From the White House to Tampa
For Brian Butler, it’s always been about serving his country and his community
If Brian Butler disappears for too long from the Vistra Communications office in Lutz, his assistant, Pam Mooney, knows where to find him. He’s likely down the road at Mort Elementary School—reading books, dressing in a onesie for a laugh, or high-fiving students.
It’s one of his favorite activities.
He might not be what you think of when you think of a seasoned Army veteran who has fought in combat, trained soldiers and worked in the White House.
He grew up in Riviera Beach, the oldest of four siblings. His mother, now a registered nurse and previously a civil rights activist, and his father, an accountant.
“I grew up in a great, loving home, with a lot of family around,” Butler says.
Butler describes himself as an average child—he says he was not the smartest, or most athletically skilled. He was curious, though, and possessed the mind of a young entrepreneur, selling plants at the local flea market, or delivering newspapers. Yet, it was wanderlust that excited him the most.
“On Sunday nights at 7 p.m., the ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ would come on [television]. I didn’t care what I was doing outside or where I was playing, I always came in the house to watch that,” Butler says. “The Neuschwanstein Castle [in Germany, which inspired the royal castle in Disney’s version of Sleeping Beauty] captivated me. With the fog and the way it looked … I always wanted to go there.”
“Join the Army, see the world.” That was the tagline on a television commercial that ran while Butler was in high school. It got his attention.
“I saw that commercial and simply believed it,” Butler says.
Already showing an interest in foreign travel, Butler decided if he wanted to travel, the Army would be the way he could accomplish such an ambitious goal. College and overseas travel weren’t in the Butler family budget.
He joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Hampton Institute, which later became Hampton University. Through their program, he blossomed, he says. “That was my ticket to the world,” he says.
In 1984, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and was based in the demilitarized zone in South Korea.
“It became one of the best things to happen to me at the time, because I grew up really fast,” Butler says. “But I also realized that I loved what I was doing.”
During this time, he had met and fallen in love with his wife, Maureen, also an Army veteran. Initially, they met while Butler was attending Hampton. Maureen was attending Syracuse University, but was from Hampton, Virginia.
The young couple shared a common interest in both military service and traveling.
“I married Maureen on a Saturday and, by Tuesday, we were in Germany,” Butler says. “Every weekend that I could get away, and I could just go, we did.”
Germany’s proximity to other destinations is one of the reasons why the Butlers have such a love for the country.
“I got to explore all over Europe, and that just became a gateway to taking tough assignments and not being afraid of them,” he says. “I would go wherever the Army would let me go with them.”
Butler was in Fort Hood, Texas, when he got word that he would be deployed to Operation Desert Shield, which became Operation Desert Storm—the first Gulf War in 1990 and ’91.
“We were having dinner with our spouses, and when we were finished eating, that’s when we got the news,” he says. “My boss said, ‘What do you know about Kuwait?’ And I was like ‘Ku-what?’ ”
Butler served as a commander in the conflict for about eight months.
The next chapter of Butler’s service career included working for a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later, as spokesman and communications chief for the Secretary of the Army.
“I was so far out of my element. It was all about policy, dollars and foreign relationships. I really learned a lot about what it takes to keep that big military engine running,” Butler says. “Working for the chairman really exposed me to the industry. Not just the warfighting part of the defense department. Working for the Army secretary provided me an opportunity to engage with industry and media around the world.”
Even though he got to ride in a Gulfstream V aircraft, he says the job wasn’t as enticing as one might think.
“It’s one of the hardest jobs I ever had in my life. We were gone all the time. You had to always be ‘on,’ ” Butler says.
Butler held that job for two years, which he said was more than enough time for him. It was the kind of job that was high-profile and high-stress. Ironically, the self-described world traveler was finding reasons to stay closer to home.
Butler’s children, Alison and Christopher, had moved around their entire lives.
“Chris was going into the ninth grade and was participating in a program with our church. They were getting ready to do a mission trip in Tennessee for the summer. I asked him if he wanted to go. He said, ‘Why should I? We’re going to leave. Those won’t be my friends next year,’ ” Butler says. “I realized, I hadn’t been paying attention.”
Butler’s children had been in nine schools in nine years.
He was selected for promotion to colonel, but he chose to retire as a lieutenant colonel to allow the family to plant roots. When Maureen was offered a position with the University of South Florida, the location was decided.
After traveling to at least 60 countries—indeed, seeing the world—the Butlers made Tampa their home.
For someone who seemed to have a streamlined idea of what he wanted in life, Butler now had no idea what he was going to do.
It was 2006, and while offers presented themselves abundantly in Washington, D.C., he heard only crickets in Tampa.
“I couldn’t get a job,” Butler says. “Maureen saw me getting really frustrated. I even considered moving back to D.C.”
Eventually, Butler began working for U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military interests in West and Central Asia and parts of North Africa, from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. He was there for about nine months when he decided he wanted to do something else. “I wanted to start my own company. I just decided I was going to do it,” he recalls.
His wife thought he was crazy, and his mother told him to pray on it. When he told her he had, she told him to pray again, “and this time listen.” Not surprisingly, he was determined already.
The entrepreneurial spirit he possessed as a child kicked in again. While working with the White House, his public relations and marketing skills had time to develop and shine. He leaned on those experiences to form what would become Vistra Communications.
“We really started with service as a media relations company, servicing small nonprofits and small businesses,” Butler says. “It was just me. But every year, I expanded [the company] a little wider.”
To this day, the Butler family owns 100 percent of Vistra Communications. Using their life savings to keep the business going the first few years, they made just enough money to keep the lights on.
The turning point, however, was when Butler realized he had many more valuable skills than he was using in the business. He had top-secret security clearance, which he still has, among other knowledge the typical civilian does not possess.
Expanding Vistra’s services led to obtaining more clients and diversifying. “We’re receptive and listen to our customers,” Butler says.
Now, Vistra works with corporate clients and federal agencies all over the country. It provides marketing and communications services to some of the biggest brands in the United States, including Coca-Cola, Feld Entertainment, Exxon Mobil and more.
In late 2017, Vistra acquired Marketing Associates USA, a Tampa-based agency, expanding its capabilities even more.
The company’s revenue was about $12 million in 2018, and on the day Tampa Bay Business and Wealth visited Vistra’s offices, Butler received key industry certifications—from the International Organization for Standardization—that acknowledge Vistra’s quality-control processes. That was an important step for Vistra, and for Butler.
“When you look at companies I admire, they have things in place that are repeatable, and in the absence of guidance, team members know what to do.” Butler says. “When I meet with large companies, they tell me small minority businesses aren’t scalable. We’ve proven that we are.”
Service is a pillar in Butler’s life—and his business. One of the biggest commitments that Butler, and his team at Vistra, have is working with Mort Elementary.
“I can’t think of anything we do that’s more important than being inside Mort Elementary,” Butler says. “If not us, who?”
When Butler’s family moved to the area, a friend suggested Butler avoid driving through the area of Tampa sometimes called “Suitcase City,” an economically depressed neighborhood that has a high number of transient families.
It also has Mort Elementary.
Because Butler had served in the Gulf War, he wasn’t deterred from visiting the neighborhood.
“I’ve been to more than 60 countries, and you’re telling me I can’t drive through an area of my town?” Butler asks.
Butler discovered some alarming statistics about the needs of Mort Elementary students. About 97 percent of them are from low-income families. Many of them are dependent on the school pantry for food, more than the school can afford.
Among other efforts, Butler works with Principal Woodland Johnson on allotting money for technology and other classroom support for students. Butler’s mother-in-law delivers food to the pantry on a regular basis.
The most rewarding part—and, clearly, the part Butler loves—is being in the school, engaging with students, reading to them or otherwise showing he cares.
“When we see a need, we try to bring a resource in, or just do it ourselves,” Butler says.
Vistra often invites student leaders to their offices. For some children, being in the office environment is enough to inspire them. Some of them say they want to work there when they grow up.
“It’s not just a field trip. We call it a business meeting and have a working lunch,” he says.
The last time there was a group of students visiting the office, Butler asked them to sit in his desk chair. He stepped out and called the desk phone, disguising his voice. “I called and asked to speak to the president, and one of the girls said, ‘This is she.’ ”
He thought, “Wow, she’s going to do something big.”
It’s those moments when he sees a glimmer of hope or ambition that make his effort worthwhile.
Vistra also provides pro bono services for the Laundry Project, which helps people pay for washing and drying clothes at laundromats. Vistra team members volunteer a few Saturdays throughout the year to dispense quarters, or keep children entertained while their parents wash and dry their clothes.
“I went one day, and Brian disappears with his pickup truck and comes back with the truck full of dirty laundry,” Maureen Butler says. “Someone arrived, with their kids in tow and one load of clothes. Brian knew she had more at home, so he took her home to get the rest so it could be washed.”
When Brian Butler isn’t at the office, or at Mort, or using his truck to help out strangers, he plays golf, sometimes with former NFL players he declines to name, or relaxes near his koi pond. He and his family still loves to travel, when they can.
He doesn’t take himself too seriously, even if the road he’s on traveled has, on occasion, been very serious.
“Someone asked me, where I get my perseverance from and it’s absolutely my mother. She just never quit,” Butler says.
Neither does Brian Butler. ♦
Butler’s Favorite Places
Germany: “In 2½ hours, we can be almost anywhere. It’s a friendly place, the food is magnificent, and the beer isn’t bad, either.”
Bosnia: “After the war, people were resettling. Neighbors had been fighting each other. To watch them come back and resettle in the same community and to watch those communities get going again was incredible.”
Mozambique: “The people there have nothing, but yet they have everything. They value the littlest of things. Women begin walking at 3 a.m. to get prenatal care and come back day after day until they get the care they need.”