Crystal Morris talks about winning Ernst & Young award, mentoring and more

CEO Connect

Crystal Morris is CEO of Gator Cases, in Tampa, a global leader in plastic music equipment cases and other types of cases.

When her father died, almost five years ago, she struggled with not knowing if she could run the company on her own.

Not one to walk away from a challenge, she has grown the company’s manufacturing and distribution numbers consistently. Recently acquiring Levy’s, a guitar strap company in Nova Scotia, Canada, Gator Cases is on track to have $60 million in revenue in 2019.

Morris has the mind of a businessperson and the heart of an adventurer. She loves to drive fast, fly airplanes and watersports.

She is also an avid supporter of arts education and a mother of two boys. 

Bridgette Bello, CEO and publisher of Tampa Bay Business & Wealth, interviewed Morris before an invitation-only audience at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Kate Tiedemann College of Business. Here’s a recap of that discussion.

To view images of the event, click here. 

Tell us about the most interesting thing that has happened to you since being on the August cover of TBBW.

I was absolutely thrilled to win Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award. It really meant a lot to me. As [you] mentioned, my father passed and we started this company together, so I really felt like it was a night that honored him, his entrepreneurship and all of the things he taught me.

In the music industry side of the business, the big trade shows are the National Association of Manufacturers, and we had one in Nashville in July. We absolutely had a blast. We won best in show, had all of these great artists in the booth and we debuted some amazing new products.

Another pet project of mine is a group that I formed with two other women. It’s a program we’re calling SWIM (“Smart Women in Music”). The idea of the program is to get more women into leadership roles in the music industry.

We had our first group of scholarship winners come to summer NAM and it was absolutely the most rewarding thing. I’ve had fun in the past two months.

You do like to have fun. That was one of the things that I found the most intriguing about you. What’s been your latest thrill-seeking adventure?

The most recent fun thing that we got was a little boat in downtown Tampa. We’re having a blast wakeboarding and have discovered that in the shipping channel where the cruise ship comes in, except for the two days a week it goes in and out, there’s no water traffic and it’s flat, so for any water skiing or wakeboard enthusiasts in the room, it’s a total win.

What is the best piece of business advice that someone gave you?

I saw an amazing speaker recently. What stood out to me was the topic about fun and creating laughter in every room. In the most serious of meetings if you can make people smile and have fun, it makes the whole mood change. 

I know you’re trying to make a difference with programs such as SWIM and mentoring. Can you go more in-depth with how you’re doing that?

Within our industry, the thing we kind of looked at was different points of people’s careers. Then we created an award and the winners can come to the NAM trade show with us.

The three girls that won the award for the first time came to the summer NAM show in July. We lined them up with amazing CEOs and other women in leadership. We got them a sort of “backstage pass,” and it really allowed them to see what it was like.

And the next thing we’re working on is designed for people who are more midcareer and helping connect them to a director, vice president or C-suite level. We partnered with the Center for Creative Leadership and we’re going to be offering about 15 women an incredible symposium on leadership.

Change is inevitable, and it’s never easy, though often we look back and appreciate it. Talk about starting the company with your father and what that journey was like.

In 2000, my dad and I started the company together and I went on to have children. I was home a lot and I ran the back office of the company and he was the front person. About 12 years ago I walked into his office, I looked at him and his whole face was drooping and I remember sitting there and thinking, “Oh, my gosh—what’s wrong?” I remember having the realization that something major just changed in my life.

From there he got diagnosed with a bizarre disease, we treated it, and there were four or five years of up-and-down health.

At that point in time, I had to look myself in the mirror and decide what I wanted. I realized I wasn’t really the front of the company. I wasn’t out doing sales and it was a very male dominated industry. I had to think about, ‘how do I get taken seriously?’

I decided I was going to have to solve this, so I made a list of all of the issues I needed to fix and I saw the gaps. I made a plan to solve those issues. Everything from these are our key customers, to how to we build those relationships? It’s one thing to show up and shake hands, but how do I show them that I have the skills to be a value-add?

I put some targets on a couple of boards and I started looking to see who I knew on them, or someone that I knew that knew someone. At that time there really wasn’t a LinkedIn, so I got on planes and started showing up in front of our partners.

That’s the thing with change: You don’t always plan on it, but it happens, and you have to decide if you’re going to be resilient and how you’re going to react to it.

The cool part was there were years where my dad’s health improved and we had fun. Every time we have great success, I just think how I would never be here without him. I know that he’s proud of it.

When we were together at your house, you started talking about wanting to do a “Battle of the Bands” competition with corporations.

You walk in the front door of our offices and there’s pingpong tables. You walk around the corner and there’s a full band setup. Most people that work at Gator are musicians of some sort; there’s usually music being played by 4:30 or 5 p.m.

Music absolutely brings people together and we wanted to get more people involved, so we came up with this idea of doing a “Battle of the Bands.”

It was funny because Gator’s band was playing and my great friend, who runs a company called BlueGrace Logistics [Bobby Harris], sends me a text that says, “Look, there’s people playing in my office in the back. We have a band!” It was the same night. And I’m like, OK, we need to battle.

We’ve been working with David Cox, who runs the Gasparilla Music Festival, and I think we’re zoning in on a November date at Sparkman Wharf [in Tampa]. Our idea is to get eight corporate bands. The cost of entry is going to be around $1,500; hopefully, we will have some corporate sponsors and we’re going to have a fun night. The money will go toward building music classrooms in low-income school districts.

What didn’t we ask you?

We’re having such a good time. I’m anxious to find the next acquisition and to continue to grow. Business challenges happen all of the time.

Tariffs, as you can imagine, have been a fun challenge. But I think part of the fun is finding these challenges then finding the next way to work around them. ♦

You can read Crystal Morris’ cover story here. 

ABOUT CEO CONNECT

TBBW’s “CEO Connect” series is an exclusive, invitation-only, monthly event that brings together the Tampa Bay area’s top business leaders to meet and mingle. Sponsors for August’s event included CLA and CenterState Bank as presenting, Thomas Financial as a gold-level sponsor, and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Kate Tiedemann College of Business as host sponsor. Metropolitan Ministries and Inside the Box provided the food, and DCE is a production partner.

Typically, the evening begins with a cocktail reception for about 120 guests, followed by an interview of that month’s cover CEO, providing insight into their lives, careers and views on issues affecting the business community. The interview is conducted by Bridgette Bello, TBBW’s CEO and publisher.

Partnering with TBBW on the event provides an opportunity to network with the area’s business elite, generate new business opportunities and increase brand awareness.

For information about event sponsorship opportunities, email Jason Baker at [email protected].

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