Crystal Morris knew how to water-ski practically before she knew how to walk, learned how to fly a plane in college and she started a company with her father after graduating college.
The company, Gator Cases of Tampa, has grown into a leader in plastic music equipment cases and other types of cases. Morris has the mind of a businessperson and the heart of an adventurer.
When her father died, almost five years ago, she wondered if she would be able to go it alone. Not one to walk away from a challenge, she has grown the company’s manufacturing and distribution numbers consistently. Recently acquiring a guitar strap company in Nova Scotia called Levy’s, the company is on track to have $60 million in revenue in 2019.
When Morris and her father started Gator Cases in 2000, their initial challenge was that they had no capital. Combined, they invested $12,500 but, until recently, when the company completed an acquisition, the company never took out a business loan.
“We outsourced everything. In those days we focused on international business, which is all pay-in-advance … we pretty much ran the business profitably from day one. There wasn’t always a lot of profit, but it was there.”
Gator Cases was able to separate itself from competitors by cutting out the middle man that other accessory companies used. “All accessory companies in the music industry sold to distributors who would sell to a retailer, who would then sell to customers. We cut out the distribution model and went directly to the retailers,” she says. “It served a couples of purposes. Of course, there’s the margin, but even more important, we had a closer relationship to the market. We could actually hear what people wanted.”
Within the first 12 months of operation, Gator Cases got its first big order. Someone connected via the general “contact us” email on the company’s website. They wanted 25,000 cases that were shaped like a miniature guitar case that could hold six compact discs and a booklet. It was for the rock band Kiss.
A lot of people assume Morris attended the University of Florida by her company’s name, Gator Cases. But she graduated from Stetson University and later did MBA studies at the University of South Florida. There is no connection to UF.
It was Morris’ mother who came up with the name.
“We were sitting around the kitchen table discussing what we would name the company. We wanted it to be a name that represented something strong, [the way] our products were strong and would protect your gear,” Morris says. “And we wanted the name to be representative of Florida, because Florida had become home to us and our new company.”
After the company began distribution in the United States, everything started to take off.
“We were growing somewhere around 15 to 30 percent a year, every year. Then 2007/2008 hit, which was obviously a difficult time in the national economy. At the same time, the prices coming out of China were escalating like crazy. It was a wakeup call that we needed to get some diversity in our supply chain, and one of the processes that we were interested in was doing more rotational molding.”
She describes rotational molding as a way to make large plastic parts, like garbage cans. But for Gator Cases, it meant being able to make larger cases for audio and visual equipment, and other music industry-related purposes.
One day, Morris was Googling businesses for sale with a very specific purpose: “rotational molding.”
“This company pops up for sale in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the main product they were making was percussion cases. I thought, ‘perfect.’ ”
Gator Cases now does manufacturing in Fort Wayne and maintains manufacturing in China.
Another major win was when Gator Cases partnered with its fastest-growing customer at the time, Sweetwater Sound, which happened to also be based in Indiana. The company moved its warehouse next door to Sweetwater and later merged its virtual warehouse to share distribution needs.
“We literally started delivering multiple times a day to them … about two to three truckloads a day,” Morris says. “It doubled our sales with them overnight.”
Morris grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, spending time with her family boating in Florida during vacation seasons. “My dad was always such an adventurer and was always up for whatever adventure was next,” she says.
As an only child, all the attention was on her. “Which is good and bad,” she says with a laugh. If she wasn’t in school and not on, or in, the water, she was playing competitive tennis and ranked throughout the state of Texas. During this time, she spent a lot of time with her mother driving to and from practices and tournaments.
“You’d hopefully win some matches, if not, you’d have a long drive home,” Morris says.
Her dad was an entrepreneur and worked all the time, bringing a special fondness for their family time in Florida. The family originally owned a trawler, which they kept in Fort Lauderdale. “With my dad always traveling, it was the one time when we were all in, as a family,” she says.
When Morris was a junior in high school, her family decided to relocate. The choices were between Southern California and Florida. They chose Florida.
Morris had a friend attending Stetson University in DeLand, and, after visiting the campus, she decided to apply. At 17 years old, after graduating early, she began classes at Stetson and graduated in three years.
It was during this time she got her pilot license in DeLand, which bills itself as the “skydiver’s capital of the world.” “If you want to add more stress to getting your pilot’s license, go to DeLand, where there’s people falling from the sky,” she says with a laugh.
As a bright and driven child, Morris says her parents never put pressure on her to be a “straight A” student or pushed her to any college or career path. She says her parents held her accountable but gave her freedom.
“I think that combination of wanting them to be proud of me, but also not being on top of me,” helped made her a capable person, she says. While she knew how to operate a boat at a young age, she also knew how to take care of them, clean them and mechanically fix them.
“Pretty much anything with an engine I can operate,” Morris says. “It was all my dad. He loved all that stuff. I was just along for the ride … if it has an engine, I can operate it.”
When Morris isn’t looking for another adventure, she splits her time involved in a number of organizations. She is on the board of directors for Reverb, a platform created by David Kalt, that allows smaller, mom and pop music stores to sell items online along with consumers directly to each other.
“Reverb came onto the scene about three or four years ago and revolutionized the ability for used instruments to be sold but, more important, for small retailers to have a great Internet presence,” Morris says. “I actually made it a mission to track down the guy [Kalt] who founded it because to me, it was such a game changer.”
Morris didn’t pursue the board position but when she and Kalt met, he appreciated her excitement and understanding of the product. She is the only woman on the Reverb board.
She’s also a founding member of SWIM, Smart Women in Music, an organization that seeks to bring more women into the music industry, which is dominated by men.
The team at Gator Cases give back, as well. The company is working with the Boys and Girls Club in Tampa to help build music rooms and donate instruments. “The thing I’m most excited about is that Gator staff members, who play music, volunteer their time to teach the kids and help them put a band together,” Morris says.
This past summer, Morris was recognized with a major honor as Ernst and Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year for 2019 and completed the 1.5 year. Yale Global Leadership program
Morris is a member of the National Association of Music Merchants, recently making a trip to Washington, D.C., to advocate for arts education.
She’s a member of the Young Professionals organization and recently joined the board of advisors for UT Lowth Entrepreneurship Center
She still looks for the thrills between her hectic schedule.
While at a trade show in Germany, she took a spin on the Nürburgring test track, reaching speeds of about 120 mph.
Also, she recently got a Boston Whaler 21-foot boat, which she keeps in Channelside. “It’s so much fun. I can be in the water 40 minutes from my desk on any given day,” she says. ♦
BATTLE OF THE BANDS
Another project Morris is excited about is a “battle of the bands.” Her idea is to bring together business professionals, who play instruments, for a competition to raise money for charity. Interested parties visit www.gatorcases.com/TampaBOTCB2019