At an age when most men have put their working days far
behind them, Frank Butler of Catalina Yachts is still stacking hours
and building boats – and enjoying every minute.
Traffic is moving briskly on California's famed Ventura Highway,
flowing due west from Los Angeles, and Frank Butler is moving right
along with it. Butler is the president of Catalina Yachts, but he's
put that in the rearview mirror for the day and he's heading out,
bound for home. He's behind the wheel of his black 2002 Ford
Thunderbird-"A piece of crap, really," he'll later say-dodging and
darting, shifting lanes, chasing down the miles toward the afternoon
sun. When he sees a quick opening, he makes for it, with dispatch,
and the needle on the speedometer tilts accordingly-65, 70, 75.
There's only one problem, really. About three cars back, leaning on
the gas in a whining, woeful, compact rental, someone is desperately
trying to maintain contact, visual and otherwise, with the blazing
That someone would be me.
Suddenly, almost without warning, Butler bolts right, across a
couple of lanes and up an exit ramp, and I dutifully follow,
grateful for the stoplights and congestion of suburban streets. The
Thunderbird soon banks into a nondescript industrial park, and
Butler is already out its door when I wheel my pathetic little Chevy
alongside. "Come on," he says, impatiently. "I want to show you
We're at a small manufacturing facility, and Butler is waving at
the electric pontoon boats strewn about the yard and saying
something about how he designed these boats and owns this factory,
although these days, it's not actually his operation. But all of
this is clearly secondary to the mission at hand. This becomes
abundantly evident when he flings open a garage door out back and
there before us sit about a dozen vehicles nestled lovingly beneath
soft, custom-fit covers.
They're cars, all right. Really cool, vintage, exquisite cars: a
terrific 1920 Dodge Phaeton; a cherry-red 1959 Ford Fairlane; a
gorgeous 1957 Caddy convertible; not one but two slick, mid-1950s
era Thunderbirds. And these aren't all of them, I'm told. There are
a few more similar garages around greater L.A., with nearly 40
automobiles in the collection.
In a boatbuilding career now spanning nearly five decades, Butler
guesses he's manufactured some 75,000 vessels. During that time, he
and his wife, Jean, also raised seven children. If you ask him about
the former-as in, "Well, Frank, of all those boats, which is your
favorite?"-he's bound to make a reference to the latter: "Do you
have kids? Me, too. Can you name your favorite? Me neither."
But cars are different, he says, and this becomes apparent when
he uncovers what he unabashedly admits is the queen of his
automotive fleet, a ragtop 1940 Lincoln Continental. "Now this is a
beautiful car," he sighs. "I restored it right back to the original.
Took five years.
"Cars are a lot of work," he continues. "You have to drive them,
keep them up. They're just like boats. The more you use a boat, I
think, the better it is."
With that, we're on the go, the autos back under their wraps, the
garage door slammed. Moments later, we're again barreling down the
freeway, revisiting Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. But in this brief
interlude, I'm guessing, I've snatched a telling glimpse of the
essential Frank Butler. A little contemplation, it seems - a pit
stop on the road of life - is perfectly fine. But a whole lot of
action is much, much better.
That's what you do when you desire an audience with Frank Butler.
You stride down the hall to his corner office at Catalina's longtime
headquarters on Victory Boulevard in Woodland Hills-the very
facility he's occupied since 1974, when it was surrounded by
cornfields and strawberry patches, long before the relentless
advance of the malls, high-rises, and big-name hotels-and you rap
twice. Then, one of two things happens. You're waved in (the usual
response) or waved away (which means try again later). Thus, order
is maintained in the Catalina universe.
Last January, on the very morning Frank Butler turned 80, Sharon
Day knock-knocked and was granted entry, ostensibly to discuss lunch
plans. Day and another longtime Catalina stalwart, Gerry Douglas,
have each been at Butler's side for more than 30 years and were made
partners in the business in 1998; she handles corporate matters and
oversees sales and dealers, he's in charge of design, engineering,
and plant operations. Three or four times a week, the "Three
Musketeers," in Day's words, meet for a bite to compare notes on
their respective areas of responsibility.
"We have a very shallow corporate pyramid," jokes Douglas.
It's important to know that Butler enjoys a chuckle, especially
at someone else's expense. Day recalls the time Butler
uncharacteristically fell ill during a big dealer's conference and
begged to be excused. Soon after, a "dealer" came late to the
meeting and began peppering Douglas and her with all manner of
probing, uncomfortable questions about the company. It took a while
before anyone realized it was Butler, all done up in a wig and phony
So Day was fairly chuffed when the three amigos walked downstairs
to the lobby on January 17 and Butler's chin dropped when the
mariachi band began playing and the big gathering of workers,
family, and friends yelled "Surprise!" In honor of the milestone,
everyone chugged another Butler favorite, a tall root-beer float.
There are changes afoot at Catalina, however, and the next party
at the Woodland Hills location will probably be the last. In 1984,
Catalina acquired Morgan Yachts in Largo, Florida, a smart strategic
move that not only gave the company a second, well-known brand but
also provided a base at which to build the increasingly popular
larger Catalina models and to develop new designs. Plus there was
the not-insignificant fact that the majority of Catalina customers,
some 70 percent, in fact, lived east of the Rocky Mountains, which
tacked on considerable shipping costs to every unit sold. "There's
no resale value in freight," observes Douglas.
Now the entire manufacturing end of the business is being shifted
to Florida, a transition that's been ongoing for some time and which
is scheduled to be completed by year's end. Though Butler and his
team certainly have seen the writing on the wall for a while-face
it, a factory utilizing fiberglass and resin looks, sounds, and
smells a lot different from a Pier One, Best Buy, Marriott, or
Hilton, the closing of the Woodland Hills operation signals the real
and symbolic end of a grand era in American boatbuilding.
Southern California was once an epicenter during a revolution in
production boatbuilding, home to such companies as Ericson,
Islander, Jensen, Columbia, and so many others that were once highly
viable concerns but which shut their doors long ago. "Hardly anybody
is left," says Butler, who, in many ways, could be called The Last
"It's a wonderful business, but it's not an easy business," he
continues. "It's rough. You're with the economy. And it's not easy
to be a manufacturer in California. It's not what you'd call a
friendly state. There are so many rules and regulations, and they're
always changing. They're right about some of them, but not all of
them. Still, it's a fun business. But you better want to work. It's
not like growing oranges. You just don't plant the tree and throw
water on it."
When he was 8 years old, Frank Butler went bird hunting with his
father, a plumber in the San Fernando Valley, and was taught a
lesson that stayed with him forever. "If you shoot the wrong bird,"
his dad implored, "you still have to eat it. What you shoot, you
"I've always remembered that," says Butler of a tale suggesting
that several key, character-building principles were instilled at a
very early age: There's a cause and effect to one's actions; you
must respect and honor your decisions (even the lousy ones); when
all is said and done, accept the consequences and move on.
Moving on was an apt theme in the early years of Butler's career,
when he was honing several crafts, establishing his first
businesses, and beginning to scratch what would become a strong
entrepreneurial itch. ''I've always liked problems," he says,
tellingly. "I like solving them."
After graduating from high school, serving a two-year stint in
the U.S. Navy, and attending college, Butler's inaugural foray into
the business world was a machine shop called Wesco Tool that
addressed his growing love of engineering and his affinity for
hands-on labor. He didn't start sailing until his late 20s, when he
bought a Sailfish and taught himself the ropes on the harbor at
Newport Beach, California. He had no idea that such a simple act
would change his life.
With a growing family, it wasn't long before Butler was searching
for a bigger boat, but he didn't have to look far. Just around the
corner from his shop, a small yard was building a simple,
sweet-sailing sloop called a Victory 21, and Butler decided it was
just the ticket. He paid for the boat in full and waited for
delivery. And waited, and waited, and waited. On the morning the
boat was supposed to be launched, a Saturday, Butler showed up at
the factory, wife and four kids in tow, and learned that the Victory
not only wasn't finished; it hadn't even been started. The builder,
conveniently, was nowhere in sight. Off to the side, however, stood
a completed hull and a new deck. So Butler chose an original
response: Instead of jumping up and down and screaming bloody
murder, he sent the family packing, commandeered the facility, and
with the reluctant help of a handful of employees, began building
his own boat.
"And I loved it," he said.
That was in 1961. The remainder of the decade would be a
whirlwind. The Victory guy went out of business, and Butler assumed
his operation, which he later named Coronado Yachts. He built
several small boats as well as the Victory, but he made his first
big splash with his innovative Coronado 25. It was the first boat,
he says, to be built with a pan liner, which made for a light, rigid
structure that also streamlined production; it was a trick he picked
up from Lockheed, the airplane manufacturer, and it was a sign of
things to come. By 1967, Coronado was a tidy, profitable business,
and Butler sold it to the Whittaker Corporation, a big conglomerate
that also owned Columbia. Butler stayed on as a consultant for a
year before tearing off a pointed letter to his employer that
completely accomplished its purpose: He was fired.
"I didn't like the way that they did things," he said flatly.
"I'm not a corporate type." He was, however, an independent soul
who'd amassed considerable knowledge about every single facet of the
sailboat business, from designing and building them to marketing and
selling them. In 1969, he aimed all that hardwon experience toward a
new enterprise. He founded Catalina Yachts.
The stunning waterfront house that Frank and Jean Butler share in
Westlake Village - the pleasant destination to which we ultimately
repair after our escapade down Route 101 - is made all the more
comfortable by the fact that two of their daughters, and a nice
representation of the couple's 20 grandchildren, are right there in
the neighborhood. There are two major constants in Butler's life,
work and family, with the second underscored by the steady loop of
images depicting birthdays, vacations, and other milestones that
scroll continuously, all day long, across a flat-screen monitor on a
"It was a gift from the kids," says Jean, as Frank looks on.
"They had all the old pictures scanned onto the computer. It's
wonderful." For a long moment, the proud parents gaze at the screen,
They both, by the way, look great. For many years, they raced
dinghies all over the West Coast. Eight years ago, they took up
golf, which Butler says, "is like sailboat racing. If you make a
mistake there's nobody to blame." But golf is a small part of his
fitness regimen. Upstairs, off the master bedroom, he shows me the
collection of well-used exercise equipment that augments his
push-ups and stretching. He asks about my back, guides me into the
tortuous machine that saved his, and stands by to correct my form as
I gasp through a few crunches.
"It's not easy," he says of his daily routine. "But you have to
Back downstairs on the sunny veranda, he soaks in the
view of the distant, snowcapped Los Padres mountains and talks
softly of this respite from the workaday world. "You should see all
the birds," he whispers. "But watch out for the owls! They'll bite
your fingers off! It's very peaceful here, though," he says. "I
really like it."
And he really earned it.
His first boat after hanging out the new shingle was the Catalina
22, a trailersailer he'd tried to convince Whittaker to build with
no success. "I believed in it," he says. "I thought that if I could
sell 300, I'd be very happy."
To date, the company has built nearly 16,000 Catalina 22s,
including the 22 Sport version and the 22 Mark II, both of which
remain in production; at one stage, five 22s a day went out the
Butler followed up quickly with the Catalina 27 and then the 30,
the combined runs for which ultimately produced another 13,000
models sold. But Catalina wasn't just amassing huge numbers; it was
redefining how the game was played. First, nearly everything was
done under the same roof at Woodland Hills, where Butler moved the
company from North Hollywood in 1974. Catalina had its own sail
loft, made its own cushions, and even poured its own lead keels. "If
you need something and you own it yourself, you can get it right
away," says Butler.
And if you bought a Catalina and called the company with any sort
of issue, the man who picked up the phone was often its owner. "If
there are problems, I want to know about them," he says. "Plus,
anyone who buys a Catalina is part of the Catalina family. They can
call me any time."
Butler's other against-the-grain strategy during Catalina's
formative years was eschewing advertising of any kind, a matter of
considerable angst to magazine publishers and ad salesmen (including
those for this one).
"Advertising was expensive. It added a lot to the cost of a
boat," he recalls. "I always wanted my dealers to sell my
competitors' boats, too. When people came in, they saw the other
boats and they saw mine. If mine wasn't as good or better, for less
money, that was fine. But that wasn't usually how it happened. So in
effect, I was using my competitors' ads. I did it that way for
years, until we expanded into larger boats with a different
It's hard, he might've added, to argue with success.
These days, Butler still puts in 50-plus-hour weeks, still takes
work home every night, still handles a ton of warranty claims. He
has a computer at home but not in his office; instead, he dictates
his letters via tape recorder and has a secretary type them up. It's
safe to say he's a creature of habit.
When he looks back on his remarkable career, he has but one
regret. "I wish that since I started that I'd taken a picture of
every employee," he says, reckoning that the number would well
exceed 5,000. "There have been so many good people."
With the major move and expansion to the Florida plant, that
figure will no doubt increase. One thing that will likely remain
stable, however, is the staunchly loyal customer base that Catalina
has enjoyed practically from the outset.
"When I go to a boat show," Butler says, "it's not unusual at all
for someone to come up to me and say, 'I've had four of your boats.'
Actually, quite a few people say they've had seven or eight."
"I think we've taken good care of those folks," seconds Douglas.
"I think people got, in many ways, a better boat than they expected
for the price. The more they learned, and the better sailors
they became, the more they liked the boat, not the other way
around. You give folks a good experience and they'll come back."
Today, Catalina remains one of the major builders of production
sailboats, and it's now as well known for its line of full-size,
go-anywhere, systems-rich cruising yachts as it is for the
entry-level boats that helped launch the brand. For 2008, the
Catalina catalog lists 21 models, ranging in size from the tiny
8-foot Sabot dinghy to the oceangoing 47-foot Catalina 470, with a
vast selection covering all the bases in between. Butler, Douglas,
and Day all have their say, but for many years, Douglas has set the
company's overall direction and philosophy, and that, too, will
remain a constant as the company inevitably moves forward.
At some point, Frank Butler has to retire, right?
Um, maybe not.
"No way," says Day. "You feel the energy of this place change
when he walks into the building. He's the Energizer Bunny. He just
keeps going and going."
Douglas concurs. "This is Frank's life. Besides," he laughs,
"what fun is it being king if you have no kingdom?"
But Butler, surprisingly, sees retirement a bit differently.
"It's coming," he says. "Like everything else in life. I know there
aren't many people my age running a boatbuilding business. But you
see, I still enjoy it. If it was work, that'd be one thing. But it
isn't. I still like it."
"I do know one thing," he concludes. "It went very fast. When you
enjoy things, they go fast. Real fast."
Well, yes. Fast. That's the speed when you never take your foot
off the pedal.