"It's not true that only the Ship of State rots from the top down. I give you the Good Ship Butterfield" ---from The Quotations of Chairman Joe"
It was the late summer of 1984. It was sunrise in America, the high tide of Reagan and Reaganism. I was on the phone making my regular early morning call to the Home Office when I brought up a subject that had been nagging at me for several years. Butterfield, I had learned, had just sold the two downtown houses and the Starlight Drive-In on the highway between Holland and Saugatuck to Goodrich Theatres. Bob Goodrich, it will be recalled, had been one of those who had made personal fortunes by building or buying up properties in Butterfield markets and running us out of town. Now we were under siege in our major cities as well, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor by the Redstone operation out of Boston as well.
“Paul”, I said “Holland is one of the few growth areas in the state. This is a town where we should be building operations, not selling out. I’ve watched as we folded up our tents in Pontiac, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Kalamazoo, and other towns. When I took this job nearly 4 years ago we had 46 screens. Now we’re down to 32. We’ve already let one of our District Manager’s go. At some point this operation is going to implode in on itself. We’ll be closing the warehouse for this concession operation. We’ve already cut home office personnel, eliminating marketing altogether for god’s sake. At what point do we pull up our tents altogether close up shop and go home”?
A few days later, during our usual morning telephone conversation Paul assured me that he had spoken with President Smith and was told that the company was in great shape citing plans for expanding in Traverse City and Ludington. I remained skeptical.
Later that fall, I was making a call at the Genesee Valley quad theatre (actually the aforementioned two twin theatres attached at the hip) when Butterfield’s city manager Arnold Stephanic stopped by and invited me to lunch. This was a rare occurrence given that Arnie and I had some turf battles when I was first put on the road. The Concession Department had lost its district manager for the Eastern and Northern part of the state due to the long illness of a previous manager and a road accident by his successor. When I was put on the road, many of these operations hadn’t seen a concession supervisor in several years. The result was that this end of the corporate operations had been taken over by the local city managers with the result that there existed very little uniformity. My job was to reclaim the turf for the Home Office and make the ship respond to the helm. Not an easy task and it led to some difficult struggles especially in the major towns. But this was 1984, and I had been on the road for over 3 years. Arnie and I had come to terms and now he was inviting me for lunch an act that nevertheless was a bit unexpected and unusual.
We went to a local restaurant owned and operated by a friend of his. After introducing me to his friends we repaired to a table and, just the two of us, sat down for lunch. “I’ve got to tell you something”, he said with an air of urgency.
“What’s that”? I asked, having no idea where he was going with the conversation or what was behind this encounter.
“As you know, I used to work at the Home Office” he began. I knew this, years before he had been a junior executive working for the Vice President, now the President of the company. He had briefly left Butterfield Theatres and went down to Florida but later returned. When he came back the Home Office sent him to Flint to manage the city’s 4 indoor operations.
“Yes I know”, I replied, expecting one of his oft-repeated recollections of his days at the vortex of corporate politics.
“A few weeks ago they (meaning the execs at the Home Office) came around introducing a couple of guys they said were stockholders in the company. I know the stockholders, used to deal with them all the time when I worked up there. These aren’t the stockholders. Joe”, he said, “I think they’ve put the company up for sale.” We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the trends in the business and agreed that the decline had, in fact, not gone unnoticed by either of us. I left the meeting knowing that the Good Ship Butterfield was indeed taking on water and the deck chairs were about to slide overboard.
I didn’t say anything in my daily conversations with the Home Office but confided to my wife that some serious changes were in the wind. A few weeks later I got this call from Paul Tazar in the home office that in fact the company had been sold.
“Don’t worry”, Paul confided to me, “We’ve been assured that our jobs are safe”.
By now, thanks to the early warning Arnie had given me, I had had time to put things into perspective.
“That’s not my reading of the situation”, I responded. “What do you mean?” asked Paul.
“When a company comes in and buys you out, they do so because they think there are profits that have been unrealized. They think they can run it better that you can. They will come in here and see us as the problem, not the solution. It’s human nature. Everyone thinks they can do it better.”
In the course of events the company had been sold to Kerasotes Theatres out of Springfield Illinois, then the 8th largest theatre chain in the country. Kerasotes had been founded by the old man George and his brothers in Chicago branching out over the years to become a regional power in the industry. He and his wife had adopted a young boy, Robbie, who became in the course of his short lifetime a rather self-absorbed anal-retentive megalomaniac who in the span of several years had been in and out of the company as the family tried desperately to find someplace in the family business where he would not generate an immediate lynch party. They tried him in the Home Office and the Brother’s threatened to break up the company if he wasn’t gone. George sent him out to the field and the manager’s also went into open revolt. Finally, in an act of desperation, George set
Finding a business he could purchase that his son could call his own. Robbie had a pilot’s license and loved to fly small aircraft, so George arranged to buy a small commuter line operating in Illinois. Before the final transfer of ownership could be accomplished there was a plane crash and ensuing liability. George backed out of the deal, and looked elsewhere. Then he found Butterfield.
It seemed like a perfect match, Butterfield becoming a subsidiary of the parent family operation. But the brothers, by then having had their fill of Robbie, told George that if he was going to commit family monies to invest for Robert, they wanted to dissolve the company and George could go his own way. In the course events, Butterfield Theatres would by the first of January, 1985, become George Karasotes Theatres, Inc., with George as Chairman and his son as CEO.
Robbie brought with him one Sam Plitt, he of the Plitt Theatre operations operating in the Chicago area. Like Robbie, Sam too was a child of great wealth. Like Robbie he too would prove unable to find a home with the parent family business. So the two of them, like peas in a pod, were given my old company to play with.
The result was immediate and it was ugly. The first thing they did was eliminate all the senior executives of the old company except Vice President Joe Sterling, and all of the mid-level management except myself. Gone was my boss Paul Tazar, easily the best of the Butterfield management, and the one with the most promise. Forcing him out by first removing all of his authority over purchasing, and putting Sam in charge of concessions, Paul was gone by the end of January.
“You had that right” he would say to me as he was leaving.
That left Joe Sterling and myself. Joe was from Monroe Michigan, his father a State Senator, his mother a journalist and reporter for a Detroit Newspaper. In fact there is a state park in Monroe named after his father. The family owned and operated the Denniston Theatre company the controlling interest of which was later purchased by Butterfield. Joe, by now in later middle age, had risen to be Vice President when the company went out of business; and, because Kerasotes had only put down about a third of the purchase price, was seen as Butterfield’s finger in the pie until the sale had been complete. The upshot was that it was left for Joe and I to deal with the emerging order as it took control of our old operations.
In late February and early March of 1985, Joe and I spent several days flying about the state inspecting the operations with Robbie and Sam. It was an arduous and disagreeable experience. Robbie was forever criticizing the operation and quality of the field management, nobody, it became apparent, could do anything right. Sam, who’s cologne would precede him by three rooms, would chime in like the sycophant he was telling Robbie what he wanted to hear and waxing long and hard about the Plitt concession operations in Chicago. “We’d sell a thousand hot dogs a day” he would say, speaking of his indoor operations. They went about the landscape, talking about how they were going to tear the operations apart, rebuild the concession stands and the theatres, criticizing everything, including the run-down auto’s with which the manager’s would pick them up at the airport.
Finally, I’d had enough. We were sitting in the airport in Kalamazoo when Robbie asked me why the field managers weren’t telling him much, implying that they weren’t too intelligent.
“It’s because all they hear from you and Sam is criticism” I said. “You can’t pre-empt the conversation if you want people to be forthcoming. These people don’t know you, and great change is taking place in their universe. It’s unsettling, and they’re afraid”. Sam later took me aside and expressed surprise that I would be so blunt with Robbie. Clearly the little shit had never met anyone, including Sam, who would speak truth to power.
These journey’s, and there would be two of them, would last three or so days each as we made the circuit by air in what I covered every day on the ground. It put Joe and I in close quarters with the new Kerasotes leadership and it was a chafing experience. Finally at the twin theatre in Jackson, in what would be the final tour, Robbie and Sam went to watch a film playing on one of the screens, Joe invited me to watch the other feature in the adjoining auditorium. We sat toward the back. Joe began asking me general questions about how I was reading the situation.
“Let’s see”….I said. “one thousand hot dogs, quarter pound each….that’s 250 pounds of meat a day, plus the buns. I can’t imagine the mess with all the ketchup and relish, must be a nightmare keeping the seats and floors clean”
“Are you questioning the veracity of our leadership?” asked Joe.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that”, I replied.
“You don’t like Sam very much do you Joe?” asked Joe
“Let me put it this way”, I replied, “The best part of Sam Plitt ran down his mother’s legs”
“That’s nasty”, Joe exclaimed.
“He sure is”, said I.
Later that night Joe invited me to his quarters for a drink. Over a glass of brandy he told me he was leaving the company. As the Good Ship Butterfield turned turtle and began to slowly slide into the sea it was clear I would be the last rat off the sinking ship.