Butler Buildings History: How a Grain Bin Business Became the Global Innovator in Industrial Buildings

Cornfed Beginnings

Believe it or not, Butler Manufacturing, the metal building giant we know today, originally started with a humble plan to build better agriculture products. In the late 1800s, friends Emanuel Norquist and Charles Butler met in smalltown Clay Center, Kansas. Emanuel was working on an idea to build a better stock tank using copper-bearing galvanized steel that wouldn’t rust or leak. Charles, the enterprising one, saw great business potential in what Emanuel was building and in 1901, with the added help of Charles’s brother, Newton, the three founded Butler Manufacturing in burgeoning Kansas City, Missouri. 


The First Butler Building

In the first decade of Butler Manufacturing, the trio enjoyed local success selling a host of better-built agricultural products and their company grew from three to a staff of 14. It was around this time that a personal need sparked an idea for a larger opportunity. In 1908, Emanuel was in need of a garage for his Metz automobile. His brother, Victor, took it upon himself to build a garage for it out of galvanized steel sheets bolted to a steel frame. Sturdy and long-lasting, a new product was born, and by 1910, the first Butler building was sold. Butler later introduced a two-car version which was greeted by immediate demand.  

Butler Manufacturing Garage.jpg

Butler Manufacturing Takes Lift Off and a Nose Dive

In the 1920s, airplanes gained fandom and caught the attention of everyone, including Butler. Ever industrious, the Butler founders endeavored to tap into the craze and started a subsidiary: Butler Aircraft Corporation. The subsidiary designed and built the Blackhawk, a single-engine, open-cockpit biplane that could hit 130 mph and travel 650 miles on a single tank of gas. The Blackhawk was priced at $7,995. 


Unfortunately, Butler was not immune to the national financial crisis that came in late 1929 which was followed by the Great Depression lasting a decade. Butler shuttered production of the Blackhawk, only producing 11 units. Ironically, some ended up being used as crop dusters, coming full circle back to Butler’s roots in agriculture.

Butler Blackhawk.jpeg

Recovery and Boom

Butler survived the 1930s and their resilience was rewarded in 1939 when the the U.S. Department of Agriculture put out a request for bids on 30,666 steel bins - this order was 1.5x more than the entire industry produced the year prior. All bids were needed within 30 days of request and bins were required to be delivered within 60 days of receiving an order. Butler took on the challenge, refurbished an abandoned plant in Galesburg, Illinois, produced and shipped 14,500 steel bins in 59 days - one day ahead of schedule. 6,000 more units were ordered mid-contract and were shipped just 15 days after. Butler-Feed-Grain-bin.jpg

De-risking and Becoming the Gold Standard

By 1940, Butler had a full line of rigid frame buildings ready for market, and in the 1950s Butler leadership was shifting focus away from the volatile agricultural markets and putting their focus on growing their metal buildings division. The Galesburg, Illinois plant that was rehabbed just a decade earlier for grain bin production was converted to solely produce their pre-engineered metal buildings. Butler’s move proved fruitful and the company’s revenue surged consistently for decades. By the mid-80s, the little stock tank business was no longer little, achieving $500 million annually. By the 1990s, Butler’s employee headcount was roughly 3,500.


butler building interior.jpg

Expansion and Acquisition:

Through the years, Butler’s product line evolved into a comprehensive building system of Butler frames, walls, roofs, fasteners, doors, and windows. Butler’s innovation garnered demand around the world. In the 1990s, Brazil and China were Butler’s largest exports, and by the early 2000s, Butler was working on building its 3rd factory in China in effort to meet the demand.

On April 2004, Butler Manufacturing was acquired by BlueScope Steel Limited of Australia, making BlueScope the leader in pre-engineered buildings in North America and the #1 in premium steel building products in China.



  • When was Butler Manufacturing founded?
    Butler Manufacturing was founded in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1901.
  • Who is the parent company of Butler Manufacturing?
    Butler Manufacturing is owned by BlueScope Steel of Melbourne, Australia. BlueScope acquired Butler Manufacturing on April 27, 2004 for $206M.
    On April 27, 2004, Butler Manufacturing was acquired by BlueScope Steel Limited of Melbourne, Australia.
  • How many employees does Butler Manufacturing have?
    Butler Manufacturing, now combined with BlueScope Buildings North America, employees over 5,000 talented men and women.
  •  Why is it called a Butler Building?
    Though Butler Manufacturing’s co-founder, Emanuel Norquist, was the engineering mind behind Butler’s initial products, Butler Manufacturing is named after Butler Manufacturing’s other two co-founders - Charles and Newton Butler
  • What are Butler Buildings made of?
    Butler buildings are pre-engineered steel buildings which are comprised of high-quality roofing, structural, and insulating materials. 

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