Cecil & Frances Butler
Presenting The Personalities:
Frances and C.A. Butler - By Mary Kirkman
Compliments of Arabian Horse World
The way I look at it, my dad would have made a great pharaoh,” says Autry Butler. “He’s the kind of guy that wakes up, walks out the door and says, ‘today we’re going to build a city.”
He worries briefly that such a comment, taken out of context, might not read right. But it can’t be ignored; all of his life his parents, Frances and C.A. Butler, of White Oak, N.C., have set their sights, figured out what needed to be done, and just done it – everything from building a multi-million dollar health care and construction firm to establishing a premier Arabian breeding farm. Such a lifestyle sounds like it should be enough to define most people, but amazingly, in the Butlers’ case, it’s not usually the first thing friends and family mention. What comes first is the couples’ care for people, and the quiet good works that have characterized their lives. Employees remain with them for decades, partnerships last for 20 or 30 years.
Ask about helping other people and Frances will admit that they’ve always supported their employees, adding that it is what has been responsible for their success. But inquire about the open-hearted gestures which take up their time and effort with no promise of return, and it’s like hurling questions into a void. Stuff like that is so day-to-day that it skips under their radar.
“We have always tried to live by ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’” Frances shrugs. “We truly believe that; if you try to treat people the way you want to be treated, in the long run, you’re going to be successful.”
Such simplicity hails from her childhood. Both Frances and C.A. (Cecil Arie, but the initials will do) were born and grew up in Bladen County, N.C., about an hour west of Wilmington and half an hour southeast of Fayetteville on the coastal plain. Their families already were longtime residents who owned land there- nothing fancy, just working farms. C.A. might chuckle that the emphasis was on the work. “I learned to walk in a tobacco patch,” he recalls. The middle of 10 children, he worked from his earliest days, starting with helping his mother string tobacco and then graduating to the fields. “It encouraged me to go to school and get educated. If you didn’t go to school, you were working.”
Frances, meanwhile, grew up much-the-youngest of three sisters- more of an only child with three mothers. And, when her older sisters married, she had two fathers to stand in for her own, who died when she was 1. Her mother ran their farm and raised the children with a capability that influenced her daughter from the beginning.
“It never crossed my mind in my entire life that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to, because that’s the way I was brought up,” she says. “I was told that. It’s that way with anybody; you give someone confidence and they can do anything.”
In high school, she was acquainted with C.A., but they weren’t close. While she graduated with a full academic scholarship to Wake Forest, he joined the Navy. Then, once past his tour of duty, he set his sights on a college degree. In a strange twist of fate, when he walked into his English class at Southeastern Community College, he knew his teacher; she was that old friend from high school, Frances Thompson. She asked the dean’s permission before she consented to go out with him- but it was a match meant to be, and one which has lasted well over 30 years.
“He swept me off my feet,” Frances says. “He still does.”
“I can’t tell anybody how special she is,” C.A. counters.
“If I had to remarry tomorrow, I would try my best to remarry her.”
At that point, C.A. was clear about the career he envisioned. “I knew I’d be a high school basketball coach,” he says, “because one of the most influential people in my life was my high school basketball coach. He and his wife have been like surrogate parents to me and are to this day.”
But his third year of college put a stop to those plans. “I was taking an elementary education course,” he remembers. “They sent us over to the gym and said, ‘for that entire hour, those kids are going to be yours.’ And when they brought that fifth grade into the gymnasium and turned them loose, all hell broke loose. I went home and told Frances, ‘I’m finding another profession. There’s no way I’m going to deal with that.’”
Even without that experience, he would find out, his career already lay elsewhere. A couple of years earlier, Frances’ mother had taken a step that would reroute the lives of her entire family.
“She got us into private-sponsored health care when it was just beginning to take off,” Frances relates. “She was willing to take a risk and mortgage the farmlands to get us into it, and that started a whole new direction for us. She was a very smart lady.”
“When I graduated from college, I started working with two of my brothers-in-law, and built our first health care facility together in 1972,” C.A. recalls. “That was probably the turning point of my life because I really love building and construction.”
It became a family affair, involving the building, selling, leasing and operation of facilities in the health care industry. “C.A. and I have been partners since the day we got married,” Frances says. “We had days when he would run businesses and then when he was ready to build another one, I would come in and run it. We have literally been partners in everything we have done.”
Frances describes their business philosophy as “the three L’s – love, luck and logic.” And all three, she adds, were needed in their Arabian horse business, a venture the couple got into in the mid-1980s. It all began on an anniversary trip to Florida and a chance visit to a farm in McIntosh, where they became interested in an Arabian filly. At the time, they kept a few Quarter Horses. When Frances agreed to give one of those to her sister, C.A. bought the young Arabian- and when the filly danced down the van ramp, they were smitten.
That was the love; the logic entered when they took their time and did their homework- Richard Sanders and Willis Flick were among their early advisors. They agreed right away that they would not borrow to finance either the horses or the facilities necessary to keep them.
Logic was also apparent in C.A.’s trademark approach. “He’s always been an inquisitive man,” Autry relates, “and he doesn’t have a medium speed. It’s always been full blast, find out as much as you can, be as good as you can at it or don’t waste your time.
“My dad designed the barns, never stopped building, never stopped pushing the edge, trying to create better programs. It’s the same way he did health care; get in there, find out what’s good and what’s bad, get rid of the stuff that doesn’t work. Don’t just do it because someone else is doing it. Find out whether it works, find out whether it can be done better, then do it.”
And finally, there was the luck. “I make no bones about it; we have been very fortunate in our lives,” Frances says.”
One example is the location of Butler Farms Training Center today. An old dairy farm, they’d driven by it a million times, always thought it was beautiful, figured it would never come on the market. One morning, C.A. noticed an auction sign there that listed a manure spreader among the items for sale. When he drove home, he’d bought more than the manure spreader.
“He came back and said, ‘Honey, I bought the farm,’” Frances deadpans. “I didn’t believe him. The 500 acres we’re sitting on now- most beautiful piece of land, anybody’s who’s been here will tell you, absolutely exquisite. There’s a creek around two sides of it, every acre is cleared, 10 ponds stocked with fish, rolling hills, grassed in.”
Over the years, they added a 70-stall main barn and a breeding barn with facilities for cooling and freezing semen, and embryo transfer pastures lay in all directions, with paddocks nearer the barn, and an arena where the training goes on. All of the structures are in red brick with white columns for a traditional southern plantation look.
Another piece of luck fell into place when Frances and C.A started looking for a resident trainer at the same time Ted Carson became available.
“Everything he has done has made us happy in the horse business and that’s what it’s about,” C.A. says. “I attribute it to Ted’s being a good person, probably one of the finest young men I’ve ever met. I told him that if he wanted to get out of the horses, we could certainly do other businesses, but he loves these horses.”
“If anything ever happens to us, Ted will have the use of this farm until the day he dies,” Frances states. “He’s earned it. We are business partners now; he’s not an employee, he’s our business partner. We’ve taken him into things outside of the horse business too. He’s a hard worker and honest as the day is long.”
Ted’s first mission was to thin their herd. “We’re down to about 20 horses now,” Frances reports. “The rest of the barn is with training and clients’ horses. The intent is to have better mares and better babies. Logic- use your brain. Why buy 10, when you only need one?”
On Ted’s advice, Frances and C.A., with various partners, purchased three horses who quickly established the farm in the forward ranks of the Arabian breed. The first was MC Psynammon, Scottsdale Junior Champion Filly AOTH and Grand Champion Mare AOTH, who was also Top Ten twice at Nationals. Psynammon’s first foal was Fate BFA, a 2003 grey filly sold to Sandra K. Smith, who was named Signature Stallion Champion ATH at Scottsdale in 2004.
Ted’s second selection was Donatella, also a Junior Champion at Scottsdale, and the third was ML Mostly Padron, the Junior Champion at Scottsdale who is now in the opening stage of what appears will be an extremely successful career at stud.
“Our goals are that they own four or five national or Scottsdale-quality mares, top ten or better, and that they have that many foals each year,” Ted Carson says. “Mainly we want to have a great breeding program for halter horses – we want to produce a worldwide sort of horse, not just an American horse. As long as you stay with ‘pretty’ and carriage, both this country and all other countries love it.’
“It’s amazing what Ted’s done here in five years,” Frances says. “He’s dragging us along and we’re having a ball going. He’s made it a lot of fun for us.”
The regard is returned. “Every time they are in a partnership, it’s lasted for 20 and 30 years,” Ted observes. “They’ve had friends that long.”
“They have respect for every walk of life,” he goes on, trying to explain Frances and C.A.’s unique allure. “They are amazing people- the most amazing people I’ve found in this business. It doesn’t matter if a person is a stall cleaner or a top person, they treat them pretty much the same.” He smiles. “I don’t know if I’m their partner or their son or if we’re friends or if we’re in business together. It’s just all of those things. I plan on spending my entire career here.”
For the industry as a whole, C.A. has made it a point to contribute his time as well. He is currently President of Region XII. He has served as Vice President of Region XII, and on the Ways and Means Committee of AHA, as well as on the Board of Directors of The Pyramid Society.
But to figure out who they really are, you must talk to Autry or to Ted or to one of their friends- get beyond the industry accolades, beyond the business personae.
“It was a household of love and affection and discipline,” Autry says of his childhood. “I had friends who would come over to the house and just sit with my mom and dad, talking to them about life, and what it was to be a teenager and the struggles they were going through.”
Autry – whose name is a common surname in the area, not a tribute to cowboy Gene Autry – remembers that his mother, who’d long ago given up teaching to work with his father, resurrected her English background on behalf of his friends. “She helped every one of them write papers,” he says. “She’d teach them how to think analytically and critically. She would say, ‘we’re going to spend the next couple of hours talking about your writing style and how you can do it better.’ She had a job, she had tons of responsibilities, but she never, that I can recall, turned away any of my friends who needed extra help at school.”
His dad, meanwhile, got a second chance at an old love when he coached Autry’s basketball team for two years. “Basketball taught me teamwork,” C.A. says, and his words reflect his outlook on life. “It taught me responsibility; it taught me dedication, and that you have to work hard if you’re going to be good at anything. I still love it – it’s the greatest thing in the world for a kid to play. And the children I just adore! I took my grandson to the gym yesterday; we worked for about an hour on fundamentals. No matter what you do in life, fundamental skills start at the bottom and work up. If you get it in the beginning, everything else will work out in the end.’
When it came time for Autry to go to college, the Butler logic made its appearance. “My mom and dad said that I had to train to be a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant, but what I did after that was up to me,” Autry says. He took them at their word and obtained a law degree from Duke University, then decided to enter the construction end of the family business with his father.
“The first project we had, he tormented me,” Autry recalls. “He made me responsible for everything on a multi-million dollar job site. He put me in charge and made it very clear that everything that went wrong was my problem. It was a test by fire. When we got done with it, I’ll never forget his comment. He said, ‘ Son, I’ve done my very best to make you hate doing this, because you’re giving up a career as a lawyer with a degree from Duke University that people would kill for.’ I told him, ‘Where’s the next project? Let’s do it.”
C.A. Butler turned the business over to his son and never looked back “He basically said, ‘You can do it. I have faith in you.’ That’s the kind of parents they are,” Autry says. “It was never just given over. They made me work for it and when I proved myself in different situations, they gave me the appreciation. Even now – I’m 37 years old – I thank them for the confidence they’ve put in me.”
“I dedicated my life to my son until he was 18 years old,” C.A. says succinctly. “If he needed me, I would be there. Parenting is just as important as anything you can do. Once you have a child, it’s your responsibility to educate and bring that child up. Once you’ve educated them, if you’ve done our job, you don’t have to worry about them. Let’em go.”
Autry considers his own role as a father. “It’s made being a parent so easy,” he concludes, “because I have so much to look back on and say, ‘that’s how you do it.’”
As Autry, Ted, and nearly everyone else says, C.A. and Frances are notoriously helpful to those in need. Take one of the coaches on the Indianapolis Colts Football team. There was a time when he was a talented kid in Bladenboro, N.C.; a 4.0 student who lettered in three sports. His guidance counselors, however, told him that no college would accept him; he was black and his family laced funds. That was not a verdict C.A. Butler was willing to live with, even though by the time he learned of the situation, it was May and universities were full for the coming year. He enlisted a friend of Autry’s who had gone to Davidson College- considered one of the South’s Ivy League institutions, and this year selected by the Princeton Review as one of the top ten schools in the nation most difficult to get into – and convinced the admissions staff there that the kid needed a break.
“The boy was accepted, became their starting quarterback and set five school records in offense,” Autry smiles. “He’s now with the Indianapolis Colts and he came back a couple of months ago to speak at an Upward Basketball Clinic, which is a program for grade school kids who play basketball in a church setting, because my dad asked him to.”
There was nothing in it for the Butlers – and there hasn’t been anything in it when they’ve helped countless others get to school, find scholarships, find jobs.
“They’ve employed hundreds of people when others wouldn’t take a chance,” Autry says. “Some people don’t make it, some turn them down. But I’ve never seen them stop giving that opportunity. You have to prove to them that you’re not worth it.”
He offers one caveat to those who might picture his parents as an instant free ride. “They don’t write checks to people and say, ‘here’s a thousand dollar tax deduction, run off and work with your program.’ It’s very different from that. But if you say, ‘I need a hand, I need help,’ they will do everything it takes, way beyond the money somebody might have asked for. It’s getting you in touch with the right people, getting you on the right track, getting you an education or a job, getting you out of a bad situation. It’s more getting involved in people’s lives to help them – when they’ve been asked. They won’t intrude; they are the most un-nosy people you’ll ever meet.”
That C.A. and Frances Butler have been fortunate is apparent. But not everything has been perfect; even for a person whose glass is perennially half-full, Frances has had to admit that there have been days when she’s landed in the empty half of the glass. A few years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the same year that they lost the two brothers-in-law who had been like fathers to her, and a sharp reminder of the fragility of life. Now, currently free of the disease, she says, “I’m just appreciative of every day. When I put my feet on the ground and get up and go, I consider it a successful day.”
She’s always been clear on her priorities – love of her family and friends – but nowadays she’s more committed than ever. “You have to put in time, and you have to tell people you love them every day of your life. None of us know, when we get in our car to go to our job, if we’re going to get back home. I’m not being dramatic; that’s just a fact of life. You’d better tell the people you love that you love them.”
“It’s people first,” Autry Butler says of the legacy his parents have left him, both personally and professionally. “Everything else falls into place.”