VOL. 132 | NO. 161 | Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Ex-Chef Valerie Morris Finds Right Recipe for Marketing Firm
By Don Wade
Just take one fact from her life and let your mind run to easy assumptions. Once upon a time, Valerie Morris was attending Le Cordon Bleu culinary arts school in Paris, France.
Be honest: If you’ve never met her, you figure she is someone prone to putting on great airs.
Now consider another fact: At the same time she was attending Le Cordon Bleu in six-month increments to complete a two-year course, she was returning to Memphis and teaching a culinary arts class at the corrections center near Shelby Farms Park.
Not many people could easily move between those two worlds. Morris did. And it’s just part of her story, one foundational block to who she is and what she does today as president and CEO of Morris Marketing Group.
After working as a chef for more than a decade, Valerie Morris took a communications position with Caesars Entertainment in Tunica. Today, she’s president and CEO of her own marketing firm, Morris Marketing Group. (Memphis News/Brandon Dahlberg)
“Valerie is very comfortable in any setting,” said Patrick Collins, who is executive vice president at Morris Marketing Group.
“I can talk to a CEO and I can talk to a housekeeper,” Morris said. “It doesn’t matter. Everybody’s the same. Everybody brings value.”
Morris, 53, was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Her father was an executive there for a subsidiary of Hamilton Beach. Her mother moved Valerie and her three older brothers to Sarasota, Florida, when she was very young so they could get an American education. Dad commuted, but his influence stretched across time and space.
“I was very much a daddy’s girl and spoiled rotten with love,” she said. “He taught me how to be strong and independent, like he did with my brothers, but that it was OK to be strong and still feminine. He was almost a chauvinist in many respects. But he was always my biggest cheerleader and advocate.”
The women in her life also had influence. In Florida, and later when the family moved to North Carolina, Morris’ mother owned a market research firm and was even honored by the National Association of Women Business Owners.
While the family still lived in Florida, Morris’ grandmother was often cooking and entertaining. That planted the seed that blossomed into her going to culinary arts school. But not until she had tried her hand as a financial analyst. It didn’t take; all that solitary number crunching sapped her spirit.
Her career as a chef in Memphis lasted more than a decade, or until she accepted a position as a communications executive with Caesars Entertainment in Tunica. She didn’t initially realize it, but she was continuing her training for the day she would open up her own marketing firm (she spent two years as a communications executive for Memphis-based Cooper Hotels).
Collins worked for Morris at Caesars. So did Joi Taylor, who is director of marketing communications at Morris Marketing Group.
“At one point we had 13 restaurants, a golf course, spa, four hotels and then the gaming elements and customer loyalty elements,” Collins recalled. “Two concert halls, dealing with celebrities on a weekly basis and celebrity chefs. The experience really broadened our scope and helped our transition from the corporate world to all the different market segments in Memphis.”
Taylor says the decision to join Morris in her own venture was an easy one.
“We had built a familiarity,” she said of working with Morris and Collins. “But also a trust and mutual respect. So we knew where we all fit in the puzzle. It wasn’t a leap of faith. It was transplanting the team. It made sense.”
Plus, they knew they could handle just about anything.
“Lots of crisis communication at Harrah’s,” Morris said. “From people dying in hotel rooms to plane crashes to gambling addictions.”
Collins says even when dealing with a sticky problem, Morris tells her clients the truth.
“She pulls no punches,” he said.
Caesars Entertainment is among her current clients, too. Other notable clients include Corky’s, Medtronic, and Advanced Dermatology & Skin Cancer Associates.
Morris Marketing Group offers a wide range of services, everything from planning and budgeting, advertising and brand management to social media strategy, public relations and crisis communications.
“At Caesars, they measure everything,” Morris said. “And that’s good for me in this business – how are we going to drive results?”
Morris has nine full-time staff, including a media buyer located in Atlanta. She has been careful to neither overstaff nor understaff.
“I haven’t taken on more than I can handle,” she said. “I have zero debt. I don’t want any debt.”
She does stretch herself, though, chairing one or more nonprofit events or committees each year. Giving back, she says, was always important to her father and a lesson he shared with her.
Hard work is never an enemy, but monotony is.
“Not that I get bored easily,” Morris said, “but I get bored easily.”
She recently returned from a two-week vacation to Scotland – one of the perks of being the boss – but is now full-throttle again.
Her team is right there with her, but appreciative that their leader knows all work and no play makes for a dull creative process.
“When you work really hard and in an intense environment you have to be able to kick back and have fun,” Taylor said. “We’ll sit down and have a glass of wine and share each other’s personal lives, too. All of that comes into play – especially on a small team.”