An interview with Butch Ulmer

This is the final installment of our conversation with Charles “Butch” Ulmer about the history of the company founded by his father in City Island, New York in 1946. Parts 1, 2 and 3 can be found here.

WindCheck: Butch, in our previous installment you spoke about the departure of John Kolius in the late 1980s. Please bring us up to date.

Butch Ulmer: After John Kolius left our group and the sailmaking industry, business went along on a more or less even keel. We lost and gained group members for a variety of reasons and at the end of each year, we were always in about the same place in the sailmaker pecking order. Big corporate names like Ratsey & Lapthorn and Hood disappeared, only to be replaced by others such as North and Quantum. Along with the corporate losses came the individual losses of the gents that made being in the game a true pleasure. Guys like Tom Blackaller, Colin Ratsey, Kenny Watts, Jack Sutphen, Herb Hild, Howard Boston and others of like caliber departed. They were joined by my old friend Owen Torrey.

In 2005, we joined up with the Halsey-Lidgard Group and changed our corporate name to UK-Halsey. Although they were a considerably smaller group, it was a great shot in the arm for all concerned. Andy Halsey’s loft in eastern Connecticut had a great reputation for making big sails, something that was foreign to a lot of our existing members. Once again, as with Horizon, we picked up some new and talented members and our enlarged group enjoyed a few years of increased business and economic success. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t last and after five or six years we went our separate ways. Our enlarged group (most of the Halsey lofts stayed with UK) went back to being UK Sailmakers again.

In December of 2012, having had my 73rd birthday, I met with a couple of the key loft owners to discuss the sale of UK Sailmakers International. At that point I had spent just under fifty years in sailmaking, and I decided it was time to bear off and set the chute. Shortly after consummating the sale of UK International, I sold my loft in City Island and my career as a business owner came to an end.

WC: Who’s at the helm now?

BC: The New York loft today is owned by an old friend and customer, Conny Baris from Oyster Bay. He moved it from its home on City Island to Port Chester, NY where it is run by two young and able sailors/sailmakers, Emmett Dickheiser and Ryan Zupon.

UK International’s President today is John Bennett, an experienced West Coast sailmaker. John’s father Pete was one of a few people who helped Lowell North start North Sails many years ago. John handles the day-to-day decisions assisted by General Manager Adam Loory, who just finished his 30th year at UK International. I previously spoke at length about Owen Torrey (The Professor), who was truly UK’s sail guru but I neglected to mention Adam’s predecessor, David Lindsay (Whiskey). In the early years of UK International, I had David there to help me and I’d have been lost without him. When David left, Adam stepped in and never missed a beat. Since his first day thirty years ago, he has handled the group marketing, advertising and daily operations.

Strategically, the company is run by a Board of Directors made up of a group of loft owners, all of whom are equity holders. They meet once a month via Zoom. All the loft owners meet once a year (except for COVID) face to face. Approximately two thirds of the loft owners are equity holders in UKI, and the opportunity exists for other qualified lofts to join over time.

I attended last month’s Zoom meeting that went for two and a half hours. I listened to a detailed discussion of sail materials that included Geoff Bishop from Perth, Australia, Jeremy Koo from Hong Kong, Stefan Voss from Germany, Pat Considine from Chicago, Mehmet Taylan from Norway, and John Bennett in Southern California. AMAZING!

It was my plan and goal upon retirement to have the group members be in control of their own destiny and run the group as they saw fit. I am happy to say that is the case today and as far as I know, UK Sailmakers is the only group of independently lofts that operates this way.

WC: Thank you Butch for sharing this amazing story with WindCheck readers!