ATL, there would be no Sandals Resorts,” he insists. “Although they are two separate entities, combined they have an immense wealth of human resource capital as they are both underpinned by the same principles of exceeding expectations for our customers and guests. So there remains some synergies and sharing of resources.”
Today, in its 50th anniversary year, ATL continues to be a purveyor of quality brand-named equipment and appliances for the Sandals hotels operations. And even though Stewart is no longer involved in day-to-day operations, his presence at ATL is always felt.
“Over the past 50 years I’ve employed some amazing people who continue to be the backbone of ATL’s success today. Therefore, while I still do get involved, the day-to-day operation is left up to my more than capable team,” he says.
So what’s next for Stewart, who considers ATL’s longevity and Sandals’ status as a tourism powerhouse among his biggest accomplishments?
“To continue to be leaders in our respective industries, to continue to innovate and grow and deliver exceptional customer service in everything we do,” he says without missing a beat. “There’s always something to build on, to improve upon.”
In the meantime, when he’s not busy innovating and thinking of next steps, he can often be found returning to his first love – the water.
“I’m just happy to get out every now and then on my fishing boat with my family and friends!”
Check out more photos of ATL in its early years here: