Editor’s note: This interview was conducted prior to the worldwide outbreak of Coronavirus.
More than 25 years ago, the management of Ballard-based Ray’s Boathouse told its two valet managers its plans to privatize the parking service, effectively eliminating the men’s jobs.
Those valet managers were brothers Stuart and Jeremy Butler, who, faced with seeing their jobs become obsolete, decided to take matters into their own hands. Within a month of receiving the news, the Butlers were able to launch their own company and put forth a competitive proposal, which was accepted by the powers that be at Ray’s Boathouse. With that, Butler Valet was born.
Looking at the brothers’ business now, it is difficult to imagine it was born from such necessary beginnings. In the 25 years since its founding, the business — now known as Butler Seattle — has expanded to offer many additional services. In addition to event parking, the business has added transportation services, tours, resource guides, and event hosting to its growing menu of offerings.
The brothers are graduates of the University of Washington — Jeremy with a degree in psychology and Stuart with degrees in psychology and political science — and say they gravitated toward the business they founded in their 20s for the same reason so many gravitate toward their chosen careers: for enjoyment and to have time to appreciate their favorite things outside work, like spending time with their families and playing hockey together.
Known for their luxurious wine tours, the duo also hosts corporate tours in Woodinville for company planners and team-building events. The Butlers also are founding board members of Weddings in Woodinville, a wedding planning tour featuring top local vendors, where Stuart is president and Jeremy is treasurer.
Most recently, the two partnered with Marion Clifton of Banquet & Event Resource Inc. to coproduce the Butler Events Resource Guide. In partnering with B&E, the brothers also host the Northwest Event Show, the region’s largest event trade show.
The brothers recently sat down with 425 Business to discuss strategic growth, the melding of work and family, and the future of the hospitality industry on the Eastside and beyond.
What are your favorite aspects of working in hospitality?
Jeremy Butler: I just can’t help but open a door — it’s in my DNA. I like to offer help and feel like I’m useful, because it’s a self-validation thing, I suppose. I know I did my best, and if it is confirmed later on by others, that’s great, but that’s not why I do it.
Stuart Butler: The industry is amazing in itself. You’re not in this industry unless you are service-oriented, so just the people we get to work with are incredible. I think there is a human connection in this industry, and I think that’s what has driven us. We get to make experiences. Even on the valet and transportation side, we are helping those experiences be the best they can be, and you get a lot of pride in that. It is a very demanding industry, but it is all worth it.
When the two of you began Butler Valet in 1994, is this where you saw yourselves in 2020?
Jeremy: I don’t know if we looked that far ahead. I think we are finally taking the steps to look that far out in our business’ timeline and prepare, organize, and purposely develop our goals and strategies.
Stuart: I don’t think that we necessarily had a vision of what we were going to do. We were really doing it to take care of the families; we were family-focused and were trying to find a way to enjoy what we were doing. It has evolved, and most of how we have changed has been a result of our change to the environment. I think we have just been really good at seeing opportunities as they come and adjusting when necessary.
How much lead-up work goes into planning events like NW Event Show and Weddings in Woodinville?
Jeremy: For the Northwest Event Show, it is year-round. A full year of planning and finding out what the market is looking for. Weddings in Woodinville is a little more fine-tuned; since it’s in its 11th year (with us), it definitely has a cadence. Now, we are looking to establish a cadence with the event show.
Stuart: There are sales, partnerships, sponsorships. Then you have to sell the tickets and build for attendance. You have to come up with the education; you have to come up with the plan and figure out who you are serving. It’s a whole lot of work, more than we knew.
How do you envision the future of Washington tourism/hospitality?
Jeremy: I think the future is very bright. All the hotel rooms that are coming online and the infrastructure that they are building is definitely lining up to do a lot of good things.
Stuart: (Seattle) is building the Convention Center expansion; the Washington wine industry is gaining strength and prominence, the waterfront and aquarium are improving; along with the light rail. It’s insane all that is happening. I also think the diversity we have in industry gives us such a strong economy, and all the people coming here to work will have families that will visit.
What are the key elements a business must have to continue growing over 25 years?
Jeremy: It needs to be dynamic. It needs to be able to alter and adapt to technology, or to relevancy of what’s going on.
Stuart: To me, it’s relationships. You have to make sure you’re always giving value and never take a relationship for granted.
While you two were growing up, did you ever think that your brother could be your longtime business partner?
Jeremy: I’ve always enjoyed working with Stuart. As a kid, Stuart would line the jobs up, and our brother, Chris, and I would execute them. Stuart was always a hustler out there and knew how to line up a good way to provide.
Stuart: We had a lawn-mowing business in high school, so I’d line up the work, and they would help do it. They laugh because they say they did all the work, but I was out there pushing, too. Growing up, we had to make our own money, so once I could drive, we sort of started our own business right then.
What is in store for Butler Seattle?
Jeremy: To refine and elevate our current position. We have a lot of facets to our company, and as it has grown, we are learning more and growing with it. This year is a great opportunity to home in on where we need to grow and concentrate (our attention).
Stuart: We’re expanding and focusing on experiences. I think we are going to get more into the events world. That, and focusing on doing what we do better than we’ve ever done it. We want to keep working on our own culture, and improving our teams and processes, and making it a better company.