By Lauren R. Giannini
Murray Kessler brings a lifelong passion for horse sports into his role as new president of the national governing federation, US Equestrian. He’s also an astute business leader who spent his professional career honing his talents for putting corporation ledgers into the black and green, profit-wise. His reply to people who say “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is often “Not anymore!” He studies data, personnel and the entire structure before taking swift action. He’s more subtle than the Western hero, armed with six-guns, who gallops into town, but you get the picture.
Murray spent the last 15 years as CEO and Chairman of the Board of two Fortune 500 companies where he made many tough decisions requiring thick skin. Those experiences, plus his own 45 years competing jumpers, are valuable assets as he leads the complex 100-year-old organization into its new future.
“In every single company I’ve ever gone to, there are a couple of paradigms [thought patterns] in place that limit results,” explained Murray. “I start by asking lots of questions, and usually I find people rationalize lackluster performance and problems. They say ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ or ‘We tried it before and it didn’t work.’ Or you have other folks who say ‘We’d love to do it that way.’ They say it, but they don’t understand what it will take to bring change. I’ve had to break those paradigms in every company I’ve gone into and I’m used to getting people to work with new paradigms.”
Bigger Than a Logo Change
In January 2016, President Chrystine Tauber asked Murray to lead the strategic planning committee to chart a new five-year course for USEF. Last March, he was nominated to succeed Chrystine and the June election made it official.
“I was lucky to have the support of a great outgoing president, Chrystine, and the input of the entire organization and all the affiliates,” said Murray. “We all knew what we had to change.”
More than a superficial makeover and new logo, the rebranding of USEF into US Equestrian is but one part of the overall game-changing vision that came out of the 160-page strategic plan that addresses every facet of the organization. The new logo no longer resembles a uniform badge. It kept the stylish horse and, with US riding above EQUESTRIAN, puts the emphasis back on us, people like you and me whose lives, in some way, revolve around horses.
In the months before Murray officially became president, he made it his priority to identify the most competent people in-house and assign them the right responsibilities. “We’ve done that,” he said. “Outside energy was needed, so we brought in Bill Moroney [then president of U.S. Hunter Jumper Association] to be CEO. He’s a passionate leader. He and I are completely aligned. We brought in Vicki Lowell [then executive vice president of marketing, Animal Planet & TLC for Discovery Communications] — her background in marketing and rebranding — to be our chief marketing and content officer. We made Matt Fine our chief compliance officer to supervise random inspections to make sure our rules are being enforced. We promoted Justin Provost to chief information officer and took David Harris to chief financial officer. We already had a strong leader of sport in Will Connell.”
In other words, USEF experienced a radical overhaul and rebirth. During Chrystine’s last years, among other duties, she supervised whittling the board of directors from 51 to 19 people. On January 11, 2017, the first day of the annual conference, major changes were in place, including the complete rebranding as US Equestrian.
“I stood up on that stage and, instead of saying here’s what we are going to do six months from now, I was in a fortunate position to say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing as of this moment,’” recalled Murray. “That very day, we launched the new website, new learning center and new membership categories. We brought in 20,000 new members from Pony Clubs and collegiate organizations with free, one-year fan memberships. Our new $25 per year fan membership includes almost everything, except competing. We launched a series of initiatives across the board in the federation, including a new advertising campaign and new sponsors — all of that was in place for Day One.”
A businessman who’s quick to analyze a situation and take appropriate action, Murray’s also a team player. “When you have a great leadership team that turns into this passionate, dedicated staff who’s there from crack of dawn on and there’s a common vision that they can all embrace, it inspires everyone and you can see the caliber of the entire organization move up,” he said. “What we have now is a very high-performance, very professional team. One of the things I was most proud of that first day was when Bill Moroney and his team got up in a general session for three or four hours and presented all their plans in impressive detail.
“Bill brought up each department leader — most members in attendance had never met them before — and they talked about the details in the plan and what their department was doing to make our vision of bringing the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible a reality,” continued Murray. “Following the presentations, one person after another came up and said to me, ‘Wow, the leadership team is so involved, they’re so professional, I didn’t know that the federation was working on so many things.’ It’s an exciting time.”
Day One included the unveiling of the results of the print campaign: 30 to 40 print ads, at least one for every single affiliate. The Learning Center launched with 35 videos covering the gamut from what to expect at your first riding lesson, your first show, how to groom a horse, how to clip a horse, etc. “All the way up to our Olympic athletes who are giving back to the grass roots by sharing their knowledge,” said Murray.
To name a few: McLain Ward teaching you how to walk a show jumping course, Phillip Dutton how to walk a cross-country course, Lucy Davis on mental training, Laura Graves on how to do a shoulder-in.
“These are six- or seven-minute videos where our most elite athletes are making you, as a grass roots member who, by the way, might have only paid $25 to be a fan, feel like an insider and part of this organization,” said Murray. “You get to be up close and personal with them in these videos. We’re giving you access to tricks of their trade in the 35 videos we launched. We have 15 more videos produced, and we’ll shoot more down in Florida and maybe by the end of the year have 75 videos.”
Murray’s video on the website, available for free to everyone, outlines the overall plan to turn the new US Equestrian into the organization that horse sports enthusiasts want to join. Incentives to sign up as fan members include access to USEF Network coverage with more than 2,000 hours of live and on-demand content (dating back to 2011), US Equestrian Magazine, member discounts and more. Murray emphasizes US Equestrian’s mission to provide access to and increase participation in horse sports at all levels by ensuring fairness, safety and enjoyment. To bring a level and fair playing field to horse sports, he tackles a very hot issue.
Cheaters Gotta Go
Cheating’s the dark side of the horse world, the not-so-nice part of competition where prize and profit outweigh all other considerations, including horse welfare. On the topic of cheating, Murray doesn’t pull any punches.
“Cheaters gotta go. People who dope horses are cheaters,” said Murray. “I think it’s a culture issue and it’s gone on for so long in parts of the sport — not everywhere and most members abide by the rules — but there’s a contingent across the federation that’s gotten comfortable thinking that cheating is okay. It isn’t okay — that’s the really big issue, so we’re cracking down. We’ve made the penalties much, much, much tougher.
“Some of the values of the horses we’re talking about — a few months of suspension and a $5,000 fine is nothing to somebody who has a chance to realize a huge sale,” continued Murray. “A horse that can perform at a much higher level because it’s been doped might be worth hundreds of thousands more. It’s a risk-reward scenario. The risk wasn’t high enough, so we made a change in how costly the risk is if you cheat. We’re going to be very tough on cheating so that it drives a significant culture change.”
On the other hand, Murray emphasized that they have softened some of the repercussions where there are people who have accidents even with good intentions. “We can tell the difference,” he said. “We want to treat those people a little more gently if it’s really proven that it was contamination or they mixed up a feed bucket with something that was already allowed. But when it comes to something prohibited and there’s no reason for it to be in the horses, yeah, we’re going to be tough.”
Nobody wants to be a snitch, but this is about the horses. “There are plenty of people who see the cheating, and they have to say something and let us know,” said Murray. “The vet companies have to not just turn a blind eye when they’re selling 50 bottles of magnesium a week to one barn. What do you think they’re doing with it? The sources have to be addressed. A year ago, the person who signed the entry blank was the only person responsible. Not anymore! USEF now has the ability to go and find who we think contributed. It might be one person, it might be three, but if we find a person who’s cheating — we don’t care who signed the entry blank — if it’s the trainer, rider, vet, owner or whoever, they will face the consequences.”
The Joy of Horse Sports
Murray’s understanding of the issues at stake can mean only good things for the welfare of the horses and the people. Shaking things up has prompted both positive and negative reactions to the new era in store for US Equestrian.
“I can’t tell you how many big-name trainers have come to me and said, ‘You know, what was okay 20 years ago isn’t okay today — I want to be part of the solution,’” Murray said. “Then, Mary Babick, who’s president of the USHJA, posted on Facebook, drumming the sport’s integrity, especially in the hunters. One after another, trainers are saying, ‘I’m sick of it, we’re sick of it.’ There are more than a few who want to be part of the solution.”
Murray pointed out that some people prefer to live in the past in spite of better training techniques and sport horse breeding. “Plenty of people in the hunters do it the right way, but the problem is that the ones who do it the right way are crushed because they get beaten by the people who cheat,” said Murray. “There’s a lot of energy going towards fixing it, but it’s going to take a culture change and we need to stay ahead of the cheaters.”
The latest example is Depo-Provera, an estrogen drug intended to help regulate mare cycles, but a large percentage of horses testing positive for it are stallions and geldings. There’s a strong belief in the veterinary community that Depo-Provera has a doping effect.
“The way I work, I like to see data, so we’re conducting a workshop in Orlando in the middle of March where industry leaders and manufacturers will be invited to present, a vet can present,” said Murray. “You can be on both sides of the issue, anybody can submit comments, and all the science will be presented. Somebody’s got to explain why it’s okay to give a drug like Depo-Provera to a horse that isn’t intended to use it. We want to see the science, to know whether it’s even been safety-tested on male animals, what it’s being used for versus its intended use, what the dosages are. There will be restrictions or bans put on it, if the science supports it.”
But writing more rules isn’t the goal of US Equestrian or its new president, whose vision is “to bring the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible.” This is Murray’s mission. When his last few years as CEO of Lorillard, Inc. culminated with the company being sold, Murray retired and his dream of being much more involved with USEF got real.
“The timing was right,” said Murray, who volunteered to take on the presidency, which is an unpaid position. “I’m still on the board of directors of RAI [the acquirer of Lorillard], but that company has announced a merger as well, so the board will dissolve by mid-year. I don’t know what I’ll be doing board-wise, but I have plenty of time for US Equestrian. I have a lot of ideas. I love this sport. I love horses. I think my unique experience along with a talented staff and passionate volunteers can do a lot for the federation.”
The new, improved US Equestrian — it’s all happening.
To watch Murray’s video, or to join US Equestrian, visit www.usef.org.