Dec. 5/2020: Dang. You know I’ve been slacking in this blogging game when the Wall Street Journal gets around to running an obit like this before I do. That link there is a couple of days old. The print version ran today.
I met Frank Butler a few times in passing over the years, but never had a chance to get to know him personally. He was a legend in the boatbuilding industry, and the company he founded in 1970, Catalina Yachts, became and is to this day the largest creator of production sailboats in the United States. In an industry as mercurial as ours, believe me, that is no small feat. For a good sense of what Frank was like up close and in person, I strongly recommend you read this excellent profile by Cruising World’s Herb McCormick, which ran some 12 years ago.
I also urge you to get a copy of Dan Spurr’s very fine history of fiberglass boatbuilding, Heart of Glass (International Marine, 2000), where Dan quotes Frank at length on how he got his start first in business, then in boatbuilding.
In Frank’s very own words:
I got a job as an engineer designing tools when I was 23 or 24. Most of the engineers I was designing with had no shop experience; they didn’t know the headaches. My boss had worked in a shop and that’s why we got along. One day he asked me to go into business with him, to start our own machine shop. That sounded great. I went home and told my wife I was going into business. I told my friends. Gave two weeks notice. At the end of two weeks I was cleaning my desk when my boss came over. Everybody in the office kind of looked at me and laughed. Snickered. I couldn’t figure it out. My boss said to me, “Frank, I want to talk to you a minute. You really think you’re going into business?”
I said, “Yes. You asked me and I said yes.”
“I was only kidding.”
“Oh? I didn’t know that.” I was kind of frozen.
“I just wanted to tell you. I saw you cleaning your desk.”
“Well, I understand now.” I kept cleaning up.
“Frank, didn’t you hear what I said?”
“Yeah, I heard you. You see, I told my wife, I told my friends I’m going into business. Now if I go home and I don’t go into business, I’m a liar. I’m going into business.”
“But you don’t have anywhere to go.”
“No, I don’t. But I’ll do something.”
And Frank Butler did start up his own machine shop, working sales in a suit during the day, making parts at night at a lathe in his garage. He developed a very good relationship with a key client and had a clear path to success in front of him, but a few years later accidentally turned down another path instead.
You’ll read about this in all the obits on Frank, and in Herb’s profile–it’s a key part of the legend–how Frank bought a 21-foot sailboat from a builder in the Los Angeles area, paid in advance, then built the boat himself when the builder couldn’t deliver.
But Frank’s version of the story, as told to Dan, is a bit grittier:
So five weeks later I came to pick up my boat. I couldn’t find the boat or the man who sold it to me. I stood around there for two hours. My wife and four kids were in the car.
I said, “Honey, I think we’ve got a problem. You go home and pick me up at five.” It was about 11-o-clock then.
I went back in the shop where about eight guys were working. I knew one of them and said I wanted to get everyone together. I told them my name and that I was taking over the shop right now. I said, “I can tell you right now I don’t like to fight. But I’ve never walked from a fight. Now, anybody who doesn’t agree with me, we’re going outside. And we’ll get it settled. I’m taking over this shop–right now.”
The owner wasn’t there. So one guy spoke up. I said, “You want to go outside? Let’s go.”
They understood. So I said, “You take that deck.”
He said, “That belongs to Dr. so and so.”
I said, “You take that deck and I’m gonna help you put it together.”
By about 3-o-clock that afternoon I got the deck on top of that hull. The owner came by while I was up there putting the bow fitting on. He looked at me and I looked at him. Never said a word.
I came back every night and weekends building that boat. After about ten days he came to me and said, “Frank, I’m sorry for what I did. I was short of money.”
I said, “That’s OK. I enjoyed it. I always liked working with my hands.”
Frank started his own boatbuilding company in 1961, Wesco Marine, which he soon rechristened Coronado Yachts. He tried to get Sparkman & Stephens to design a boat for him to build, but when they told him it would take two years to develop a design, he went ahead and drew one himself, for the Coronado 25. In building it he pioneered the technique of molding fiberglass pans to fit out the interior, which soon became standard practice throughout the industry.
In 1969 Frank sold Coronado to Whittaker Corp., which owned another California builder, Columbia, and the following year (after getting fired by Whittaker) started up Catalina. And the rest, as they say, is history. Frank always kept his feet firmly on the ground in running his company (with lots of help from Sharon Day and Gerry Douglas, who became co-partners in the business) and was renowned for handling customer complaints himself.
Frank died last month, on November 15, at age 92, of complications related to Covid-19, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Catalina’s first boat, the Catalina 22, designed by Frank, was a roaring success, with over 16,000 built through two iterations between 1970 and 2004
Frank the Navy guy in his younger days, with his wife Jean
He is survived by Jean, four daughters, three sons, 20 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren, and four great-great grandchildren.
A prolific man indeed.
RIP: Frank Willis Butler, 1928-2020