Brian Butler was the only employee of his company — Vistra Communications — when he launched the business out of his home in Lutz in 2007.
It wasn’t exactly the best time to launch an ambitious plan.
The real estate market crashed and the nation’s economy cratered.
“I started my business in the toughest economy we’d seen in 30 years,” he recalled.
There were days when he considered giving up.
But then, as now, the business leader said anyone starting a new venture needs to stick with it.
“You can’t afford to give up,” said Butler, who is president and chief executive officer of his company. “There are opportunities out there. You’ve just got to have a plan.”
Vistra Communications now has about 70 employees with offices in Lutz, Tampa, Miami and Washington D.C.
And, on May 4, Butler will receive the 2018 U.S. Small Business Administration’s Minority Business Person of the Year — for the state of Florida and the South Florida District.
He is one of nine recipients who will be honored at a luncheon during the 31st annual Government Small Business Conference at the Holiday Inn Tampa Westshore.
Butler began thinking like a business owner early on.
During his formative years, while growing up in Palm Beach County, he had newspaper routes — flinging newspapers onto lawns.
Even then, he flexed his organizational skills.
“I was business-oriented as an elementary school kid,” Butler said. “I hired two friends to fold, so I could deliver more newspapers.”
He followed a straight path into a business career in marketing and communications.
After he graduated from high school, he attended Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia that was founded in 1868 to give education to freed men.
He decided to attend the college after visiting a friend who was going to school there.
He knew immediately it was the place for him.
“The campus is just beautiful,” Butler said.
The opportunity to earn a college degree there “just resonated with me,” said Butler, who received a Bachelor of Science in marketing.
Butler received a three-year scholarship from the university’s R.O.T.C. program, and upon graduation was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. He commanded combat troops in Kuwait during Desert Storm in 1990.
There were lessons learned from the military that translated to his values in running a company later.
“I’m focused on treating people right. And, I operate (my business) with values found in the community,” he said.
He earned a master’s degree in business administration from Central Michigan University and a master’s in national security strategy from the National War College.
He stepped back into civilian life in 1988 and spent a year at the Washington D.C., powerhouse public relations and communications firm Fleishman & Hillard International Communications.
He put his uniform back on after that, and served as spokesman and chief of communications for the U.S. Army secretary. He was on the staff and communications team for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
After 22 years of military service, he retired as a colonel in 2006.
However, retirement was more like a transition to a new beginning.
The next year, he founded Vistra Communications.
In the early days, Butler frequently worked with nonprofits.
One of his first accounts was the private charter school, Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School. The school was founded by former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Derrick Brooks and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.
Butler also won a contract with Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, in Tampa, providing communications and consulting services.
Vistra’s clients today include businesses in health care, information technology, transportation, airports, entertainment, sports, and local and federal government.
Over the years, Butler and Vistra have received many honors and awards.
Tampa Bay Business Journal ranked Vistra as the No. 1 public relations firm in 2016 and 2017. It was the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year in 2016, for 21-50 employees. Vistra also was singled out in 2016 as the SBA South Florida District Veteran-Owned Small Business of the Year.
Last year, Vistra acquired Tampa-based Marketing Associates USA. The Tampa company is now a division of Vistra.
A shared interest in Trinity Café brought Butler together with Jeff Darrey, president of Marketing Associates.
Darrey founded Trinity Café, a nonprofit restaurant that feeds the homeless.
Butler believes that community service is a basic foundation of a successful business. To that end, he serves on several boards and committees, including Florida Hospital Tampa Foundation, Minority Enterprise Development Corporation, Mort Elementary School Cabinet and Conference of Minority Transportation Officials. He also is a founding member of USO (United Services Organization) Tampa Bay.
Butler is especially proud of the Laundry Project, an effort of the Florida nonprofit Current Initiatives.
Volunteers come to area coin laundries in Tampa Bay and pay for laundry fees, help with laundry services and create a community day.
“It’s part of my foundation and part of our company,” Butler said. “It’s exciting to make a difference right at home.”
Published May 2, 2018