Conejo Valley’s Frank Butler: Founder of Catalina Yachts

To have met Frank Willis Butler was an experience.  

Those who knew him well would agree, he had the rare ability to make you feel both welcome and nervous at the same time.  Those who worked for him knew that Frank gave much, but also expected much.  

And anyone who owned one of the boats he built, knew they were forever a part of his “family.”  Frank rose from humble beginnings to become the founder of the largest privately owned sailboat manufacturer in the United States, Catalina Yachts.  

In December, Jean Butler and the entire Butler family gathered to remember their patriarch—a legend of a man who left behind a legacy within both his family and the industry in which he had made himself a name. 

A couple of days after his Celebration of Life, Jean sat at her dinner table with the family digital photo frame in the background.  For ten years now, the frame has seamlessly scrolled through its 35,000 images of family memories, all of which Jean has seen at least a couple of times.  Glancing up, Jean noticed the frame was frozen—their boat sailing in open water without anyone at the wheel.  Jean’s eyes welled up with tears.  Not until later, would she be able to make sense of that photo.

They had had a long, good life together—celebrating 71 years of marriage. 

At Frank’s Celebration of Life, family members remembered that he had one rule that was the same for everyone: Frank loved a good joke—especially those at others’ expense.  Frank’s son David recalled his father’s sense of humor in a eulogy. “When I was younger, my dad and I had just finished repairing something in our home’s foundation.  We had cut out of the concrete foundation an area roughly the size of a person.  When we had finished the repairs, we filled the area with cement and smoothed it over.  I thought we were done, but as the new foundation was drying, my dad wrote in the cement, ‘Here lies my beloved wife.’’’  With a laugh, Frank laid the carpet down the next day and left the words to be discovered by the next unsuspecting homeowner.  

But Frank also had a seriousness about him.  Often Frank would ask a person, “Right or wrong?”  He was determined to be fair and honest in his business dealings.  When some guys showed up at his factory to show Frank how to cheat the utility companies, Frank invited the guys back for a second meeting, but only after alerting the authorities who were on-site with tape recordings running.  Everything came back to doing the right thing.  

Finding Passion 

Born January 17, 1928, Frank grew up with his twin sister in Los Angeles.  He would admit that he was never a good student. “Working with my hands always came more easily to me than schoolwork,” he said.  After graduating from high school, Frank enlisted in the Navy where he completed two years of service.  He returned home and enrolled in college, only to find he still did not care so much for school.  In fact, Frank failed to graduate.  

On November 12, 1949, Frank wed the love of his life, Jean Catherine Parent.  Like most young couples, they did not have much money when they were starting out.    

Newly Engaged: Frank (19) and Jean (17) pose for a photo on their couch just moments after they got engaged to each other in 1947.

Frank worked as a machinist at the time.  One afternoon his supervisor and good friend approached him with a great idea: start a business of their own.  It was such a good idea that he turned in his two-week notice right then.  

Two weeks later, Frank came into the shop and began getting ready to leave.  His friend came up to him, asking him what he was doing.  “Cleaning out my desk.  We are going to start a business,”  Frank replied.  “Frank, I was only joking,” his supervisor replied. “Put your stuff back and get back to work.” 

Frank sat there a moment in silence, then continued to clear out his desk.  “Frank, what are you doing?  It was just a joke.  I need you to stay, as we are going to be doing some layoffs.”  The friend explained that his plan was for another guy in the shop to be let go in a couple of weeks.  

Frank replied, “I told my family and friends I was going to start a business.  I don’t know what I am going to do, but I am not a liar.  I will tell you what, give me two weeks to figure something out, and then give my job to the other guy.  He has a family too, and he can take my job.”    

After buying a lathe for $60 from his father-in-law, Frank set out to partner up with a guy who gave Frank 49% of the business.  It did not take Frank long to realize that he had made a bad decision in taking a minority position.  That’s when Frank went on to open his own machine shop, Wesco Tool, which manufactured airline parts.  Thus was born his career as an entrepreneur.  “I’ve always liked problems,” he would say.  “I like solving them.”

A Love for Sailing

Frank was known for his tenacious attitude.  No matter the sport or challenge, he took everything on with a singular focus: to do it better than anyone else.  With no prior experience, he began sailing Sailfish boats in Newport Harbor.

By now, Frank and Jean had four children at home: Debbi, Mary, Nancy, and David.  They would later adopt three more children into their family: Robert, Steven, and Karen.  Frank needed a bigger boat for his newfound passion and growing family. 

Down the street from his shop was a company selling a 21-foot Victory Sloop.  Frank placed his order and “foolishly” paid for the yet-to-be-built boat in full.  After much time, the Saturday came when the boat was to be ready for pick up.  With his family loaded into the family car, he arrived to find the boat unfinished—in fact, it was never really even started!  With the owner nowhere to be found, Frank asked Jean to take the kids home.  He had work to do.  

Walking back into the shop, Frank climbed on the deck of another unfinished boat and began to call out orders to the shop employees.  An employee pointed out the obvious—Frank was not their boss.  Frank’s response was perfectly clear.  “We can go settle this outside, or you can get to work.”  

He tried to work out some arrangements with the failing business owner—even providing him a personal loan.  When the business could no longer go on, Frank agreed to take it over, renaming it Wesco Marine and later Coronado Yachts.  

With this, he had found his passion: building sailboats. As he said,  “I loved it.” 

The Henry Ford of the Sailing Industry

In 1967, Frank sold his growing business to Whittaker Corp and agreed to stay on as a consultant.  The larger corporate-style management of Whittaker did not suit Frank’s personal business method.  He was well known for his hands-on approach.  After submitting a very direct letter to management about how they were doing things the wrong way, Frank was fired.  “I didn’t like the way they did things,” he would say succinctly.    

Henry Ford of the Sailing Industry: This photo was taken in November 1969 of the Catalina Yacht Factory in Woodland Hills, CA.

Having “left” Whittaker in 1969, he began again and started his final business, which would become the industry icon, Catalina Yachts. 

The first boat he made was the Catalina 22.  His design became one of the most produced boats in its size range.  That singular boat went on to achieve unparalleled commercial success.  Boat manufacturers in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom have all produced versions of this same boat from Frank’s design.    

Many years later, Frank would recall, “I thought if I could sell 300, I’d be very happy.”  This one model produced by Catalina Yachts went on to sell over 16,000 in total.  

Building boats was costly and time-consuming.  Each boat was essentially a custom boat from beginning to end, and Frank had to make it more cost-effective to produce.  He had always admired Henry Ford and applied Ford’s philosophies to boat building.  Frank laid out an assembly line and developed reusable molds, which were an industry first. 

In 1974, Frank purchased what still stands today, his factory in Woodland Hills.  Everything he needed to build a boat was brought on-site.  “If you need something and you own it yourself, you can get it right away,” he would say.  Everything from sails to cushions to the lead keels and rails was all on-site.  

Things got so busy for Catalina Yachts that their network of dealers was given purchase quotas.  The Catalina brand was gaining recognition as a reliable family boat that was more affordable than its competitors.  

Westlake Lake:  Finding a Home 

In the late ’60s, the City of Westlake Village was being built as one of the original “master-planned” communities, complete with a manmade lake at its center.  To be a true sailing destination as envisioned, lake architect Bill Ficker reached out to Frank, seeking advice on the lake’s best possible design.  

Few may realize that Westlake Lake was intentionally created to take advantage of the prevailing winds, allowing sailors to sail up the lake from the Yacht Club toward Westlake Blvd.  The Westlake Yacht Club itself was in its infancy at that time, and Frank saw it as an opportunity to work together.

Frank became a founding member of the Yacht Club and did his part to support the club through donating various boats over the years—Sabots, Capri 13 and 14’s, and even the large C18’s were all made possible through this decades-long partnership.  

One afternoon in December 1969, Frank and Jean visited the lake.  Jean would recall, “Frank drove me out to a vacant lot slightly up-lake and we parked.  He asked me, “I am going to build us a house on this lot or that lot over there.  Which would you prefer?”  They both agreed on the same lot. 

Frank also invested in other lots with the idea of building and selling for a profit.  One house he built next door to theirs sat on the market for years with no interest.  Finally, after going into escrow, the buyer at the last minute demanded that Frank put up a tall fence between their lots so they couldn’t see one another.  Frank knew right then that he didn’t want him as a neighbor.  In typical Frank Butler fashion, he tore up the contract and walked away.  

It was then that he decided the best neighbors would be his own kids.  His home on the lake, surrounded by his family, has affectionately become known as “the Butler Compound.”

A Growing Family: The Butler family has 7 kids, 20 grandkids, 28 great-grandchildren, and 4 great-great-grandchildren. Photographed is one of their family reunions in August of 2019.

The Butler family has grown over the years.  Today the family numbers seven kids, twenty grandkids, twenty-eight great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.   

Beyond his love for building boats, Frank was an avid hunter most of his life. He shared this same passion with his son and grandsons, just as his father had with him.  My father taught me “You eat what you shoot.”  At age 72, Frank took up the sport of golf.  “I only wish I had taken up the game sooner,” Frank would later admit.  His love for golf combined with having a machine shop at his fingertips resulted in Frank making some of his own putters.  

Most of all, Frank loved vintage cars.  True to his craftsman’s nature, Frank bought cars that needed restoration.  Over the years, he restored all sorts of classic cars including a 1922 Dodge Touring, a Model T, a 1959 Skyline, and a 1967 Mustang.  However, his greatest find was a rusted 1940 Lincoln Zephyr previously owned by the Vanderbilt Estate that Frank restored, like the others, back to its original condition.    

Working Into His Nineties

Every morning at about 6 a.m., the light in Frank’s bedroom would turn on.  About 45 minutes later, his car would pull out of the garage, and off to work, he would go.  For good measure, he would always honk twice, his personal goodbye to his family on the block.  Frank was happiest when working.  At night, he would arrive in time for a 6:30 dinner.  Then with his box of “homework,” he would go upstairs and work until late into the night.  

Until about his 75th birthday, it was not uncommon to find Frank’s car outside his factory on Saturdays; it was simply Frank catching up on things.  

In 2013, Frank was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame.  A man from humble beginnings had risen from novice sailor to legend in the industry.  Industry vendors, boat dealers, and Frank’s family were on hand to watch him receive this great honor.  

As Jean sat at her dinner table the night after Frank’s Celebration of Life, she stared again at the strange photo frozen on her screen—the one with the boat that had no skipper at the helm.

Then she realized it.  The photo of the boat without anyone at the wheel was symbolic of her new reality.  Frank was no longer here.  “Now it is time,” she thought, “for Jesus to take the wheel.”

Related posts