Q&A with STEVE BUTTERFIELD

9/2011

"An army travels on its stomach." The general who uttered this famous observation was making an important point: Monumental heroics may have won battles at Agincourt and Normandy, but you can't mobilize an army without taking care of things like hauling and preparing food, providing toilet paper and toothbrushes, and getting the ammo to where it's supposed to be in time to be useful. The people who make sure all of that happens are truly unsung heroes, all the more so for their selfless devotion to carrying out a difficult and complex mission while realizing that the only time the recipients of their dedication are likely to notice them is if something goes wrong. What kind of person puts himself on that risky a line for little public reward? Meet Ironman warehouse director Steve "Butter" Butterfield.

 

LG: First of all, you're crazy.

SB: Helps to be a little nuts to want to do this job.

LG: How long have you been at it?

SB: As director, since 2003, but I started volunteering in 2000.

LG: Where were you from originally?

SB: Southern California. I was an electrical engineer and co-founded a company that made imaging technology that we licensed to big laser printer manufacturers like HP, Ricoh, Canon…

LG: Are you the guy responsible for all those paper jams?

SB: No, we just helped make the images. Feeding the paper was someone else's job.

LG: Then you're forgiven. How'd you get to Hawai'i?

SB: My wife Rosalind and I visited the Big Island around 1980 and fell in love with the place. Spent the next twenty years figuring out how to move here, and retiring from my company allowed us to do that.

LG: Retiring? You're only what…fifty-five?

SB: Fifty-eight. Yeah, things worked out well.

LG: Not for me. I still have to write for a living. How did you get involved with Ironman?

SB: We didn't know too many people and I was looking around for something to do. An acquaintance knew that Ironman was looking for someone to help out and asked if I happen to know anything about working in a warehouse. Well, I'd been a night foreman in a warehouse when I was going to engineering school.

LG: Already knew how to drive a forklift?

SB: I did. So I volunteered, then a year later was asked to be a coordinator, then an assistant director and finally director, which I've been doing ever since.

LG: Pretty nice career path. Just think: If you'd been doing that for GE or Ford you could be retired now.

SB: I am retired now.

LG: Oh, yeah. So what's the basic role of the warehouse director?

SB: We're essentially a service organization for all the other directors. It's our job to make sure that every material thing that's needed to put on the event is procured, housed and distributed to where it needs to be, when it needs to be.

LG: When you say every material thing…

SB: I mean everything: barricades, fencing, tables, tents, timing equipment, racks, food, three different kinds of water, medical supplies, carpeting, banners, t-shirts, ice…it's a pretty long list.

LG: Sounds like a tough job.

SB: It is, but I like working behind the scenes on complicated stuff that's critical to the success of the event, and I like working with people who feel the same way. And the tougher it is, the better the sense of accomplishment when it comes off smoothly. By the way, there are actually two organizations within the warehouse. The other is Supplies, and that’s run by Vickie Ewing. The way we put it is that she's responsible for all the small stuff and I do all the big stuff. So she worries about clipboards, paper towels and marker pens and I worry about fencing, water and construction materials.

LG: Hope you two get along.

SB: Oh, yeah. Vickie and I have been working together and with the other directors for ten years, and we take a lot of care in assessing their needs to make sure they get what they need. They're our customers, after all.

LG: Is it a year-round job?

SB: Not full-time, but pretty close to year-round. Remember that we do two major events here.

LG: The Honu 70.3 as well as the World Championship.

SB: And they're only four months apart. We start planning just a few weeks after the Ironman, at the end of October, but we're still pretty fried and don't start ordering in earnest until January. It gets pretty intense around April for the 70.3, then picks up again in August. September we're at it full time.

LG: Is the warehouse shut down the other months?

SB: No, because we lend out equipment to various community organizations all throughout the year. Things like tables, chairs, coolers…

LG: What kind of organizations? What do they need the stuff for?

SB: Well, as an example, two weeks after the World Championship one of the elementary schools puts on a "Keiki" triathlon for kids. We give them flagging, markers, a lot of fluids and other consumables left over from Ironman. There are canoe club and other sporting club events, Pop Warner football, all kinds of things. A lot of the people who are involved with those events are Ironman volunteers, and this is another way for the Ironman organization to give back to the community and also say thanks to the local volunteers in a meaningful way.

LG: Now, hard goods can sit there all year. When do the consumables start coming in?

SB: The warehouse is only about a third filled with hard goods, so you can imagine the volume of consumables that comes in, because the place is packed to the ceiling just before the race. A couple of months beforehand we start getting water, branded fluids, energy bars and gel. By the time it's all here, we'll have unloaded 225 pallets.

LG: You mentioned three different kinds of water.

SB: Three different packaging forms, actually. We've got it in bike bottles with sports tops—this year it's Arrowhead water, from Costco on the mainland. Then we pour water into cups for the run course and that comes from a bottler on Oahu. Then we also have single serve bottles at the three banquets, for volunteers throughout race week, etc. Those come from a Coke distributor on Oahu.

LG: Wait a minute, back up. You bring in water from the mainland?

SB: Thousands of cases.

LG: And from Oahu? There's no water on the Big Island?

SB: One of the things you realize when you live here is that about ninety percent of everything we consume comes from off-island.

LG: Yeah, but water?

SB: Listen, the bottled water you drink at home probably comes from hundreds of miles away, maybe even thousands. It's the same way here, except that yours comes by truck and ours comes by boat.

LG: I'm amazed. You also mentioned branded fluids.

SB: This year PowerBar is a big sponsor, and they make Ironman Perform in 20-ounce bottles. That's what we'll be serving out on the course. We can bring in all the fluids well in advance.

LG: What about the really perishable stuff?

SB: About two days before the race we receive hundreds case of oranges, bananas and apples. The bananas are local but there aren't any oranges or apples grown here so those have to be brought in as well.

LG: When do you start moving things out to the aid stations?

SB: Starting at midnight Friday we send out two caravans of 40-foot tractor-trailers, each rig carrying a forklift. One caravan drops off pallets at the eleven bike aid stations, and the other does the same for the thirteen run stations.

LG: What about ice?

SB: We get it from a local ice house. It's picked up starting about 6:00 race morning and caravanned out all day long. We have a schedule based on our estimates of usage but the aid stations can call in when they get low and we'll run special deliveries. The finish line alone gets about ten tons.

LG: How much do you use altogether?

SB: A lot. About 25 tons of cube ice and 12 tons of block ice for the run course, and another twelve tons for the finish line and transition areas.

LG: Wow. What about fluids?

SB: We go through nearly 100,000 bottles of water, soda and Perform on the race course, and another 47,000 at the various events.

LG: That’s a lot of plastic.

SB: The good news is, we recycle practically everything. About the only things we can't recycle are gel wrappers and sponges, although even the sponges are getting used by local artists. Don't ask me for what.

LG: How much of a factor is weather in what's going to be consumed on race day? Do you have to make adjustments?

SB: Not really. Look, it's always going to be hot and humid and the only big variable is the wind, which we can't predict. If it's a really windy day, people are going to be working harder out there and longer and drinking more fluids. What we do is use past experience to predict consumption, and then we add ten percent when we stock the aid stations. That generally covers us, but even if it doesn't, the warehouse has plenty of extra stock. If an aid station sees things getting used up more quickly than we'd anticipated, they call in and we shoot more right up to them.

LG: I took a look at your supplies list. I'm amazed at how many things on there I never would have thought of: alligator clips, dust pans, knives for cutting fruit at the aid stations, work aprons, eleven kinds of duct tape…

SB: And finishers medals, massage tables, 10,000 volunteer t-shirts, 2,000 finisher shirts, 4,000 trash bags, 55,000 sponges, 16,000 cable ties, 8,000 posters, quarter of a million paper cups…

LG: And one gallon of something called "Goof Off." I don't even want to know.

SB: It's "remove everything yucky" goop in a bottle.

LG: And you have to move all of this stuff around, too. Who handles that?

SB: I do, except for aid station deliveries, which aid station director Joe Loschiavo handles.

LG: I saw the transportation schedule. Reads like an invasion plan, only more complicated.

SB: We'll start shipping things out on September 27, and there'll be multiple deliveries to the retail stores, expo, media, hospitality. Then we start delivering things for all the construction sites, starting with the pier area and Ali'i Drive.

LG: Seems like a pretty intense effort to get everything at the pier area built in time. Why is it such a mad scramble?

SB: We don't officially take over the pier area until Thursday, so we can't start construction until then. On Wednesday we'll run four 40-foot tractor trailers out there with what's needed for the transitions and medical areas, then four more on Thursday and another four on Friday full of consumables for the finish area.

LG: I asked Diana this question about the race in general and imagine I'll get the same answer from you: After all these years, do things pretty much run autopilot?

SB: [insert snort of derision here] Hardly. We get familiar with things year after year but there are several sources of changes. As an example, we're always trying to reduce costs without reducing service. That means scouting around for better deals, ways of moving things around, estimating what's needed so we don't over order, especially regarding consumables. After each event we go over every line item with the directors and talk about whether we can order less or do it a different way.

LG: Any fundamental changes?

SB: Always, especially if there's a change in sponsorship or provider. This year we have a big change because PowerBar is a new sponsor. So there's product that's new to us, vendor booths that are completely different, and new ways of communicating and ordering.

LG: And of course they're new to the event, too, so nobody has much precedent to go on.

SB: Exactly, and it's the same on the retail side. There's been a third-party retailer handling all the Ironman stores in Kona for thirty years, but this year WTC is going to be its own retailer. We used to store all the supplies in the warehouse but WTC is bringing over its own stuff.

LG: They already have stuff?

SB: Sure. They've been doing retail for most of the North American events so they have a good handle on things, but we have to work out procedures for getting it done here.

LG: So the warehouse gets paid a fortune, right?

SB: Right: Free sushi and beer during race week.

LG: Why do you do it?

SB: Good question, and on certain days I try not to ask myself that. I think it's mostly the enjoyment of working with a team on a tough job and the personal satisfaction that comes from helping to put on a world championship event. How many other people can say they play a significant role in staging a sporting event that people want to come to from all over the world? I love the event, I'm in awe of the athletes, and sitting at the finish line watching them come in and knowing I played a part in allowing them to get there…hard to put into words.

LG: You actually get to sit around at the finish?

SB: Believe it or not, race day is my easiest day. By Friday late afternoon the warehouse is empty, so the rocket's been launched and you just hope you did everything right to make sure it gets to orbit. Vickie and I have a traditional celebratory shot of Tequila at six o'clock and from then until Saturday night my job is just to be available to troubleshoot.

LG: You mentioned "certain days" when you don't ask yourself why you do it. When are those?

SB: Well, as much fun as race day Saturday is, it all comes crashing down on Sunday, which is the worst day of the year for me.

LG: Because it's a letdown?

SB: There's not even any time to feel a letdown. Sunday is more hectic than any day was in getting ready. We have a contractual obligation to restore Kailua-Kona to its sleepy little self by noon, which means returning the pier and the streets to the town in the same condition as we found them.

LG: So when does the cleanup whirlwind start?

SB: Two a.m. Sunday, all hell breaks loose There's a continuous stream of tractor-trailers shuttling between the pier and the warehouse from 5:00 a.m. through noon, carrying everything we'd put out there: consumable, banners, construction materials, fencing, carpeting, tents, racks…everything you see and a lot you don't has to be packed up, picked up and returned to the warehouse.

LG: What about out on the race course?

SB: The same crew that delivered everything to the aid stations goes back out to bring it all back. We start caravanning from Hawi at about 2:00 in the afternoon Saturday and slowly work our way down along the course. Aid station volunteers are responsible for their own cleanup. They separate everything out, because we recycle everything possible, then they pile stuff onto the pallets it was delivered on and the sweep crews pick it all up. They haul 40-foot containers to pick up all the recyclable bags and dump trucks for the trash. We also pick up tables, tents, leftover consumables to go back into the warehouse.

LG: Is there someone who handles the recyclables end?

SB: Matter of fact, there is: My wife, Rosalind, is the recycling team coordinator. By the way, the sweep teams also carefully inventory everything they pick up, including leftover consumables. That way we have a record of exactly what was used by every aid station and that helps us figure out how to distribute stuff the next year. On a "normal" day we'll get about ten percent back if we planned right, but if it's a tough, windy day, it'll be less.

LG: So what's it like at the warehouse when all this stuff is flowing back in?

SB: Trust me on this: It's the last place on Earth you want to be on Sunday morning.

LG: And you?

SB: I'm the last person you want to be around. By mid-afternoon I start to seriously question what I'm doing here and by 5:00 I can barely drag myself home to take a shower and get to the awards banquet.

LG: How long does it take to stop swearing and get re-born in the spirit?

SB: Just a few hours. Once Peter's [Henning] race wrap-up video comes on the big screen, I'm inspired all over again.