Thursday, November 28, 2002
Catalina’s Butler Defines Legendary

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

By Laurie Morrison

Laurie Morrison
TREND SETTER - When Frank Butler founded Catalina Yachts in 1970, he had no idea he would establish one of the world’s premier sailboat companies and introduce thousands to sailing.
With this article, The Log Newspaper begins a new series called “Legends of the Coast” that will profile those men and women who have made significant contributions to California’s recreational boating industry. The series will run occasionally. - Editor

Like most legends, Frank Butler answered his calling in life with a simple goal. When he built his first boat in 1961, by himself, for himself, he just wanted to go sailing. Almost 10 years later, when he founded Catalina Yachts, the goal was simply to build a good boat for the money.

Perhaps one of the reasons for his continued success is that building good boats at a good value is still his priority. Or perhaps it is because the man behind the largest sailboat manufacturer in the country, headquartered in the San Fernando Valley, still just wants to go sailing.

Butler, a modest man who does not much like talking about himself, is an engineer by trade, an artist by heart. Before he discovered boating, he had a machine shop and manufacturing plant. When he built his first boat, the pieces starting coming together. Something clicked. His understanding of engineering, combined with his drawing and design capabilities, all worked when it came to boats. But he had to overcome one large obstacle - he did not know how to sail. “I knew nothing about sailing, and it took a while to learn,” Butler said. He would race every weekend for years.

He owned another sailboat-manufacturing company in the early ‘60s, but sold it to pay more attention to the Catalina line. The first Catalina model, the Catalina 22, preceded the company’s official birth with a July 1969 launch. Within a year, the Catalina 27 made its debut. Within five years, more than 5,000 Catalina 22s sold. In 1980, Sail Magazine named it the trailerable boat of the decade. Later that year, the company built hull number 10,000. In February 1995, the Catalina 22 was named one of five charter members to the Sailboat Hall of Fame.

By 1985, more than 6,000 Catalina 27s were built, making it the largest keelboat class in the country. The Catalina 27 would be remodeled in 1992 and unveiled as the Catalina 270. Later that year, Cruising World magazine named it “Boat of the Year.” In 1996, the Catalina 28 mark II was Cruising World’s choice as “Boat of the Year.” Cruising World also honored the Catalina 380 (1997) and the Catalina 310 (2000) as the boats of the year.

The first Catalina 42 was built in 1989. With more than 100 hulls delivered in the first year, it surpassed the country’s previous sailboat-production record. No doubt, the small, back-to-basics Expo 12.5 and Expo 14.2, launched this year, will have the same success.

In 1980, Butler and Catalina Yachts began an association with Long Beach Yacht Club and its distinguished Congressional Cup yacht race. Initially, Catalina 38s were used in the internationally known match-racing event.

However, a group of forward thinkers from LBYC approached Butler in the late 1980s with the idea of creating a fleet of identical boats for the regatta, said Camille Daniels. Daniels, one of the area’s foremost women sailboat racers, was the first female chairman of the Cup in 2000.

“Without Frank Butler, the Catalina 37 fleet would not exist,” she said. “It was Frank, along with Gerry Douglas, Daniel Cassal and Bill Peterson who welcomed the idea, designed, and built the fleet of 11 boats used today.”

The world’s best skippers and crews have sailed these boats in the Congressional Cup for the last 10 years.

“Every year these sailors rate the fleet with accolades like ‘the best matched fleet of boats used for matching racing anywhere in the world,’” Daniels said. “For this, the Long Beach Sailing Foundation and LBYC are most grateful to Frank and his staff for their continued support of the fleet.”

The boats are owned by the foundation, a non-profit organization. Other major Southern California regattas, like the Women’s One Design Regatta, and the Gold Cup, are sailed in the fast, but challenging, boats each year.

As new models of Catalina yachts were born, different branches of the Catalina family started growing too. For each Catalina model, boat owners came together to form associations.

The International Association, with branches in Hong Kong, Germany, Canada, Holland, Australia, and the England, has more than 250 members. Across the country, there are fleets here, in New York, New England, Florida, and the Great Lakes and Chesapeake area.

The associations hold numerous social and sailing events, and many attend one of two annual Catalina rendezvous. Each year, on each coast, the company sponsors a weekend rendezvous for its boat owners, large and small. This year, more than 500 fans, who brought approximately 200 boats, attended both events.

The event is so popular that competitors now host similar events. To support the association and to keep in touch with customers, Catalina Yachts launched its own in-house magazine Mainsheet, 18 years ago. The publication is distributed to 12,000-to-5,000 boat owners each quarter. The comprehensive magazine rivals industry trade magazines in terms of quality.

“It’s the best in industry,” Butler claims.

The fact that Butler looks at every employee and every Catalina owner as family is likely another reason for his success. It is an attitude that one cannot miss when visiting the Woodland Hills, Calif., headquarters, open for tours every Thursday. It’s not surprising that the telephone rings constantly. Many of the calls are customers calling with questions for Butler.

What is surprising is that he personally takes as many of the calls as he can. He also answers letters himself. And it does not matter if you bought a $1.5 million yacht, or picked up a used Capri for $1,500, Butler and his staff treat you equally.

He gets a couple of letters a week, or more. Some are just writing to tell stories about their boats. He is proud of the fact the Catalina owners are quite loyal. Many of his customers have owned more than one.

“It’s nice to hear from them,” Butler said of his customers. “It makes it so much fun.” He is also proud that parents buy Catalinas to give their children, or to hand down to them. It is evident that Butler takes great pride in building products that produce happy customers.

And although the product has received much attention and garnered almost every award in the industry, Butler’s greatest reward is going to the office and working with people. And his employees, some with him for decades, will tell you he’s got a heart of gold.

“Without my employees, I’d just have an empty building,” he said. He also feels blessed to have a balanced life. “I can’t wait to get to work in the morning and can’t wait to get home at night,” he said.

But it takes more than attitude to succeed for 30 years. During that time, the business has had its ups and downs, like the stock market, he said.

“About every 10 years there is some shakeup in the industry,” Butler said. “I believed in what I was doing; it worked for me!” But he has always planned and prepared for rainy days. “So far it’s paid off, but it’s not easy sometimes,’ he said.

Because of Sept. 11, the industry around the world is in a lull right now. Sales of small boats have been spotty but are starting to come back, he said. However, expensive boats, in the $2-to-$3 million range, are selling well. Meanwhile, the quarter-million-dollar boats are not moving. And charter business is off, he said.

Fluctuation in the economy is not the only thing that can make business difficult, however.

In California, more and more regulatory agencies are making it difficult to do business. Agencies imposing ever more restrictions are why there are few boat builders left here in California, he said.

The future of boating here is largely with the “little guy,” whom Butler admires. The industry must help and support the little guy, he said. He vowed to bend over backwards to help.

And for all the future sailors, Catalina Yachts is working to place small boats, like the Expo, in schools, with youth groups and families. “I always said, work with families,” Butler said.

Lucky for him, he has a large extended family with whom he gets to work everyday. And it makes him smile.

Los Angeles/Orange County Bureau Chief