Profile: Dave Butler, co-CEO of Dimensional Fund Advisors
- February 1, 2022: Vol. 9, Number 2

Profile: Dave Butler, co-CEO of Dimensional Fund Advisors

by Mike Consol

During the Boston Celtics heyday, the team’s legendary coach and general manager Red Auerbach would ignite and start puffing on a victory cigar after it became apparent his team would, yet again, come out on top.

One could easily imagine that in 1987, when 6-foot-9 UC Berkeley basketball star Dave Butler received word that Auerbach had drafted him to play for the NBA dynasty franchise, he might have also put a match to cigar in Auerbach’s honor, and as a display of his adulation at becoming one of only about 250 athletes in the entire nation good enough to play NBA basketball. Alas, before Butler could don the Celtics’ green and white uniform, the NBA players and owners found themselves at loggerheads about financial compensation, and the players went on strike.

“I had prepped the whole summer, was in the best shape of my life, ready to go, and the night before I was heading off to Boston for camp they called a strike,” recalls Butler. “That was a little bit of a derailment of my master plan to play in the NBA. A few weeks later, my agent got a call from a team from Istanbul, Turkey.”

Butler was 22 at the time and had only about $200 in the bank. The Istanbul teams offered him a plane ticket and $1,000 to attend a five-day basketball tryout.

“I thought it was a pretty good deal,” he says.

Butler characterized his tryout as “really good,” and it must have been, considering the team offered to pay him more than double what he would have made as a Celtics’ rookie. All seemed good until Butler felt something snap in the back of his calf while doing a defensive drill.

“I was down for about three weeks, ended up coming back and finishing the season, but I played literally on one leg,” he says. “The doctors later told me that I probably should have had surgery right away. I definitely should have stayed off the leg, but I kept playing because I was the only American on the team and I was the main scorer. When I came back the following summer, physically I was probably 60 percent of what I was prior to the first summer.”

Still, a team from Yokohama, Japan, called and expressed interest, and Butler took the assignment.

“It was a great place,” he reminisces. “I love Japan. The Japanese people are very respectful. And I love Turkey too. The Turkish people are some of the nicest people you would ever meet, and they are really passionate about basketball.”

After a season in Japan, Butler went back to university to finish his MBA, and interviewed with a couple of big investment banks. But basketball was still in his blood.

“Like every good athlete, you kind of believe that you can keep going one more time, so I went down to a pro summer league.”


A couple of European pro teams contacted Butler about joining their roster, and he accepted an offer from a team in Birmingham, England. But after about six weeks, Butler realized the injured leg was still hampering him.

“I just felt I was on the negative slope,” he says, “from a sports perspective.”

Helping fuel his decision to leave the sport was a phone call from Merrill Lynch, one of the organizations he had interviewed with, notifying Butler it had an available position in New York City on the trading floor. He went to his coach’s office on a Sunday morning to announce that he considered his playing career at an end, and that he was leaving the team. Within hours he was on a flight from London to New York, where he stopped by his brother’s apartment to borrow a suit for his meeting with Merrill Lynch. The suit was a bit oversized, given that his brother Greg was seven feet tall and playing backup center to Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks at the time, but it served the purpose.

“I started my first ‘real job’ at Merrill Lynch on Monday morning. People asked me how my transition was from sports to real life, and I said, ‘Well, it was about 24 hours.’”


Unfortunately, Butler never became passionate about his role with Merrill Lynch. At the time, the industry as a whole meted out investment advice and conducted commission-based transactions in a high-cost, high-turnover environment that was not always in the best interests of individual clients. Butler was ready to move on and started thinking in terms of returning to California to become a teacher and basketball coach. Before he got serious about making such a move, Butler, sitting at his desk one day, opened a copy of The Wall Street Journal and saw an advertisement in the bottom right corner of the page that grabbed his attention, placed by a money manager in Santa Monica, Calif. He found the opportunity compelling enough to warrant sending a résumé. The recipient was Dimensional Fund Advisors.

During his Christmas break, Butler decided to pay the firm a visit, scheduling a meeting with an executive named Dan Wheeler, who explained how the firm operated using terms such as “low cost,” “tax efficient” and “diversified.”

“He started talking about this new profession called independent financial advice, and he was an independent adviser and thought this combination of what Dimensional did on the capital markets side, along with what independent advisers did in terms of client expertise, had some legs,” recalls Butler. “The way he described it sort of made me step back. For me it was an aha moment.”

Butler returned Monday morning for a second meeting with Wheeler and company founder David Booth. The executives, impressed with Butler’s experience and bearing, asked if he would like to start working with Dimensional Fund Advisors that very day.

“I had no idea what my compensation was going to be, no idea what my title would be. I said, ‘yeah, let’s do this. I am ready.’ I felt really good about what I was hearing,” says Butler, “and I felt that I could look in the mirror each morning and say, ‘I am making an impact, I am doing something good.’”

The title was regional director, a position that could be summed up as client relationships and sales. Butler traveled 205 out of 250 working days one year, visiting with independent financial advisers. He played the role about 12 years before being promoted to head of the global financial adviser business at that firm for an eight-year stint, followed by his promotion to co-CEO five years ago.


Need it even be said that Butler was far from your stereotypical jock. He was an Academic All-American his junior and senior years at UC Berkeley, where he studied marketing and finance without any definitive ideas about how he would apply his education, though investing and the stock market were areas of interest. What’s more, he aspired to become a Rhodes Scholar, an international postgraduate award that would have allowed him to study at the University of Oxford in England.

“I thought, ‘Are there basketball players who are Rhodes Scholars?’ The name Bill Bradley came up,” the former New York Knicks forward, who later became a New Jersey senator and presidential candidate.

Butler was one of eight Rhodes Scholarship finalists in the western United States, two of whom were selected to attend Oxford, though not Butler.

“I didn’t get picked but I got to the final, final stage,” he says with a measure of accomplishment. “Amazingly, 30 or 40 years later I find that David Booth has a relationship with Bill Bradley. So, in essence, I got to meet the person and persona I was chasing as a kid for so many years. He is still one of my idols. He is just an incredible person. Everything you read about Bill Bradley, he is in real life.”

Bradley advises the firm on client messaging, among other matters, and Butler and other members of the executive team meet weekly with him.

“He is great with words. He is great with connecting people with — in our case — fairly complex financial concepts,” says Butler.


Butler counts his meeting with Wheeler and Booth as the turning point in his career. Booth, who founded the firm in 1981, eventually moved it from California to Austin, Texas, and has been with the organization for 41 years. In this time, he has overseen the expansion of Dimensional Fund Advisors from one office in Santa Monica to 13 offices in 10 countries with more than $650 billion under management.

When the conversation turns to leadership style, Butler references the Phil Knight memoir Shoe Dog, in which the Nike founder and longtime CEO wrote, “None of my heroes are micro-managers.”

“I’m a big believer in that,” he says. “I’m happy to be a sounding board. I’m happy to help direct, but I would never want someone to say to me, ‘You didn’t listen to me; I am the expert and I wasn’t heard.’” He continues, “If you give people ownership and they come back with something that is better than expected, that means that they’re going to feel even more ownership, and they’re going to get bigger and bigger projects. That kind of repetition of confidence then becomes trust. Building a trusted group of team members is really important.”


Though Butler never did play for the vaunted Celtics franchise, he still cherishes the call he received from general manager Auerbach and head coach K.C. Jones notifying him they had drafted the UC Berkeley star, whose game as a power forward was rebounding and inside play — often taking the ball to the hoop.

“People always ask, ‘Are you bitter about not being able to play longer,’ and I say, ‘No, I got drafted, I got paid for a few years for playing basketball, seeing the world, got my MBA through sports, so it all has been great.’ I don’t really focus on major end goals that I want to hit in life,” he says. “I was striving to be an NBA player, but my goal was always to just get better each day as a player and as a person.”

Butler, the father of two sons and two daughters, adds: “I always tell my kids and young people, you can take a job and be focused on your title and compensation, and that job is going to last you for about two or three years, and you are going to get tired, and you are going to move to something else. If you can find a passion, then you’re going to be able to look back and go, ‘Whoa, that was a fast 20 or 30 years.’”

Satisfaction in life, he says, doesn’t come from reaching some I’ve-made-it-in-life title or goal, it comes from making consistent progress along the way, an accumulation of positive habits, and small wins that are repeated again and again and become a source of pride.

“That is my view on life, no end goal, but just trying to get better step-by-step,” he says. “We are all a work in progress. None of us have had our final moment or reached our final stage.”

Still, considering what Butler has achieved with his day-by-day approach to work and life, a Red Auerbach-style victory cigar might well be in order.


Mike Consol ( is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter (@mikeconsol) and LinkedIn ( to read his latest postings.

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