‘Serious kid’ sets sights on serving as chief executive of Oklahoma
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Kevin Stitt and his wife, Sarah, in 1997 outside their first home in Tulsa.