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Gordon Stewart, founder of Sandals Resorts, dies at 79

Gordon Stewart, who bought a rundown beachfront hotel in his native Jamaica and built it into a chain of all-inclusive resorts as the founder of Sandals Resorts International, died Monday. He was 79.

His death was confirmed in a statement from his family, who did not give a cause or say where he died, other than to say that he died in the United States.

A son, Adam Stewart, said in an interview Tuesday that his father’s death was related to a recent medical diagnosis that Gordon Stewart, who was known as Butch, had kept private because he did not want to “be anyone else’s burden.”

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“He didn’t even want his closest friends to worry for him,” Adam Stewart said.

Despite his illness, Stewart had continued to work long hours until the end of his life, his son said.

In 1981, Stewart took the money he had made selling air-conditioning units in Jamaica and invested it in developing a hotel on the island’s North Coast into Sandals Montego Bay, which would become the flagship resort of a chain of luxury vacation destinations. Sandals now operates 15 resorts, including six in Stewart’s native Jamaica.

After he established Sandals Resorts International with a couples-oriented focus, Stewart branched out with the more family-oriented Beaches Resorts. That business was in the process of expanding in St. Vincent and the Dutch island of Curaçao at the time of Stewart’s death, his family said.

Gordon Arthur Cyril Stewart was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on July 6, 1941, the oldest of three children of Gordon Leslie Stewart and Jean (Townsend) Stewart. He grew up in St. Ann Parish, on the island’s North Coast. The family struggled financially, and Stewart felt compelled from a young age to take an active role in supporting them, Adam Stewart said.

At 12, he began selling freshly caught fish to local hotels. “He always called himself an old fisherman,” his son said. “The first boat he had was a dugout canoe that he made out of an old tree.”

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Stewart studied in England for about a year when he was in his late teens. He returned to Jamaica and a job at the Dutch-owned Curaçao Trading Co., where he became sales manager.

But he itched to start his own company, the family statement said, and he seized an opportunity in 1968 when he recognized the appeal of air conditioning for people living in an island climate. He founded his first business, Appliance Traders Ltd., after he persuaded the Fedders Corp. of Edison, New Jersey, to allow him to represent the brand in Jamaica.

From there, Stewart developed his overarching business philosophy: “Find out what people want, give it to them and, in doing so, exceed their expectations,” the family statement said. At first, Adam Stewart said, this involved being willing to install air conditioners for his customers any time, day or night.

“He did whatever it took,” Adam Stewart said.

Stewart’s work with the Sandals and Beaches resorts led to leadership roles in Jamaica’s tourism industry, including a decade as director of the Jamaica Tourist Board. In 1992, his Butch Stewart Initiative pumped $1 million a week into the foreign exchange market to help halt the slide of the Jamaican dollar.

In 1994, he led a group of investors that took control of Air Jamaica, the Caribbean’s largest regional carrier. He put together an investment group that paid $37.5 million for 70% of the airline, giving himself a 46% stake.

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The move was the kind of grand public gesture Stewart had become famous for, as The New York Times reported in an article about the move.

At the helm of the troubled state-owned airline, Stewart began adding routes and improving service. As part of the turnaround, he increased the airline’s revenue and grabbed market share from competitors.

“One thing you have to give Butch Stewart, he is going to try everything to make the company work,” Peter Dolara, a senior vice president of American Airlines at the time, told The Times. “The man is a ferocious competitor.”

In 2009, Stewart created the Sandals Foundation, which supports school construction, education and health care access on the islands where the company operates resorts. He was a recipient of Jamaica’s highest national distinctions, including the Order of Jamaica.

In addition to his son Adam, Stewart is survived by his wife, Cheryl; his mother, Jean Lacy; a sister, Pat; his sons Brian, Bobby and Gordon; his daughters, Jaime, Sabrina and Kelly; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. A fifth son, Jonathan, died in a car accident in 1989. His brother, Peter, died in 2004.

Adam Stewart, who became chairman of Sandals Resorts International after his father’s death, summed up Stewart’s work ethic this way: “Grit, hard work, and put people first.”

“He outworked the best of them,” Adam Stewart said. “He always taught us that the fast road is not the right road.”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.