May 16, 2018

Stephen Murray: Economic Development Enthusiast

Shelley Barratt

Stephen Murray is a native Beaufortonian enjoying lowcountry living with his wife and twin daughters. He is President and CEO of Kazoobie Kazoos, LLC and New South Shirts as well as a Beaufort City Councilman, Chair of the City's Economic Development Subcommittee, on the Beaufort Digital Corridor Foundation Board, Chairman of Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation, on the Executive Committee for the Southern Carolina Alliance, and has a seat on the Board of Trustees for Leadership South Carolina.

Stephen was the catalyst for the creation of the Digital Corridor. After visiting the Charleston Digital Corridor along with William Prokop, City Manager, they realized Beaufort was in a similar situation to Charleston fifteen years past; young people leaving, per capita income shrinking and housing prices rising. Diversity is tough when graduates from our educational institutions are leaving the state for employment elsewhere due to lack of economic opportunity. The goal of the Digital Corridor is simple: attract, nurture and promote Beaufort's tech economy.

As a third generation Beaufortonian, what made you want to stay in Beaufort?

The more you see the rest of the world you start to realize just how special this place is. The natural beauty has been very well-preserved, development has been limited, we've done a nice job with historic preservation, downtown Beaufort is a very unique place. Others are trying to copy what we have here. But I think what really makes this place special though, is our people. We are an extremely friendly, hospitable, welcoming place whether or not you're a third or fourth generation Beaufortonian, or you've been here a week or two or just visiting for the day. We are diverse in terms of socio-economics, race, backgrounds– we've got the military influence, African American influence, folks that have come in from the northeast going all the way back to Reconstruction. After you see big cities and feel the coldness of some places, being able to live in a place like this with the warmth is really what drew us back.

What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?

I got into theater at Beaufort High School in the mid-nineties when there was a burgeoning arts scene. Bit by the theater bug, it gave me a place and I was able to make a job out of it. I made good money (for a kid in high school) running lights and sound, managing USCB's performing arts center and the Shed Center for the Arts in Port Royal.

Did you have an entrepreneurial drive early on, or did you acquire it through experiences?

My dad was self-employed, and I admired his freedom and flexibility. I'm very Type A and like to challenge authority, and so the idea of having a boss never appealed to me, although I've had some great bosses. I've tried to figure out how to create my own destiny. I like the risk-reward relationship of owning your own business–the harder I work, the more I put in, the luckier I am, the more I can achieve.

What drew/inspired you to your current business?

I got connected with the "King of Kazoo", Rick Hubbard, on the classified site for theater gigs. He made a living traveling all over the country playing kazoo at family festivals and motivational kids' shows. I applied for the job of production manager for a six-week tour. We headed to California in a custom motor coach, spent a week in Los Angeles, a week in Vegas, a week in Texas; I was getting paid to see the country. Because we hit it off so well, after we returned he extended my contract for a year. Ultimately, I didn't like living out of a suitcase and I wanted to get back home, someplace grounded. In the early days of e-commerce, we didn't take credit cards and getting a couple of orders per week was turning into "work" for Rick, so I joked, "I'll take over the kazoo business". He put me in charge of the business, and we opened a little office in Hilton Head with no windows, no air conditioning or heat, but sales grew by about forty percent in less than six months because someone was there to answer phones.

A year and a half later, our largest supplier lost a large percentage of their business due to offshore competition. I was nineteen and flew to Detroit to take a look at the operations. As the old saying goes, "All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure" (Mark Twain). We went from basic internet retailer to manufacturer, OEM, overnight. We then found a manufacturing community with eighty injection molders in the St. Petersburg-Clearwater-Tampa, Florida area who had the capacity to do what we needed. I was twenty-two at the time, and the idea of a big city and the vibrancy of what it offers– major league sporting events and a great music scene– was cool, so we moved the business to Port Richey, Florida. We did that for seven years, and then brought the business back to Beaufort. In 2012, my wife and I were able to buy the assets of the business. This month is eighteen years in the kazoo business.

What is your management style? Why is that your approach? Has it changed over time?

My first approach was command and control, "do as I say, not as I do". I lost a lot of good employees by acting like that and at some point, I had some self-awareness to say this isn't working very well. I'm not sure where it changed, but I try to lead by example. I don't ask my people to do anything that I wouldn't do; it's a team effort.

What's the hardest or most important lesson you've learned in business life?

It goes back to the management issue with being bossy and losing really good people. I burned those bridges, and in hindsight there's some regret because some of them might still be with me today and were very talented employees.

What do you look for in the people you hire?

A mentor of mine used to say, "hire character and train skill." I'm more interested in the person you are rather than what you are able to do. I set high expectations for productivity and I expect you to be self-motivated, a person of integrity with a good attitude because when it comes to our customers it's really about taking care of people. I want you to leave any outside drama at the door, feel good about your work, and know leadership cares about you and your opinion.

What's a snippet of business advice you have to give?

Don't let problems fester. Few things get better on their own. Let's put them on the table and figure out how to solve them. It's not about blame, it's about there's a problem organizationally, let's get to the bottom of it, let's try to fix it, let's move forward with purpose.

When did you become civic-minded?

Lowcountry Economic Network helped move the business to Beaufort and I got to know Connie Hipp, who asked if I could sell her some kazoos for the Youth Leadership Program at Beaufort Middle School. I was happy to donate some kazoos but wanted to know more about the program– a spinoff of Leadership Beaufort, which brings a diverse group of people together through a nine-month leadership program. I had been gone for ten years, most of my old friends were gone, so this might be a good way to get back in the community and build a network. I was accepted into the program and found it was like a backstage pass to Beaufort, like the Wizard of Oz when you pull the curtain back. What Leadership really got me excited about was economic development; it opened my eyes to the lack of opportunity here for those of us who have to work for a living. My friends that grew up here had similar stories: we'd love to live here but there's simply not the kind of jobs you need unless you create it for yourself; or you're a doctor, teacher, lawyer, you've got a family business. I became a serial volunteer overnight and got a lot of fulfillment out of helping other people and organizations. You meet a lot of great and intelligent people that you probably wouldn't meet otherwise.

How do you juggle your personal/professional/civic duties?

Fortunately, I have a great team around me and "juggle" is a good metaphor. My mom is extremely supportive and is also my VP of Operations. I have an amazing wife who is very patient with me and is supportive of these civic pursuits. Now that my kids are getting older I want to spend more time with them. I have a great staff that picks up the slack in the shop and fills in the holes when I'm out. It's an ongoing conversation at my house. Working as part of the board structure, in leadership and as part of a team, I get fulfillment out of seeing things be successful. While I enjoy my businesses, and I enjoy making money, creating something out of an idea or a concept and taking care of my people, I get a different kind– maybe a better sense of fulfillment–out of making my home better, making my community better, something that's going to last generations and have a bigger impact on people. And that's my internal struggle between my businesses and entrepreneurship and community work.

What does a councilman do? (what I actually do vs what others think I do...)

Folks think as a council member I can just wave this magic wand and fix their problem: pave their street, make it to where they don't need to do something in their building to meet ADA standards, reduce their taxes... the reality is I'm a very small part of a very big machine. I certainly have influence, but I'm one of five in a democracy. We operate as a unit. It takes time to move the ship– I am not working in the engine room; we are up top setting the course for the ship. The other misconception is "how did you let so and so build that there?" Private property rights are the foundation of this country, and with the framework of zoning and land use ordinances property owners can do what they want with their property and the government can do very little without being sued.

What is it going to take to get things done?

The mission of the organization always needs to be the priority. It's a slow, steady, persistent grind that leads to success. I've had five businesses, and only one of them was profitable in the first year. The others took a few years, and that was just me and a couple other folks figuring out how to make a product– not trying to reinvent an entire economy. It takes a sustained effort, setting reasonable benchmarks, achieving those and proving we are being responsible with resources. Have some patience and have some faith; results won't happen overnight.

What do you see as the future of Beaufort and the surrounding area?

Prioritizing natural preservation, historic preservation and the sense of warmth and diversity of our people– that's what makes us who we are. Census data shows that we're running off young people right and left, and the per capita income is falling but the cost of living is increasing. That's going to have a dramatic effect on the diversity of our community long-term, so that's what the Digital Corridor, Economic Development Corp. and these other programs put in place are about. A higher density of people brings access to a higher level of amenities and influences our educational system. Public transportation, either by water or by ground, starts to make better sense.

Previous administrations and council members had the foresight to create our codes and land use to direct dense mixed-use community centers and mixed mode of transportation methods. We've got the opportunity to be a really cool city surrounded by natural beauty with historic resources, a great educational system, economic opportunity whether it's in tech and innovation, restaurant and retail or the service industry, and a vibrant arts and cultural scene wedged in between the bustling centers of Charleston and Savannah and southern Beaufort County. We'll have access to larger centers within an hour and still live in this sort of small, funky, authentic town. I'm really optimistic about our future. I think it's going be a cool couple of decades.

What do you want for your children that you didn't have?

For my girls, I want them to have a similar life to what I did–to develop an appreciation for nature. I'd like for them to have more worldly exposure. I was fortunate enough to be able to travel as a late teenager, and I'd like that for my girls earlier in life. We're a global community now. They need to be comfortable with it, appreciate it and know how to function within it. I joke that the Digital Corridor and these things we are doing are a "selfish pursuit" for me because my girls are four now and if they choose to stay here or go off to college to find themselves and decide to come back, there will be something for them. They'll be able to provide for themselves and their families and take advantage of how special we are economically.

Who has been the biggest influence on your business and/or political life? Why?

I've been fortunate to find intelligent, caring, diverse mentors in my life. My grandfathers were big influences– one had a technical mind, a master plumber; the other was a native Beaufortonian real estate agent and in sales. One gave me the passion for the technical and being able to fix stuff around the house, and the other taught me how to meet people and build relationships. At the Shed Center for the Arts, Pete Cotter and his wife created a vibrant, exciting, funky community arts center with dance classes, portrait classes, a coffee house with spoken word, music and movies. It was a tremendous sacrifice, but it was their real passion. It struck me that here was a guy who had personal wealth and could go out and buy a boat or play golf, like most normal Americans, but instead he was investing in the community. He left a lasting impression on me as someone successful in business, willing to invest personal wealth into something you care about, and to think about problems broadly. Also, Rick and others I encountered with the kazoo business have been great mentors, willing to take the time with me. I was just smart enough to listen and absorb lessons they were trying to impart on me.

What inspires you?

While I lay in bed at night I often think about economic development. It may not be as direct as working in the soup kitchen, but I don't think anything is more liberating and creates true freedom like economic freedom. When you aren't worried about the roof over your head, when you can take the job that you want to take or not, or move where you want to move, that is a gift of dignity and freedom. I'm pretty optimistic and believe that the majority of us just want opportunity and given that opportunity will work extremely hard to raise ourselves to the next level. I try to work in pursuits that will help create that opportunity for people.

Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?

PC. Android.

What's a book you always recommend?

I'm into biographies, current and past figures, of all kinds but especially in business. I also do a lot of reading about leadership and team development and team dynamics. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is good for those working in groups. Who Moved my Cheese? is a good one on leadership. The Closers talks about closing sales.

What is your usual cafe (or other restaurant/pub) order?

My favorite restaurant is Old Bull Tavern. I've been going there since they first opened, and if I see staff that have been there and know me I get that warm friendly welcome. What sets them apart is when I walk in and there's a new server who doesn't know me, I still get that same kind of treatment. And the food is a great value, it's priced right, it always comes out impeccably prepared, the environment is warm, friendly, cozy. They don't do all of the things right on one time; they do it consistently. To delight consistently is what separates the good from the great. Shrimp appetizer or the chicken liver pâté. And then the lamb shank. With a Maker's Mark and ginger. That's the go-to.