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Crystal Morris of Gator Cases Looks Back on Two Decades: ‘20/20 Perfect Vision and Outlook’

Christian Wissmuller • January 2020Upfront Q&A • January 13, 2020

Formed in 2000 by Crystal Morris and her father Jerry, Gator Cases quickly emerged as designers and producers of some of the most sought-after cases and bags for instruments, percussion, pro audio, A/V, and more.

Subsequent years have seen the company’s OEM division grow to be an industry-leader, while acquisitions of well-respected brands such as Viking Cases and Protechtor Cases have grown Gator’s overall product line. The 2018 purchase of Levy’s Leathers was a game-changer, which has seen the business’ growth reach new heights.

We recently chatted with CEO Crystal Morris about Gator’s origins, evolution, and future.

For those unfamiliar, can you briefly discuss the origins and early history of Gator? What prompted you and your father to enter this market segment and what was your background prior to founding the company?

Gator started in my kitchen. My dad was in the music business for a long time and had a lot of experience in the industry. I grew up in the music industry and learned a lot from him. I was just finishing up business school in Tampa and we were brainstorming on how we could start our own case company. I was learning about variable cost models and we decided to start Gator using this model. We started with five cases at Summer NAMM under the Gator Case brand and now have over 2,000 products with multiple brands and diverse

products that serve the music industry – Gator Cases, Gator Frameworks,

Gator Rackworks, and Levy’s – cases, bags, stands, stage and studio accessories, guitar straps and accessories. It was just the two of us and now we have 185 team members.

A lot of people ask about the name. Since we were starting a case company, we wanted the name to convey something that was tough, would protect, and last. We were in Florida so Gator was the perfect fit. And no, I did not go to the University of Florida. I’m a Stetson University Hatter and University of South Florida Bull.

In a relatively short time, Gator has already become an “industry standard.” What were some of the key moments and achievements that you think were pivotal in getting the brand to the next level?

Our mission was and still is to make high-quality, unique, affordable products that people love and trust. Our products protect and perform, so our fans can focus on their passions. It’s our mission to be best-in-class and set the standard.

We’ve prided ourselves on being the first and willing to take risks to test and explore new opportunities. We push ourselves to innovate not only in product, but how we make business decisions to best serve our customers.

For example, when we started, competitors were either experts by category or experts by manufacturing type. We were the first to take vacuum forming offshore and make a quality product. In 2000, we made plastic vacuum-formed guitar cases. We took the product to Summer NAMM, and from there, quickly started to develop more products. We realized people liked us because we were a one-stop shop. What we found in the marketplace was there were companies who 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, 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 idea for us to differentiate and lead the industry was to rethink our sales model. 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 it’s a big driver of our growth.

Can you talk a little about the OEM division? Roughly how many other companies does Gator manufacture cases for at this point? What percentage of overall revenue does the OEM side of things account for?

OEM is a very exciting growth business for us. We have over 50 OEM partners in all different markets. We have leading expertise in manufacturing that can serve multiple markets and industries. Music is of course a big piece of that pie, but we do have business in other verticals – medical, utility, outdoor and recreation, et cetera.

Almost everything needs a case, and we know how to make exceptional case and transport solutions. The music industry segments into different categories and all of those products – instruments, gear, et cetera – need a case solution. This is another unique advantage that Gator has to diversify and expand our value proposition in different categories – make great product, offer a great price and deliver exceptional customer service.

And on top of that, with Levy’s, we have even more OEM solutions with our straps and accessories – more quality product for brands to partner with us on.

Can you describe the current physical and personnel layout at Gator? What are the facilities like?

Gator has enjoyed a lot of growth – not just on the business side, but also our talent. We’re truly global with team members in the U.S., Canada, and overseas and looking to add more internationally on the sales side. Right now, we have about 185 talent team members who make up our “rock star team” and inspire and motivate me every day. Our corporate office is in Tampa, Florida.

We have factories and distribution centers in Nova Scotia, Asia, and Indiana. Levy’s started in Canada and is an important part of the Levy’s legacy, especially our quality craftsmanship. Our Nova Scotia team is the heart and soul of Levy’s. Our product is born from that factory and distribution center.

Our distribution center in Indiana holds all our U.S. inventory – Gator and Levy’s – and we have a factory that does all of our rotational molding. We are one of the few onshore roto-molding factories which gives us a big manufacturing advantage to best serve customers who require this type of manufacturing technology like drum cases and racks.

You’ve had some significant acquisitions in the past – Protechtor Cases and, more recently, Viking Cases – but the 2018 acquisition of Levy’s Leathers made serious waves. What was the catalyst behind that business move, what had been your history (if any) with Levy’s prior to that, and – post-acquisition, how many of the previous Levy’s management team remain in place?

In January 2018, we acquired Levy’s, which is an iconic brand that started 1973 in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, best known for high-quality, unique guitar straps, loved by millions of musicians, but also known for its bags and other accessories.

Levy’s was a natural fit and perfect opportunity to expand the Gator Co. family. Both were family-owned businesses. Both serve what I call “passion industries,” started with a love for music, hard work and “dream big” visions to innovate and create amazing products for our awesome fans. In acquiring Levy’s, we had a mission to understand what the fans loved and desired most and use those insights to reinvent Levy’s with exciting new strap designs and products to delight every musician around the world. We have an amazing brand director, Jen Tabor, who joined Levy’s in August 2018.

As I said earlier, we have dedicated and inspiring team in Nova Scotia and U.S. They work so incredibly hard to carry on the spirit of Levy’s as a music hero – with care, passion, and quality.

Any big plans on the horizon – new product introductions, new business partnerships, et cetera – that you’d like to share with our readers? Expectations for both the cases & bags and the guitar strap markets in the coming months?

We’ll continue to push ourselves to innovate, grow our core business and look at new opportunities in spaces where we can really drive value. We’ll continue to listen to our customers. We love feedback and we strive to respond to what they need and desire. On the product innovation side, for example, we had a lot of success with the Levy’s Right Height straps. We heard a lot of guitarists saying they wished they had a strap that was quick and easy to adjust on the fly without having to take off their guitar. So, we solved for that and developed a new RipChord technology and integrated that into the design of the Right Height straps that we launched in July. We’ve received great feedback on them and will be launching more models at Winter NAMM. Similarly, we’ll be launching products with new, natural materials that our customers are craving – think vegan, cork. You can expect more solutions to solve our customers problems and fit their personalities and not just in cases and bags. We will still focus on growing our core, but as the industry changes, our customers’ needs also evolve.

For example, musicians do a lot more “off the stage” in this information age. They are now content creators – YouTubers, bloggers, podcasters – and we are creating a range of products in our Gator Frameworks brand to serve that need. We’ve had a lot of success with our mic stands already like the GFWMIC0822 and GFWMICBCBM series of desktop boom stands. At Winter NAMM, fans can check out more quality products to outfit a content creator’s studio or workspace. Gator is celebrating 20 years in 2020. It’s a meaningful number for us – 20/20 perfect vision and outlook. We have about 1,000 Gator products and 1,000 Levy’s products so 2020 products to celebrate. We’ve enjoyed 20 great years of growth, friendship, teamwork, and fans and we look forward to another outstanding 20 and more.

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