‘Se­ri­ous kid’ sets sights on serv­ing as chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ok­la­homa

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY CHRIS CASTEEL Staff Writer ccas­teel@ok­la­homan.com

Editor’s note: This is the first of two pro­files on the gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates.

When he was still in ele­men­tary school, Kevin Stitt used to lie in bed at night and think, “I am go­ing to be the best busi­ness­man. What col­lege de­gree do I need to get?”

Stitt didn’t re­al­ize at that time “that he was wired a lit­tle dif­fer­ently,” his wife, Sarah, said.

Robert Ross, a fam­ily friend in Nor­man who coached Stitt on some athletic teams, re­mem­bers that kid.

“There was not a lot of fri­vol­ity,” Ross said. “He was se­ri­ously fo­cused on the task in front of him.”

Stitt, 45, who got a de­gree in ac­count­ing and be­came a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, is now fo­cused on the task of win­ning the gov­er­nor’s race.

In his first ven­ture into pol­i­tics, he claimed the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion by de­feat­ing nine other can­di­dates, in­clud­ing some well-known state and city lead­ers.

He now faces Demo­crat Drew Ed­mond­son and Lib­er­tar­ian Chris Pow­ell in the Nov. 6 elec­tion.

“I think I was a pretty se­ri­ous kid,” Stitt said in an in­ter­view. “I kind of al­ways had my goals out in front of me.”

His suc­cess in busi­ness and pol­i­tics has come de­spite his dis­like of what would seem to be a nec­es­sary tal­ent: chitchat.

“I’m not good at small talk,” he said. “What’s the point?

Let’s just move on.”

At Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity, where he was a mem­ber of the Beta Theta Pi fra­ter­nity, Stitt said he didn’t like go­ing to par­ties be­cause peo­ple just stood around talk­ing.

“We weren’t ac­com­plish­ing any­thing,” Stitt said.

“So they never re­ally un­der­stood me in col­lege, my bud­dies.”

They may not have un­der­stood him, but they went to work for him.

One of those bud­dies, Ho­bie Hig­gins, has been work­ing for Stitt for 15 years at Gate­way Mort­gage, the com­pany Stitt founded that is based in Jenks and op­er­ates in 41 states.

Hig­gins and other long­time friends paint a pic­ture of an ex­ec­u­tive who is hard­work­ing and com­pet­i­tive but en­cour­ages dis­sent and de­bate.

“He’s very com­fort­able in his own skin,” Hig­gins said. “He doesn’t have to be the smartest guy in the room. He’s not a mi­cro­man­ager.”

Corbin McGuire, who sold books door to door with Stitt when they were in col­lege, said, “He’s very cu­ri­ous. That’s a big part of his suc­cess. If some­one is do­ing some­thing bet­ter than him, he wants to learn from that.

“Kevin is al­ways look­ing be­hind each door. That’s the same kind of cu­rios­ity he has about gov­ern­ment.”

Stitt’s older brother, Keith, said Stitt’s in­ter­est in pol­i­tics may have been piqued in early 2017, when he at­tended the Na­tional Prayer Break­fast, an an­nual gather­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., of po­lit­i­cal, busi­ness and re­li­gious lead­ers from sev­eral coun­tries.

Stitt had been mostly un­in­ter­ested in pol­i­tics, to the point of rarely vot­ing, and the prayer break­fast was his first ma­jor ex­po­sure to the arena.

While he mulled a run for gov­er­nor, Stitt met with some vet­eran Ok­la­homa Repub­li­cans, mostly about whether there was a po­ten­tial to change the state’s di­rec­tion.

“Kevin’s ques­tion wasn’t whether he could win but whether he could move the nee­dle,” Keith Stitt said.

Kevin Stitt said he also strug­gled with the per­sonal and pro­fes­sional sac­ri­fices he and his fam­ily, in­clud­ing his six chil­dren, would have to make dur­ing the cam­paign.

“I knew the ef­fort it was go­ing to take to win and I knew once I started, it was go­ing to be 15-hour days,” Stitt said. “I had to learn a whole ‘nother set of skills. So it was kind of scary. It was over­whelm­ing.”

“I could do it on my own”

Kevin Stitt was born in Mil­ton, Florida, the sec­ond son of John and Joyce Stitt, who were at­tend­ing Bi­ble col­lege at the time.

The Stitts moved back to Skiatook, where they had roots, when Stitt was 5.

Stitt is a ci­ti­zen of the Chero­kee Na­tion as a descen­dant of his great­grand­fa­ther, Robert Ben­ton Daw­son.

Daw­son was given land in the Skiatook area be­cause of his tribal cit­i­zen­ship, and the land is still in the fam­ily, now owned by an un­cle of Stitt’s. Kevin Stitt’s ma­ter­nal grand­par­ents were dairy farm­ers in Skiatook.

Joyce Stitt said she still re­mem­bers Kevin play­ing T-ball when he was in kinder­garten.

“He would tell all the other play­ers where to stand and where to go and what to do,” she said.

Stitt was raised mostly in Nor­man, where his par­ents moved when he was in 2nd grade. His fa­ther be­came pas­tor at River­side Church.

Joyce Stitt said her mid­dle son played sev­eral sports and al­ways had a lot of friends at the house.

“Grow­ing up, he was al­ways cheer­ful and easy­go­ing and kind of laid back,’’ she said.

And he al­ways had his own money. The fam­ily’s va­ca­tions were typ­i­cally camp­ing trips, and Joyce Stitt re­called Kevin, as a boy, us­ing money he had saved to buy an in­flat­able raft.

With his fam­ily liv­ing on a pas­tor’s salary, Stitt “al­ways felt guilty about tak­ing money” from his par­ents.

“I wanted to be my own per­son,” he said. “I wanted to be on my own and prove that I could do it on my own.”

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1993, af­ter his sopho­more year at Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity, Stitt sold books door to door for the South­west­ern Com­pany and led all other first-year sell­ers.

Stitt stud­ied South­west­ern’s met­rics and fig­ured out how many doors he had to knock to meet his sales goal.

The next year, Kevin re­cruited a team of sell­ers that in­cluded McGuire, who was liv­ing in a fra­ter­nity house at the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa when Stitt sought him out.

McGuire told Stitt to knock on his door and make his book-sell­ing pitch in front of sev­eral fra­ter­nity brothers and their girl­friends; Stitt won him over, and McGuire, Stitt and a third stu­dent went to sell books in North Carolina that sum­mer. They worked 80-hour weeks, McGuire said.

“There is no off switch,’’ McGuire said. “You’re not go­ing to be on his team and take a nap or switch off men­tally.”

Want­ing to quit his com­pany

As he’ll tell you at any cam­paign stop, Stitt started Gate­way Mort­gage Group with $1,000 and a com­puter.

It wasn’t his first job out of col­lege. He worked at Nor­dam, an air­plane man­u­fac­tur­ing and re­pair com­pany in Tulsa. A pi­lot, Stitt also started an air­plane paint­ing busi­ness. He worked a cou­ple of years at a mort­gage com­pany be­fore start­ing his own.

Every time she hears her hus­band say the line about $1,000 and a com­puter, Sarah Stitt wants to add that he also had “a very preg­nant wife with her first child.”

“I was a lit­tle ner­vous step­ping out on our own,” she said. “But I did have faith he would be able to work hard and sup­port our fam­ily. I had no idea the suc­cess that we would have.”

In those first years, “he’d come home to have din­ner with the fam­ily or go to a soc­cer prac­tice or what­ever and he’d go back to the of­fice at 10 o’clock at night to do pay­roll.”

The com­pany grew steadily and was in 17 states be­fore the fi­nan­cial melt­down of 2008.

In the midst of it, Gate­way Mort­gage Group faced al­le­ga­tions of fraud in three states, Ge­or­gia, Arkansas and Illi­nois. The com­pany paid fines in all three states and lost its li­cense in Ge­or­gia.

The com­pany was also pe­nal­ized in North Carolina, Wis­con­sin, Ne­braska, Mis­sis­sippi and Ken­tucky for hav­ing lenders who were not prop­erly li­censed.

“Back in 2007, 2008, I wanted to quit my own com­pany a thou­sand times,” Stitt said last week. “I was hat­ing life.”

He had been frus­trated be­fore the melt­down, he said, be­cause he wanted the com­pany to be big­ger.

“I thought I was go­ing to be a na­tional busi­ness guy,” he said.

He fought through the frus­tra­tion, he said, and re­made the com­pany, gain­ing ap­provals from the Gov­ern­ment Na­tional Mort­gage As­so­ci­a­tion (Gin­nie Mae) and the Fed­eral Na­tional Mort­gage As­so­ci­a­tion (Fan­nie Mae) to start ser­vic­ing loans.

“Had I been big­ger when I was want­ing to be big­ger and try­ing to be big­ger ... I would have gone out of busi­ness like every­body else,” Stitt said. “There were thou­sands of com­pa­nies that went out of busi­ness at that point.”

Ho­bie Hig­gins, the fra­ter­nity brother who went to work for Gate­way be­fore the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, said the com­pany was the per­fect size to weather the storm. Had it been big­ger or smaller, he said, it prob­a­bly wouldn’t have sur­vived.

In­stead, the com­pany was able to re­cruit tal­ent from some of the com­pa­nies that failed.

Stitt, he said, “guided us through that time through sheer will.”

“She has de­vel­oped mus­cle”

Stitt met Sarah Hazen in the sum­mer of 1997 at a church called City Gates that held ser­vices in the Tulsa Bal­let The­ater. They mar­ried about 10 months later.

Early in their mar­riage, the Stitts bought homes to ren­o­vate and sell.

Sarah was the one who dragged the old ap­pli­ances out of the homes and did much of the work, said Kelly Dud­ney, of Tulsa.

A few years later, with young chil­dren, Sarah served as gen­eral con­trac­tor for a de­vel­op­ment of 40 homes in Skiatook.

“She is great work­ing with all dif­fer­ent life­styles of peo­ple and all dif­fer­ent walks of life,’’ said Dud­ney.

Sarah Stitt’s life grow­ing up was trou­bled. Her par­ents suf­fered from men­tal ill­nesses. Two of her sib­lings were sub­stance abusers.

Sarah had been a baby sit­ter for Bill and Kelly Dud­ney. She be­came a nanny for the cou­ple and their in­flu­ence helped sta­bi­lize Sarah’s life. Friends say Sarah is now the type of per­son who will drop ev­ery­thing to help or com­fort peo­ple she knows are strug­gling.

“Her eyes are so open to those in need,” Dud­ney said.

In an in­ter­view, Sarah, 40, said she con­sid­ered her life “noth­ing short of a mir­a­cle” be­cause it turned out so dif­fer­ently than she ever imag­ined.

“I look at peo­ple who have less-than-ideal home lives — chil­dren, women, men ev­ery­where. Things like ad­dic­tion and men­tal health and lack of op­por­tu­nity. Those are the things that re­ally af­fect me and move my heart,” Sarah said.

Ali­cia Hoe­mann, of Tulsa, a long­time friend, said Sarah “has a heart for the lost and bro­ken peo­ple.”

Al­lud­ing to her tough early home life, Hoe­mann said, “I think just be­cause of what life has thrown at her, she has de­vel­oped mus­cle.”

Sarah said, “Life is about learn­ing how to nav­i­gate those things and walk through and come out the other side. And you’re never the same. But you don’t want to be the same. You want to grow stronger.”

Faith and busi­ness

The Stitts are mem­bers of the Wood­lake Church in Tulsa. Their chil­dren at­tend a Chris­tian school in Jenks.

A few years ago, the Stitts joined a Bi­ble study group called Grow­ing Kids God’s Way. Kevin formed a bond with Dr. Chad Phillips, an emer­gency care physi­cian in Tulsa.

In an in­ter­view, Phillips said he once asked Stitt why, with Gate­way Mort­gage Group en­joy­ing suc­cess, he still went into the of­fice so early.

Stitt told him, “I want to be an ex­am­ple to my sons and let them see a dad who starts the day with prayer and spends time with his wife. This is what the leader of a fam­ily does.”

Stitt joined a men’s lead­er­ship group in Tulsa and worked with a min­istry called Your One De­gree, founded by David Je­witt.

In an in­ter­view, Je­witt said, “I’ve seen (Stitt) in some unique sit­u­a­tions where I’ve been im­pressed. He al­ways wants to do the right thing ... He’s taken some pretty ex­treme steps to make things right, in some sit­u­a­tions even when it wasn’t his fault.”

Stitt said he re­cently de­cided to set­tle a busi­ness con­flict by tak­ing it to a “coun­sel of three older gentle­men” rather than to a court.

“I said, ‘Hey, what­ever you tell us to do, we’ll do in this sit­u­a­tion. I want to have a clean heart. I see it one way, he sees it an­other way. But we’re both friends so let’s nav­i­gate this the right way in­stead of su­ing each other.’”

They pre­sented the case, and the coun­sel ruled against Stitt.

“What was hard for me was I had to write the check,” Stitt said, adding that it was “a great ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“The thing I got out of it was you can solve con­flicts ... Me and this per­son are good friends to­day. He’s a max con­trib­u­tor to my cam­paign.”

The Stitts have a foun­da­tion that gives mainly to churches. Gate­way has es­tab­lished a school in Nige­ria and a youth ranch in Uganda that teaches skills to or­phans. Kevin Stitt said the work in Africa was in­spired by his fa­ther.

As set­tled and com­fort­able as they are in the Tulsa area, the Stitts would move their lives to Ok­la­homa City if Kevin Stitt wins. Stitt left the CEO po­si­tion at Gate­way and now serves only on the board.

The Stitts’ old­est child grad­u­ates from high school next spring, and Sarah and the kids would move af­ter that.

“We have a cou­ple of kids that are re­sis­tant to change and so they strug­gled ini­tially,” Sarah said. “But every­body’s ex­cited now. They’ve got­ten caught up in the mo­ment.

“And more than any­thing they see that Kevin is do­ing this be­cause he wants to make a dif­fer­ence. And that’s what we teach our kids is that your life needs to mat­ter. You need to make your life mat­ter.”

[PHOTO BY DOUG HOKE, THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

Kevin Stitt, the Repub­li­can can­di­date for gov­er­nor, and his wife, Sarah, speak Wed­nes­day dur­ing a visit to The Ok­la­homan and NewsOK.com stu­dios in Ok­la­homa City.

[PHOTO PRO­VIDED]

In this 1982 fam­ily photo, Kevin Stitt is in the mid­dle and is pic­tured with brothers, Kent, left, and Keith, and their par­ents, Joyce and John Stitt.

[PHOTO PRO­VIDED]

Kevin Stitt played tight end for the Nor­man High Tigers in his se­nior year of 1990-91.

Kevin Stitt paid his way through col­lege sell­ing books door to door for the South­west­ern Com­pany.

[PHOTO PRO­VIDED]

Kevin Stitt and his wife, Sarah, in 1997 out­side their first home in Tulsa.

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