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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
best skippers and crews have sailed these boats in the Congressional
Cup for the last 10 years.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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,’
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.
in the economy is not the only thing that can make business difficult,
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.
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.
him, he has a large extended family with whom he gets to work
everyday. And it makes him smile.
Angeles/Orange County Bureau Chief