Butler’s Inc., venerable Guam business, prepares for its 103rd year of operation. What is its future
By Bruce Lloyd
Chester Carl Butler Ignacia Bordallo Butler
It’s a familiar story in Guam. A military man or woman spends time on the island, sees opportunity, finds love, builds a local family and becomes a community fixture. The first and most familiar exemplars of this tale would be Chester Carl Butler and his wife, Ignacia Bordallo Butler.
Both are long gone, but their legacies are far from forgotten. On top of the hill on Route 4 in Sinajana, once the site of Butler’s pioneering Coca Cola plant, grandson Gerard Andre ‘Gerry’ Champion regards himself as the keeper of the Butler family flame.
But as Champion is quick to emphasize, he took the surviving family business in quite a different direction when he took over from his grandmother in the 1980s. And Champion maintains repeatedly his intent is less monetary gain through the business than to honor his forebearers. The dimly lit and un-air conditioned 2017 version of Butler’s Inc. would be familiar to generations going back to the early 20th Century, before chain stores and energetic, profit oriented mainland businesses arrived on island.
On a recent Saturday, a few shoppers were navigating the cramped aisles, browsing a mix of rattan and antique furniture, Philippine basket ware and various clutter, including a shelf of old, inoperative, but not yet antique phones. One enthused about an antique sign he bought, dusted off and framed for his office. For customers, it’s the old game of finding the gold and perhaps bargains amidst the dross.
Champion complains about the repetition of dates in accounts of the family business, but he says Chester Butler’s acquisition of the Coke franchise in the 1920s was a watershed for the Guam economy.
Chester Carl Butler bottles up some Coke
“When my granddad brought Coca Cola to Guam, my God, jobs opened up, support jobs, people selling Coke and making money, my grandfather making Coke and making money,” Champion said.
Or provided with an alternative to tuba coconut wine or its distilled cousin, aguayente.“Later he brought in Hiram Walker’s, Seagram’s 7, Hamms Beer and one after another after another until he had quite a little empire.”
Soft drinks and alcohol were however far from the sole interest of Butler’s which got its start by importing general merchandise previously unavailable on the then isolated island.
Butler Store, Agana, 1920s
Meanwhile, Ignacia was the strong though less flamboyant half of the team, operating first Butler’s Emporium in Agana and in the 1930s, another retail store, warehouses and one of only two movie theatres on Guam, all in Agana. Butler’s Soda Fountain, located inside the Emporium, was the most popular ice cream spot on Guam before World War II.
The Butlers also started Guam’s first commercial radio station, K6LG4.
At the time, Chester Butler would have likely been compared to hustling American entrepreneurs such as five and dime store pioneer Frank Winfield Woolworth, but Champion maintains that wasn’t his grandfather’s orientation before or after World War II:
“A lot of people don’t know that for the cost of their goods, be it a car or whatever was sent back here, many of the invoices for that material became lost or thrown in the garbage. That was my grandfather’s way of giving back to the island from which he had made a fortune. That’s what I don’t see these days. I see people lining their own pockets and giving nothing back. And what they do give back, it’s tax deductible or whatever.”
World War II and Japan’s invasion at the outset largely brought Butler’s to a crashing halt. Chester Butler was interned in Japan with other American citizens on Guam, returning after the war emaciated and far from his previous good health. Through her wits and presence of mind in dealing with the Japanese occupiers, and enduring beatings when she didn’t provide them with information, Ignacia kept the business running, only to see Agana largely destroyed by the American bombing in preparation for the 1944 invasion.
Reverting to his entrepreneurial roots, Butler was able to start an entirely new business in San Francisco after the war, an exporting company known as Pacific Island Trading Co., which brought in many of the building materials and other supplies for the rebuilding of the devastated island, selling to both Butler’s and other Pacific entities.
So if this was a typical multi-generational business empire, where was the next generation? Champion’s father, Milton, worked for his father-in-law briefly, but given his own entrepreneurial instincts, moved on some years later to run a successful food business in California. Other members of the family worked for Butler's over the years, but eventually moved on as well.
But Ignacia, also working for Pacific Trading in San Francisco post-war, soldiered on after her husband’s death in 1952. The business was in the hands of son James for a time, but not doing well. She eventually returned to take over, but the business remained largely traditional as tough, relentlessly profit-oriented competition developed.
“You would find men’s pants, towels, pots and pans, that kind of stuff and it remained that until the big stores started to come in, Payless, Micronesian Mall and the others. My grandmother was 80 years old. She was tired,!” Champion said.
Champion was teaching at Guam Community College by then, but he says he couldn’t resist his grandmother’s entreaty that he take over the store. In the 30 years-plus since, Champion, who says that like his grandmother he is proud of never taking a business course, has done it his way.
Butler's Store, Sinajana, 2017
He says he changed the focus to imported Philippine goods, because he liked going to the ROP and when shipping construction material to Guam, he could fill excess shipping space with light weight goods such as baskets. He says he’s sold thousands of baskets since then.
Before an illness intervened, Champion also ran a lunch operation reminiscent of the Butler Soda Fountain of old, featuring fancy hot dogs, among other things. Operating as usual on whim and impulse, he also had some labor problems.
“They came to me one time and said, ‘Boss, it’s Friday and there’s not a lot of customers, so can we close and go home?’ I said yes, go home and stay there! Your interest is not in my business and I don’t want you working here.”
The hot dogs may be on the way back at Butler’s and will likely be a feature of the anniversary celebration, the plans for which remain fluid, but Champion is more interested in the history it marks than the food.
“We’ve been through every earthquake, every typhoon. We’ve been through World War II together. We’ve been through all the governors together. We’re mindful and thankful to all the people who have supported us along the way.”
But at age 103, is there a successor groomed to continue that tradition? The answer appears to be, no.
“If anybody steps up, that’s good. If they don’t, then we’ll close and say ‘thank you Guam,’” Champion said.