Crystal Morris and her father, Jerry Freed, founded Tampa, Fla.-based Gator Cases 19 years ago, when it launched a small offering of five molded-plastic guitar cases at the Summer NAMM show in Nashville. From there, Gator expanded the Cases line to include more case and bag solutions and launched Frameworks and Rackworks to offer gear and accessories for the pro audio, IT, audiovisual, general utility, band instrument and percussion segments.
The line now consists of more than 1,000 different solutions made from vacuum-formed plastics, rotational-molded plastics, wood, sewn and EVA materials. We talk to Crystal Morris about her beginnings in MI, the state of the industry, Gator Cases’ Levy’s Leathers acquisition and much more. But Morris’ story doesn’t end there. Look for info about her involvement in NAMM’s Music Education Advocacy D.C. Fly-In and Smart Women in Music (SWIM) as well.
The Music & Sound Retailer: Can you start with how and why you started the company with your father in 2000? What was the goal?
Crystal Morris: My dad had a long run in MI and was on the product side. I grew up around the music industry, so I had a lot of exposure to the business. My dad was a great mentor and encouraged me to learn more about all facets of business, in and out of the industry.
I ended up in Tampa; I was finishing business school. We were in the kitchen brainstorming ideas on starting a case company. My dad previously worked for a case company, so he had a lot of knowledge and experience in the area, and I had been involved in the marketing. In school, I was learning more about variable cost models, and we landed on the idea to start Gator using this model. So, we both invested $12,500 into the business.
Our vision was to make great, unique products that people would love and to be a brand that was trusted and was known for quality at a price that met our customers’ needs. We were willing to take risks and spent a lot of time really focusing forward on new opportunities.
For example, at the time, competitors were all making products in the United States and Mexico. We were the first to take vacuum forming offshore and make a quality product. In May 2000, we made plastic vacuum-formed guitar cases. We took the product to Summer NAMM, and from there, we quickly started to develop more products. We realized people liked the idea of us being a one-stop shop. What we found in the marketplace was there were competitors that were either experts by category or experts by manufacturing type. Some companies might have had great guitar or DJ products but not much else. We decided we wanted to become a solutions provider for all customers’ needs and problems, and service different product categories, from DJs to keyboards to band instruments, both by focusing on these markets and by having a broad diversity of materials. Today, we do products in plastics, sewn, wood, leather and metals.
Another opportunity for us to be different was that our key competitors were all selling through distribution. We analyzed other options and saw a big opportunity to go dealer direct. It was a new type of sales model in our category, and we were willing to challenge ourselves to try something new.
That’s something that we are always willing to do, and I think it’s a big driver of our growth.
The Retailer: Speaking of the dealer network, you’ve won many awards, including four consecutive Music & Sound Awards in the Bags/Cases category, which is voted upon by the dealers. Clearly, MI retailers have loved the products and working with you as a vendor. What’s your philosophy when making products and toward the MI retailer?
Morris: We’re very fortunate to have great retail partners and really value those relationships. We listen to all our customers — end users, dealers, reps — and the relationship we have with our retailers is a trusted partnership. These awards come by listening to them, getting feedback and continually innovating.
From day one, we have been dedicated to supporting the independent retailers around the world, and we put a lot of effort into being true partners with them. We put a lot of focus into marketing the product any way we can. We are all in it together to grow an industry we love.
In terms of making products, we have a very talented and passionate industrial-design team. We do a really great job of listening to the market and our customers. Our dealers and customers will come to us and say, ‘Hey, if there were only a solution that would do this.’ From there, we go to work to design value-oriented, customer- centric products at a price point that works.
The Retailer: You made news last year when you acquired Levy’s Leathers. Can you tell us how that acquisition has gone?
Morris: We were so excited about acquiring the Levy’s brand and having the amazing people behind it now on our team. Levy’s has such good equity and makes such beautiful products in Nova Scotia, Canada, by true artisans. During the acquisition process, I visited the factory and instantly said, “I love this.” What we’ve been really focused on is preserving the legacy of Levy’s, while evolving for the future generations of musicians. We hired a great brand director, Jen Tabor, and she has been actively giving the product line a refresh. We have 168 new SKUs and many new looks that are on trend. We launched a new website. We created all new content for the brand; everything from new hangtags to new photography and video. It’s been really fun so far, and I can’t wait to see where it goes over the coming years.
The Retailer: When you are doing well as a manufacturer, how do you keep bettering yourself and make sure you don’t rest on your laurels?
Morris: I am always looking forward. The entire team at Gator is too. Whatever we do, we are always trying to figure out how to do it better. We are always listening to feedback — we take a very customer-centric approach. They trust and rely on us to provide solutions, and we take that responsibility very seriously.
We always have a roadmap of more than 100 products in the works. We constantly think about where we are going to go in the future and come out with products that answer their needs. The whole focus of continuing to develop products is in our DNA. We always have something to talk about, which keeps our energy level going.
The Retailer: Can you tell us about some of the products you have recently released and will release at Summer NAMM next month?
Morris: This year is really exciting on the product side, especially for Levy’s, which we acquired in 2018. We launched a rebrand, a new look and feel, a new website, new packaging and 168 new straps. Our new Levy’s brand director-worked really hard to create one-of-a-kind, cutting-edge straps for every personality. She reimagined the classic styles and played with new design techniques and materials, like the leather punchouts and amp grill cloth. In addition to the classics, we have eight more series of straps with new prints, textures and materials.
On the Gator side, our product team did an outstanding job of adding more high-quality products, especially in our Frameworks line, which enhances the stage and studio experience. We released new stands for moving-head lights, a tray that holds six mics, an accessory tray that clamps to mic stands, a cup holder for stands — great accessories that our fans have responded well to.
Looking ahead to Summer NAMM, fans can expect more exciting Levy’s straps and new innovations. One we are really excited about is a new adjustment design for straps. We often hear musicians say they wish it was easier and faster to adjust their straps without having to take off their guitar, if they’re on stage, for example. With this new design, we have solved this.
On top of that, we’re building on the success of our best-selling classics with a “butter” series made from leather that ages really well, like a fine wine. Guitarists will love them because they get softer and conform to each individual person. We’ll also introduce a luxury padded, tooled leather line reminiscent of a beautiful pair of cowboy boots, and a Lucky line with iconic emblems like a four-leaf clover, spade, a lucky number 7 and a horseshoe. Everyone can use a little luck from Levy’s. We’re adding more options for other instruments — eco-friendly mandolin and ukulele straps made from cork with a soft leather backing. And lastly, to keep it fresh, we want fans to enjoy summer all year with a cool “fruit salad” line that’s really playful and fun.
For Gator, we’re adding more Frameworks gear and accessories to address our fans’ needs. We’ve had a great response to our mic booms for content creators, and we’re adding another option. We’ll release a new quad-speaker-stand package to complement our already-popular stands. And of course, more cases and bags; wheeled options to transport the well-known Line 6 Helix, in addition to a series of lighting and accessory bags.
The Retailer: Let’s talk about the overall MI industry. You have a good view considering you provide products for so many segments of the industry. For many, 2018 was a good year, and 2019 looks solid. What are your thoughts?
Morris: We had a great ’18, and based on the energy level of NAMM in January, that momentum continues. I, of course, can’t overlook what’s happening with tariffs and the trade talks. It’s impacting all businesses and industries, and MI is no different. But what makes me really proud to be a part of the music industry is that we are taking a very collaborative approach. We’re all in this together, and it’s nice to see that we are working together to find solutions and share ideas. It’s part of the evolutionary process.
Generally speaking, I see a renewed interest from the consumers and audiences in music and the arts, which is positive for our industry. That’s exciting to see because it’s so important to our culture, society and for the future generations.
The Retailer: Recently, you were nominated for an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. How did you get noticed and recognized for this honor, and what are some of the reasons you were nominated for this accolade?
Morris: I’m very honored and excited for this recognition, although it is truly recognizing the entire Gator team, because it is only possible because of what we all do together. I believe I got noticed by my involvement in the local community and various business groups. From there, they did a pretty in-depth interview process looking at entrepreneurship. This included financial performance, growth, talent management, community involvement and ability to overcome challenges. I guess we passed the muster!
The Retailer: You attended this year’s NAMM D.C. Fly-In last month. What were some of the goals you were looking to accomplish?
Morris: I’ve been involved with the Fly-In for six or seven years. Our main mission is to keep music and arts in schools and continue to grow music and arts education programs. It is amazing to see the difference it has made. The first time I came, we went up on Capitol Hill, and nobody had ever heard of us. Now, we show up and hear these amazing stories from [Congressional and Senatorial] legislative administrative assistants and from members of Congress about how music has affected their lives and how they are dedicated to ensuring music stays in the school systems that they represent.
When we first went, they may have wondered why we were there. Now, they get excited to see us and love the fact we honor Best Communities for Music Education and always have stories about events that are going on in their various regions.
The Retailer: Let’s talk about SWIM. Let’s begin with the fact that you have been in the MI industry for 19 years. How have you seen women’s roles change in that time?
Morris: One way it has definitely changed is, I remember going to The NAMM Show [in the past] and many of the women’s roles were not in leadership or business. They were really only in promotional roles. You don’t see that as much today, but I do think there is a tremendous gap in women in leadership roles. I don’t think we’ve seen that grow tremendously. That is what we are trying to accomplish with SWIM. We are trying to fill leadership positions with women and with diversity in general. I think we can elicit change, and I’ve seen places where I know we already are. I’ve received phone calls from friends who are CEOs or in C-Suite roles who tell me they hired a woman or person of diversity on their team. They say, “Thanks for bringing attention to this, and we are focusing on this at the company.”
I am really excited about some of the things we are working on with SWIM to help women from both a networking standpoint and in building their toolbox in the leadership category.
The Retailer: To give a little more background on SWIM, you founded it with NAMM chairwoman Robin Walenta and Heid Music’s DeDe Heid. If people reading this article want to get involved, how would they do so?
Morris: Please visit our website, smartwomeninmusic.org. They can also reach out to any of us. We would love to hear from you.