Gator Cases was founded by Crystal Morris and her late father, Jerry Freed, in 2000 in Tampa. It has acquired several companies and expanded its line to over a thousand cases and bags for instruments and audio, IT and visual equipment. Today, it is the fifth-largest woman-owned business in Tampa Bay.
I grew up on a lake in Fort Worth, Texas. I loved to wake up early and go for an early morning ski or wakeboard. I came to Florida to attend Stetson University. I loved it here and never left. I attended the University of South Florida for my Master of Business Administration and have lived in the Tampa area for 23 years. Nowadays, you can catch me occasionally in the shipping channel in Tampa on my wakeboard, reliving those days.
My first job was teaching tennis. I grew up playing competitively and always loved kids. I brought these two loves together by working at a summer youth tennis program, but wow was that hot working in the Florida summer sun. That’s when I learned that I might be better suited for a desk job during the summer.
Gator Cases was born around my kitchen table in 2000 with my father, Jerry Freed. We knew we wanted to start a case company and needed a name. We liked the idea of having a tough name and logo to represent the durability of our product and Gator just seemed like the perfect fit, being in Florida.
The most challenging time for me was when I lost my father. He was not only my business partner, but my best friend. That time has given me a lot of drive through to build the best company, beyond what he would have ever dreamed it could have been when we started. Gator has grown so much, and we have enjoyed great success. We are in so many markets, have a huge fan base and a very wide diversity of products. I know it would make him so proud to see what we’ve accomplished, and I feel like he is with us every day.
My business philosophy is, “Do the right thing.” Many years ago, I saw a little plaque in the office of a CEO I greatly admire, Chuck Surack. It struck home with me. Although it is short in words, it says a lot about the importance of character, ethics and caring for others. These are important words to live by and champion. I make sure everyone at Gator (and my kids) knows that doing the right thing is the place to start when facing a problem or decision. If you start there, the answer will be easy to get to.
The professional achievement I’m most proud of is growing a business from zero to over 150 people, creating a fun work environment and enjoying it every step of the way. In my personal life, I’m also extremely proud of my two boys and what wonderful young men they are.
My advice for women business leaders is to build a network of relationships – women who support you and men who are committed to having diversity at the table and ensuring women have a voice. Also, make sure you are supporting the next generation of women leaders, offering mentorship and opportunities.
The best advice I ever got was to take care of your people. It really doesn’t matter what you are selling. A company is only as good as the people that make it up. As a leader, truly caring about your team, getting to know them individually and being trusted are critical to growing a company and creating great value.
As for my favorite local musicians, I must go with my boyfriend, Bernie Williams, and his warm Latin jazz vibe. I might be biased. I also love when the “Gator Band” fires up at the office. We have many talented musicians and singers on the team, and we have a performance space in the office. It’s always fun when they play together and it’s wonderful to see and hear the camaraderie at work.
People would be surprised to know that I can operate almost anything with an engine and love to go fast. Boats, planes, motorcycles, race cars – you name it.
When I’m not working, I love to be on the water. We have a boat downtown and I enjoy running up the river for food and drinks, followed by catching the sunset.
My perfect day would be waking up and taking my goldendoodle, Scout, for a walk down the riverwalk, followed by brunch, an afternoon boat ride and watching the sunset. It would be a big bonus if I’m lucky enough to spot a few dolphins on the ride.
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