Dave Butler never expected that basketball would be his life.
Long before he had a chance to play professionally he started making long-range plans for a life outside of sports. In some ways, you can credit his father for that.
“My dad was an accountant and a CPA. He was always very focused on school and on academics, and not so much on sports,” Butler told TheStreet.
Even though NBA-level talent was clearly in the family genes as Butler’s brother Greg played three years in the league. Dave Butler, however, who would go on to be drafted by the Boston Celtics, was pushed to make his college choice based on more than sports.
“My dad never worked us out and never shot basketball with us. He was always really focused on academics,” Butler shared. “So when I was coming out of high school. I had kind of narrowed my decision choices down to Stanford, Cal, and Harvard.
He ultimately chose Cal, and while he had a successful playing career during his four years at the school, Butler, who now serves as Co-CEO of global asset manager Dimensional Fund Advisors LP, did not follow the same path as most athletes.
Butler had a brief pro basketball career.
Image source: Dimensional Fund Advisors
A different kind of athlete
While Butler pursued basketball at Cal, he did not follow the path of most student-athletes who took an easy course load.
“When I got to Cal. I wanted to be in the business school, and had that vision, you know, right out of the shoot. So I do remember sitting with one of the academic counselors at the time, and they said, Well, you need to take these three courses up on this whiteboard here. This is what our athletes take. And I said, Well, I need to have these two other courses too. Get my pre-recs done for business school,” he said.
While the counselor was reluctant, Butler insisted on following his own path.
“Even at a place like Cal, there was sort of this expectation that you’re an athlete, and then you’re also a student along the way,” he shared.
The future CEO always had a different vision.
“My view at the time was, and still is, the idea of student-athlete makes a lot of sense and they put the word student in before athlete for a reason. And I think being an athlete is great, and I put a lot of effort, a lot of work into it. But I always thought of myself as a student and a person who happened to play basketball,” he added.
From basketball to business
Despite not being a typical student-athlete, Butler was drafted by the Boston Celtics. Unfortunately, what would have been his rookie year was the year the league went on strike so Butler began his professional career overseas.
Butler knew he wasn’t a star but felt he put the work in to be a solid NBA player.
“I felt really good about my training and my prep for camp. And then, the night before I was ready to go to Boston, they called and said, ‘You know we’re striking, and there will be no camp,'” he shared.
Not wanting to sit out an entire year, Butler joined a team in Turkey that paid him roughly twice what he would have made as an NBA rookie.
Butler planned to hone his skills overseas and return to the NBA the following season. An injury, however, ended those plans.
At the same time, Butler was also working on his MBA. That was actually a process he started in his last year of college as he had already graduated but had remaining availability. He needed to take classes, so applied to the business school, and began working on his advanced degree.
“Balance is really everything in life, and if you’re able to balance a lot of different activities at a pretty high level I think that tells you a lot about your work ethic and your discipline and those sorts of things,” he added.
That’s actually something Butler looks for when he considers hiring student-athletes now. If someone has the discipline to succeed in both high-level athletics and academics, that, he shared, suggests the person might be a very good employee.
“I’ve got kids in college now. And I always tell them you gotta have the grit. You gotta prove it. You might not be the most talented. You might not be the smartest. But you gotta keep grinding at it,” he added.
Butler becomes a business leader
While he now serves as co-CEO at Dimensional, Butler joined the company when it was just 45 people and $9 billion under management.
As of 12/31/23, Dimensional had about “1,650 people and $677 $billion under management,” Butler said. “I’ve gotten the chance to kind of ride along the side of a really great growth curve for the firm.”
When he started at Dimensional, the size of the company forced Butler to be more entrepreneurial. Butler has a story from his early days that he carries with him to this day.
“I had a boss before I got to this job, and I walked into her office one day, and she said, ‘Just take something off my desk and bring it back better than I expected,’ and that was one of those lines, I’ve always thought about that. If you just on a day-by-day basis and you can start building up a resume of small wins, and those small wins give you the opportunity to have bigger wins and be moved along,” he explained.
Butler admits that he never considered being the CEO of the company.
“I never even thought about it. But I did think about how do I prove myself daily? And how do I make an impact on the organization?” he added.
Butler believes that was a lesson he learned as an athlete.
“How do you be one of the guys on the team that actually does contribute and make the team better? That’s always been my view here,” he said.
Butler believes that putting in the work and having the right attitude creates opportunity.
“Any accolade or any position like CEO that’s something that if you do the work, hopefully, well, and people respect what you’re doing, and you’re collaborative, and you’re an optimistic and a good person, then people hopefully keep tapping you on the shoulder and give you another opportunity. And I think, for me, that’s what happened,” he shared.