Most equestrians probably know Murray Kessler for two things. He is the president of US Equestrian (USEF), the national governing body for equestrian sport, and he’s the father of well-known jumping competitor, Reed Kessler.
But few know that Murray spent his professional career in the business world. Previously he was the CEO and president of Lorillard, Inc., a Fortune 500 company, and recently he has become CEO of another firm. In 2016, the U.S. Equestrian Federation board of directors selected him as USEF president in an unpaid volunteer position. His role encompasses significant undertakings, as US Equestrian trains, selects, and funds the United States Equestrian Team and licenses equestrian competitions of all levels across the United States each year.
We were eager to learn more about Murray and seized an opportunity to visit him at the Wellington, Florida, home that he shares with Sarah Davis, a fellow equestrian and talented artist.
Sarah and Murray were both going through divorce proceedings at the same time, and some close friends to both introduced them. “We met at a polo match,” Murray said. “And it was love at first sight.” Kessler, together with Sarah Davis is beginning a new life in Wellington.
Murray and Sarah welcomed Equestrian Living to their home with a brief tour. “Half of the renovation was done before we got here,” Sarah said. “The prior owners had four little kids, and they quickly realized they were in the wrong neighborhood. It’s almost exclusively empty nesters.”
“They only lived in the house about two months,” Murray added. “Sarah and I are in our 50s, and we’re the youngest ones in the neighborhood. It’s just not a kid neighborhood. There’s not even a sidewalk. So they seem to have concluded, ‘This was a mistake.’ The house wasn’t for sale, but we heard about it, and this is where we wanted to live. So, we offered to buy it; it never even went on a listing.”
Kessler and Davis remodeled it using the same designers as the sellers. Sarah said, “We did a ton. We did all of the outside and all of the upstairs. We also added the meditation room.”
The one unexpected highlight of the home is the meditation room. “After my wife and I separated, I was really there to support my daughter, Reed,” Murray explained. “We both went to Bali to clear our minds, and I got hooked on meditation. I still work with a spiritual healer from Bali. It’s a very powerful tool. I generally talk to my advisor once a week. I would go very fast as a Fortune 500 CEO, and even with the USEF volunteer job, there’s a ton of real issues coming at you very quickly. The meditation just slows me down. It’s the difference between handling things frantically or calmly. When I meditate in a day, I can take a hundred problems and just process them without emotion; they don’t get to me. But if I don’t meditate, they do get to me. Especially if I haven’t meditated for a couple days.”
The beautifully conceived space is a quiet sanctuary. Flickering candles, hints of incense, and a small shrine envelop the senses. The home’s designers, Lisa Hynes and Heather Weisz of HW Interiors explained how the meditation room came to be. “It was basically a shell; it was a screened-in outdoor room with a leaky roof, a concrete floor, and a rotting ceiling fan… it was horrible,” Lisa laughed. “When Murray and Sarah moved in, the one thing Murray wanted was a functional meditation room. So Heather and our contractors dreamed up this amazing space. He wanted to feel like he was in Bali and be able to literally Skype with his teacher there. He does that for an hour most mornings.”
The Horse Connection
Murray started riding horses as a youngster. He explained, “I was a 12- or 13-year-old at Western camp. Then, I came back East, and there was only English, so that’s what I did. At the time, I resisted it. Little did I know where it would take me.”
Sarah smiled, “I always loved riding, but I didn’t ride growing up. So when I got out of college, and whenever I had a little money and time, I would take lessons. My daughter, at 3- or 4-years old, really wanted to learn to ride. So I found her lessons, and I watched for a while, and then I started riding too. So we always rode together in Dressage, just as Murray and his daughter did with jumping. My horse is at Wellington’s Grand Prix Village for Dressage, and my daughter Bebe is gearing up for Dressage competition at WEF.”
“I rode every day until recently, when I sold my horse to focus on my new corporate CEO position,” Murray added. “I will return to riding when it makes sense. But, I am around horses all the time. There is no competition now for either of us. It’s too hard to compete when you are the president of USEF. When I am on the grounds of a horse show, I am inundated with passionate people who want to discuss the sport. Competing would almost be impossible.
“Reed has stopped riding—at least for now—to go to university. She had been operating as a professional from the time she was 18, and she regretted not going to college. Now, she is at Columbia University in New York City, and she loves it. I’m proud of her decision; we’ve never been closer.”
When asked about his position as president of US Equestrian, Murray said, “I will serve out my term even after returning to be a public company CEO. I am fortunate that USEF has a strong CEO in Bill Moroney and a strong staff for me to rely on. I guide them strategically. I was elected to be president of the board after being a volunteer and member of the board for a number of years. They were looking for someone to bring real-world business experience and make tough decisions at a very difficult time for all amateur sports in the United States.
“Our focus at USEF has been to bring business process, ensure fairness, implement the new federal laws requiring “safe-sport” training, improve our performance in international competition, and make the sport more accessible to everyone. Our vision is to bring the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible. Membership has grown from 80,000 to 140,000 as a result. And despite meeting resistance, we are pushing through the “safe-sport” requirements under federal law, without compromise. As for our performance in international competition, the results speak for themselves. Under Will Connell’s leadership, our teams have never won as much as they have in the last few years.”
Murray gets up at 5:00 a.m. each morning. He laughed, and said, “Sarah teases me that my first call in the morning and my last call at night is with Bill Moroney, CEO of USEF. Then, usually I’ll meditate without interruption. After that, I open my schedule to meetings for my company.” Sarah added, “I get up early with him. Whatever I’m going to do for him or personally, and for the rest of the day, whether I’m riding horses or going to horse shows, or if we go in the evenings to business or social events, we’re always going non-stop.”