Although some successful executives in the music products industry arrive in the MI world by happenstance, our market’s true leaders tend to be the ones who’ve lived and breathed music seemingly from the cradle. That certainly describes Crystal Morris, Founder and CEO of Gator Cases, whose father was involved in the MI industry and who attended her first NAMM Show as a young girl. The enthusiasm, passion and creativity she discovered in girlhood suffuses Gator, a family business in the best and truest sense of the term.

In this conversation, Morris shares details of her life story in the music products industry, including how Gator Cases got its name and how she leads the company. She also discusses Gator’s corporate culture and its commitment to its dealer partners. Finally, she addresses her own role in the industry, both as a prominent female executive and as a tireless advocate for music-education programs in our public school system.

There’s a lot to glean from this wide-ranging discussion. Enjoy.

The Music & Sound Retailer: Discuss how you first became interested in music. Were you passionate about music during childhood and your teenage years, or did an interest in music come to you later in life?
Crystal Morris: I was lucky enough to grow up around the music industry, with my father being involved in the guitar, amp and audio businesses. My father took me to my first NAMM Show when I was around 10 years old; for many years after, I would go to the show and help with the booth. The early exposure was exciting, and it created what has become a lifelong attachment to the MI industry. Through that early exposure to music, I have always been passionate about it and what a difference it makes in all of our lives. Once I got out of college and worked in other areas, it solidified in my mind what a truly special ecosystem the music products industry is. Honestly, I could not imagine working in, or being nearly as inspired by, any other market and the people who make it up.

Tell us about your work experience and career trajectory prior to helping to found Gator Cases in 2000. Were you involved in the music products industry during those early years?
After I finished college, having earned a business degree, I worked in several industries under my father’s guidance. He called it a “real-world MBA.” This part of my life included a distribution business, a freight forwarder and a marketing company both domestically and internationally. Apart from those specific experiences, though, I believe that all the years growing up and watching my dad as an entrepreneur inspired me and taught me many lessons about running a business. Now that he has passed, there isn’t a day that goes by that I do not see his influence on my actions, whether it’s not taking no for an answer, listening to our customers, spotting opportunities or building lifelong relationships. I am so grateful to have had him as a mentor, and I believe his influence is absolutely key to my success today.

Discuss the founding of Gator Cases. How did the idea for the company come about? How did you go about bringing that vision to reality? Discuss the early years and how they set the stage for the company’s growth.
Thinking about Gator and its being a family business…well, that name was created around my kitchen table, shortly after I was married. We wanted a name that was associated with “tough;” living in Florida, alligators rose the top of the list. Actually, there’s still a bit of a family dispute about who said the words first! [Laughs.] But, to this day, my mom still claims it was her.

Anyway, I had gone back to school to get my MBA, and I was excited to apply many of the business ideas that I’d learned to my own business. In those early years, my dad and I shared the work. He handled sales and product development, and I did everything else: setting up our accounting system, warehouse management, accounting functions, implementing a marketing plan, entering orders and POs, etc.

And, in fact, that base of experience couldn’t have been better. The fact that I’ve literally done, at one point or another, everything in the company has been a great learning tool for me. Sometimes, I tried things and they didn’t work; however, I learned to adjust quickly and try something new. That kind of experience is invaluable both in the skills I learned and in appreciating all the hard work that my team does today.

What is the very best part of being CEO of Gator Cases? What keeps you motivated, inspired and engaged? What makes you most eager to come to work each morning?
It truly is fun! I love the challenge of figuring out how to create the very best products, customer experience and team cohesion. It’s incredibly stimulating to build a team that loves to work together and that, through their collaboration, makes amazing products and creates customer experiences that wouldn’t be possible except for their effective teamwork. It’s also truly rewarding to build a great corporate culture…to create a place where people are proud to work, where they have strong relationships, and where they’re passionate about and focused on growing Gator Cases. We all love working together—on most days [Laughs.]—challenging each other, and sharing in each other’s successes and failures. We’re truly a team and a family.

In addition to that, even after 17 years, I still feel like I learn something new every day. Learning something new and then putting that knowledge to use in the future is truly a great feeling.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I strive to be a good listener, an open communicator and a compassionate person. I seek to empower others to try new things, while providing a vision for where we’re going and holding everyone—myself included—to ambitious standards.

I’d like to share a quote that inspires me, and that, I think, gives some insight into how I try to lead Gator. John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” I love that quote, and the more my leadership style can embody it, the closer I feel I am to achieving true leadership.

What’s the “secret sauce” at Gator Cases that serves to distinguish the company not only from its direct competitors, but also from its peers across the music products industry? What makes Gator different, special or unique?
I can think of several things. First, we’re always reinventing ourselves, challenging what we did yesterday so we can do something better tomorrow. Second, we focus on the customer and that person’s entire experience…his or her every interaction with Gator, with both the product and the overall relationship. Third, we’re passionate about what we make, and we truly want to make great products that protect the gear our customers love. When we have visitors, I often hear there’s just a positive, energetic vibe when you walk into Gator’s headquarters. I believe that vibe by itself goes a long way to creating the “secret sauce.” Lastly, we listen to our customers with a keen ear and we respond. We know that the best ideas on what the latest needs are come from our dealer partners and their customers, and we work very hard to listen carefully, dissect the needs they are helping us to identify and react as quickly as possible.

As the leader of a prominent accessories manufacturer, what’s your assessment of the role accessories play in a full-line, brick-and-mortar musical instrument store? Why is it critical for music stores to stock accessory products robustly?
Accessories are not only a terrific way to increase the customer’s initial purchase, but they also keep customers coming back again and again. Stocking accessories allows you to sell them something new to outfit their rig, even if they aren’t replacing their primary gear. It is known that, for every guitar that is sold, there are exponentially more accessories sold to outfit it and, of course, at a much higher profit margin! It is critical to have these items in stock, because they can be a bit like the gum or candy in the checkout lane at the grocery store. By that, I mean the customer comes in to browse or take a lesson and ends up walking out with a new accessory to complement their product.

I also believe that, to maximize accessory sales, it is key to have well-trained staff on the gear who know what accessories work best for each player’s “mission.” It’s a great service to your customers when a well-trained store staff can help educate and guide them in finding the right solution for their needs and preferences, whether it be cases, stands, bags, strings or something else.

Characterize Gator Cases’ philosophy when it comes to working with the brick-and-mortar dealer channel. Is selling through music stores a core, fundamental, unchanging part of Gator’s approach to doing business?
We are extremely dedicated to the brick-and-mortar dealer channel. Music is a “passion industry,” and it is imperative that there be great stores in every community where musicians can go to connect, become better educated, and touch and feel new products. We work hard to engage with brick-and-mortar dealers by traveling to see them, extending special offers and participating in various buying groups. I am also very excited about a new link we have on our website to “Buy Local,” located on each product page. It feeds real-time stock data to our site, and it can send a customer directly to a local dealer to pick up what he or she is looking at, fully confident it will be in stock. Over the next year, I am looking to build out this functionality to support our brick-and-mortar partners further. Many big-box retailers, such as Target and Lowe’s, have proven that, if consumers have the knowledge that stock is available in the product they are looking for, they prefer to travel to the local store versus buying online. I am hoping to see this same trend in the MI industry, and I am dedicated to supporting it through our website.

Do you have any constructive criticism for brick-and-mortar dealers related to what they could be doing differently or better—things that would help them sell more accessory products, and do so more profitably?
Music stores have the unique ability to create a gathering place for musicians by offering educational programs, featuring live performances and hosting get-togethers. Leveraging a physical space to unite people brings both loyalty and customer traffic. Once customers are there, it’s about having a good selection of accessories and new gear that keeps them engaged and makes them want to come back.

I also feel that many retailers need to further leverage their online presence by creating powerful websites that show the value of their store. Today’s customer journey more and more frequently includes research online before visiting a store. Having features like indicating what is in stock—both through Google Local and on retailers’ websites—is a powerful tool to build customer confidence to make the journey to the store. I also believe the website should tell a story about the culture and “feel” of the store to instill desire for customers to want to visit it as a genuine destination.

In recent weeks, we got word that you have become a certified member of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC). Discuss the significance of this to you, to your company and to our industry.
Morris: I am proud to have this designation, and I hope to use it to promote women’s leadership and all the opportunities that are available to women. The music industry has a disproportionately small amount of women in senior management roles. I believe that is something we need to look to change over the coming years, and I hope I can be part of bringing about that change.

You are a multiple-year participant in NAMM’s Music Education Advocacy DC Fly-In. Why is that effort something you choose to participate in? How does it feel to be part of NAMM’s delegation fighting for school music programs?
It is truly my favorite three days of the year. When we arrive in our representatives’ offices to advocate, I am always amazed by how frequently it almost seems that they end up advocating to us about how music education has influenced their lives. Although it seems like anything with our government moves very slowly, you can truly see how the efforts from the NAMM Fly-In have moved the needle. I also find it inspirational to be around so many people who are unbelievably dedicated to ensuring music education is available to every child. The Fly-In drives me all year long to ensure my company and I remain positive contributors to the music products industry.

What can company watchers expect from Gator Cases in the next year, three years and five years? Are there major changes on the horizon, or do you expect largely to continue your existing successful ways?
You are going to see us continue to challenge ourselves to bring out more products, which are even more innovative, to meet the demands of our customers. We will continue to look at new segments, as we did with our Frameworks stand line, where we can offer unique solutions that make people’s lives easier.

Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask that you’d like to discuss?
We have recently started a distribution division of Gator. We feel that, with our broad dealer base and centralized shipping from Indiana, we can offer value both to other brands and to our dealer base by distributing some select brands. Our goal is to partner with strong brands and then exclusively distribute them in the U.S. and the Americas. We’re excited that the first brand is T-Rex Effects, a great pedal company out of Denmark.

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