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Brian Butler, Head of Vistra Communications, Is the Next Conversation with a CEO Guest

By Keith Morelli

Brian Butler

TAMPA (February 17, 2021) -- Brian Butler has seen a lot over the course of his lengthy military and corporate career. As founder, president and CEO of Vistra Communications and with more than three decades of leadership, Butler is constantly facing challenges, but maybe the biggest challenge right now is the question of diversity in the workplace.

COVID-19 will go away and much of the innovations many businesses implemented will stay and make those businesses even stronger. No, the most pressing challenge, he said, is making a culture of diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace a permanent feature. Butler runs a minority-owned business and sees this first-hand.

“Running any small business can be challenging. Leading a minority-owned, small business is filled with extra challenges in the forms of customer acquisition, banking and overcoming assumptions and business stereotypes,” he said. “For example, I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if we provide services to white businesses, especially during our first 10 years in business. Being a leader for over 35 years, I have seen change. But not fast enough.”

“A diverse workforce is a healthy workforce and one that is best suited to solve client challenges,” he said.

“I believe it is very important to have diversity at all levels of an organization,” he said, “as it is very important for employees to look up and be able to connect with people at every level that look like them.

“My prayer is that our business community will continue to become more diverse at the senior management and C-Suite levels,” Butler said. “We still have challenges ahead of us if we are really going to solve some of our diversity challenges. Nearly 60 years ago my parents fought for equity, equality and inclusion during the civil rights movement.  Unfortunately, many of us are still in that very same fight today.

“I pray that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be placed in a position that won’t require them to carry that same load.”

Butler, a combat decorated, retired career military officer, now heads an integrated marketing communications agency that provides marketing, communications and consulting services to corporate, government and nonprofit organizations. He is the next guest in the USF Muma College of Business’ Conversation with a CEO event, scheduled from noon until 1 p.m. on Feb. 25. It is free to the public, but registration is required. To register, click here.

A Decorated Career of Service

Prior to founding Vistra, he worked with U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, providing strategic communications counsel to senior leaders. He served as a policy director on the Homeland Security Council in the White House, was the chief of communications for then Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera and served on the communications team for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon.

“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t rely on a few of the tools I gained while serving our nation in uniform,” said Butler, who fondly remembers his 22 years in the service. “My career was extremely rewarding both personally and professionally; I commanded troops in combat, worked in the Pentagon and helped run the operations center providing military support to civilian authorities during Hurricane Katrina. I was blessed with so many experiences from communications to crisis planning and response to major logistics operations and training.”

Working at a high level of command in Washington, at the White House and the Pentagon proved to be demanding, he said.

“Those days typically started early and ended late,” he said. “Given the nature of most of my assignments in Washington, I was usually supporting one of our nation’s most senior leaders and helping them to make decisions or provide key input to issues critical our national security or homeland security efforts.

“In those positions, I remained focused on getting it right and providing the best information that I could each day as many times lives really did depend on it.”

Since founding Vistra in 2007, the company has grown to nearly 100 employees with offices in Tampa and Northern Virginia. Vistra offers communications counsel to clients in industries such as health care, information technology, transportation, airports, sports and entertainment, local and federal government and nonprofit clients. Fortune 500 clients include AT&T, ExxonMobil, Coca Cola and others.

Signing such big clients in a relatively new company reflects Butler’s willingness to overcome obstacles and a pronounced commitment to excellence.

“We place a premium on being really good at what we do and looking for opportunities to provide our services to some of the biggest brands in our country,” he said. “The Army taught me to be ready when an opportunity arises. I have taken that same approach with Vistra and we have been able to move from a conversation to providing services to a few large brands by being ready when those opportunities are before us.

“I use many of the experiences that I learned in uniform and while working in the White House,” he said, “to help prepare Vistra for the challenges that lie ahead of us.”

His leadership and contributions to the Tampa Bay region’s business community have not gone unnoticed. In 2018, he was named the Tampa Bay Chamber’s Outstanding Leader of the Year and in 2019, he was named one of the Florida 500 Most Influential Business Leaders as published in Florida Trend. The U.S. Small Business Administration in 2018 recognized Butler as the SBA State of Florida & South Florida District Minority-Owned Small Business Person of the Year. In 2016, he was named the Minority Vetrepreneur of the Year by the National Veteran-Owned Business Association.

Vistra was the 2019 Florida State Minority Supplier Development Council Class 3 MBE Supplier of the Year, a 2019 GrowFL 50 Florida Companies to Watch, a 2016 Tampa Bay Chamber Small Business of the Year and the 2016 SBA South Florida District Veteran-Owned Small Business of the Year.

2020: A Year of Angst

Challenges to success crop up all the time, but none like what came around in 2020: COVID-19 and the sudden and severe downturn of the economy.

“Last year this time was truly unbelievable,” he said. “I was talking with a good friend right after we closed our office and he said to me, ‘You are prepared for this moment. Given your experiences, no one is better prepared to lead during these troubling times.’  I accepted the challenge and began a period of innovation. One of the first things we did was buy more laptops and help our team members learn how to be effective working from home.

“Our innovation stemmed from virtual collaboration using off-the-shelf tools that helped our team members to continue to work as a team and not become isolated because we were not in the same building,” he said. “We continue to get better with using the Microsoft Teams suite of services and it‘s been remarkable how our team has embraced those tools.”

Moving forward, the company will permanently implement some of those innovations, he said.

“There is no doubt,” he said. “We are still working to determine exactly what those changes will look like, but I do know that we will not go back to business as usual. We have learned that we can maintain our culture and our work ethic by continuing to focus on our values and putting the success of our clients first.”

His past dictated his proactive approach to the pandemic. His focus on analytics informs how Vistra Communications will rebound in months and years to come. His success, he said, relies heavily on understanding analytics. But gut instincts, honed by years of experience, also play a role.

“Business analytics are vital to running a business,” he said. “Analytics help shed light on what is happening inside a business and I count on analytics to better understand trends and to help me prioritize our work efforts.  From pricing to controlling costs, understanding analytics is critical to business success. It‘s very important that we understand to the data.

“However, it’s also very important that we use the data alongside other factors such as our experiences to help us get to the best solutions possible.”

Butler earned master’s degrees from the National War College and Central Michigan University and a bachelor’s degree from Hampton University. He holds certificates from the University of Oklahoma, John F. Kennedy University, Roger Williams University and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He is also a graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program.

He serves on the boards of directors of the Tampa Bay Chamber, WEDU Public Broadcast Television and Visit Tampa Bay. He serves on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Small Business Council, is CEO Mentor to the Principal of Mort Elementary School and founder of the CEOs in Schools initiative with Hillsborough County Public Schools. He is married to Maureen Butler, who is currently executive vice president of Vistra and an adjunct professor at The University of Tampa and the first Black American woman to earn tenure there.