Frank Butler started out as a guy who just liked to make stuff, which is pretty much how he’s ended up, as well. It’s a California story, for the most part, and yes, in some ways it has been “a long strange trip.”
It certainly feels strange passing through the corridors of a factory in the San Fernando Valley that once teemed with the production of Catalina Yachts and now sits empty. You can hear your own footsteps as you make your way to an upper corner where a handful of people still perform office tasks, including the corner office where Frank Butler presides over an empire fully capable of maintaining an empty building in California while another plant in Florida turns out boats. Although named for California’s favorite island, Catalinas are now produced much closer to Nassau than to Avalon. Shifting total production wasn’t part of the original plan for this company that has built more than 60,000 boats, but by and by, it became a plan, and then a fact.
In 1961, Frank Butler was running a machine shop in North Hollywood—supplying parts to, among others, the aircraft industry—when he decided that, yes, he had enjoyed his dinghy sailing on the bays and lakes of California and Arizona, and that the 21-foot keelboats coming out of a shop down the street looked mighty good. Those were early times for fiberglass. “I stopped in,” Butler recalls, “and I thought it was just beautiful, the way those boats were made.”
Butler went home and told his wife they were going to buy a bigger boat and…well, it’s probably best to draw the shade on the rest of that conversation. The pair had a growing family that already included four kids and would eventually include three adopted handicapped children. But when you have to have a boat, you have to have a boat.
“Something told me to do it,” Butler says. “There was a good deal on offer if I paid up front, and I was promised the boat in four to six weeks.”
The big day came, and Butler loaded the family into the station wagon and drove to the shop to pick up his new purchase. “I went in,” he recalls, “and there were a few guys working. I couldn’t find my boat. I waited an hour or so, and then I asked one of the employees. He told me, ‘Did you pay? You never do that with Hank. We never built that boat.’ I went to the car and sent my wife home, then I went back into the shop and called the guys together, four of them. I said that I don’t like to fight, but it’s going to happen. I ordered a blue hull, but I see an orange hull over there. And I see a white deck over there. Put the white deck on that hull.
“‘No, it belongs to Dr. So-and-so,’ is what I heard, but I said, ‘Put it on or we go outside.’ They started putting the deck on, and right then and there I was building my first boat. I came back every night. In less than a month, the boat was finished, and I was hooked.” Soon, Frank Butler owned the business, and a new force had entered the boatbuilding industry.
Butler tried running two businesses but noticed that whenever he appeared at the boatbuilding shop, “everybody was on break.” So he followed his heart and told his wife they were selling the machine shop, their livelihood with its 30 employees. (It’s probably best to also draw the shade on the rest of that conversation.) Then, when Butler took his boats to his first boat show, and sold boats on Saturday, he went back on Sunday to find “all my orders had been cancelled. The competition did not want our boats out there.”
But this man wasn’t going away. Butler struggled to find a designer for the next boat. Sparkman & Stephens was willing—on a two-year turnaround—but that wouldn’t do, Butler says, “So I started to re-design the original company’s 21-foot Victory into more of a cruiser. I got a guy who worked for a competitor to tool our first boat. We called it the Coronado 25, and it was the first boat ever with a headliner. That’s something I took from Lockheed and the way they were building airplanes. If we could build the outside of glass, why not the inside? It was less expensive and faster to build, but when we started I didn’t know for sure that I could get the headliner out of the mold. That was the first boat that, really, we came out with, and we were still varnishing the trim on the way to its first show.”
The Coronado 25 found a market, and Butler eventually sold Coronado Yachts to Whittaker Marine, builder of the booming Columbia line. He worked with them for a year, but says, “It just wasn’t the same as having my own company. I wanted to build a new 22-footer. They didn’t.”
In 1970 Butler launched Catalina Yachts. Because of the way he built and operated the company, he has been compared to Henry Ford, building a good product at a fair price. He has lived and influenced the full cycle of fiberglass production boatbuilding and has a “now-don’t-print-this” story about everybody in the game, mostly complimentary but often multi-layered.
As he speaks, sunlight floods his ample office, which is furnished with a sofa and chairs in addition to the desk. There are models of an antique schooner and a square-rigger. There are models of cars—this is Southern California, so of course, Butler has a car fetish and a collection of dozens of classics, including his favorite, a 1940 ragtop Lincoln.
“All these years later we’re still building the Catalina 22,” he says. ”We’ve built more than 15,000 of them. At one point, we were building five a day. Then we added the 27, then the 30, and we’ve built more than 6,000 of each of those.”
In 1975, when the Catalina 30 was introduced, the boat was ahead of its time. Its moderate hull shape was beamier than its competitors and that beam was carried aft. A premolded headliner increased space in the cabin, where there was surprisingly generous headroom and a double quarterberth. Catalina’s labor-intensive mock-up process produced a winner, with options for standard or tall rigs, deep or shoal-draft keels, and a long product lifespan.
The world beat a path to Butler’s door. For a time, demand was so great dealers were put on a quota. Soon the company was both moving and expanding. It was natural for Butler and the partners who continue to work with him to this day—Gerry Douglas as head of engineering, design and operations, and Sharon Day as sales manager—to create not only a fiberglass-manufacturing facility and sailmaking loft, but satellite operations turning out lead keels and other parts they did not want to outsource.
Visit the Catalina Yachts headquarters on Victory Boulevard in Woodland Hills, California, and you’re likely to have lunch across the street at Weiler’s Warner Square. Scampering across four lanes of uncontrolled mid-block traffic to get there constitutes “the company fitness program,” according to Gerry Douglas. And if Frank Butler is seated across from you—his full head of white hair unmistakable—and if his half-Cobb salad arrives and he quips, “This is half?” and Michelle, the waitress, answers, “How many years have you been coming here?” just figure that you are witnessing a “family” ritual.
Family is important to Catalina Yachts. Butler believes he builds boats for families. In July the company will be holding its 30th annual owners’ rendezvous. “I can’t believe it’s been 30 years,” Butler says, “but I wanted an event for families. It’s been my joy to see people happy, hear their stories, see their children growing up.”
Your reporter once sailed on Mobile Bay with the owner of a Catalina 42 who recounted a time when he had a problem and called the factory. “The next thing I knew I was talking to Frank Butler!” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
In fact, this is quite common. Butler has always been the company’s quality control officer, which explains why so many Catalina owners who move up to bigger boats at different stages of their lives move to another Catalina.
They also know that every Catalina is completely re-buildable. Parts are available for every model, no matter how old, and you will be able to fit those replacements in because Catalina’s decks go on early in the build process. If the original components came in through a hatch, so can replacements.
Still, there’s a strangeness about this. Getting a booth at Weiler’s surely was more competitive when the nine-acre complex across the street was humming. Nonetheless, the current state of affairs is no accident. “California is just not friendly to manufacturing,” Butler says. “I could see it on the horizon, so in 1974 we bought the Morgan facility in Largo, Florida. It was a backup in case of fire or other problems.”
In time, the Florida plant became part of a plan, completed in 2008, to shift production entirely to Florida. With that, Catalina Yachts joined the list of once-thriving Southern California builders who either folded or moved out.
Still, the management trio of Butler, Douglas and Day is most definitely not leaving California. Just figure that Douglas is racking up plenty of frequent flyer miles. At home in California Butler still owns a boatyard here and a marina there (“I built the Channel Islands Marina to encourage people to be interested in sailing”), yet more evidence of the spirit that has driven the entire company to success.
Who would have imagined a 60,000-boat output from someone who didn’t get deep into this sailing thing until he was 30 years old? Apparently, it’s never too late to start, so long as you like to make stuff.