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Star Alumni, Star Businesses

The three alumni featured here kick off a new Focus series highlighting Oklahoma City University alumni who own businesses. See more in the OCU Alumni-Owned Business Directory at okcu.edu/alumnibusiness.


A slice of sweet success

The Bama Companies story reads like a version of the American Dream realized.

Soon before the Great Depression, a mother of a growing family in Dallas became the family’s primary breadwinner by knowing how to do a particular thing really, really well – bake delicious pecan pies, and lots of them. The father had a complementary skill when it came time to expand – selling things door to door.

This humble home-based family business would evolve, grow and inspire spin-offs to become a major food supplier to some of the largest restaurant chains around the world: McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC and more.

That couple was the current Bama CEO’s grandparents. Paula Marshall (BS ’83, HD Commercial Science ’93) shared her company’s origin story during a “Lessons in Leadership” talk at a first-year student orientation activity.

OCU is a wonderful school. It’s a big part of my story. -Paula Marshall, CEO of Bama Companies

OCU is a wonderful school. It’s a big part of my story. -Paula Marshall, CEO of Bama Companies

The story begins in the 1920s, when Cornelia “Bama” Marshall awoke earlier and earlier each morning to bake an ever-growing quantity of pies before working her shift at the soda fountain in a Woolworth’s department store.

“She knew how to bake,” Paula said. “And her desserts ‘went viral.’ People started coming up to Woolworth’s, lining up around the store to buy her pies.”

Bama’s product became so popular they decided to expand their operations beyond the store. Cornelia's husband, Henry, who previously sold sewing machines door to door, took the pies on the road. His sales route kept growing further and further outside of Dallas.

Bama’s son and Paula’s father, Paul, would become a delivery driver for the company. He later headed to Tulsa to start a spinoff company, Bama Pies, under a different business model. Paul’s company specialized in selling pre-baked frozen pies to stores and restaurants.

In the mid-1960s they became a major supplier of fried fruit pies for the largest quick-serve restaurant chain in the world, McDonald’s. That single contract represented around 90% of Bama’s total sales at the time. They’ve since added Pizza Hut, Nabisco and other major players to their portfolio, while adding biscuits, buns, pie shells and pizza dough to the product line. Bama Companies is now considered one of the largest producers of flour-based products on the planet.

With an eye toward the company’s future, Paula knew she would need a business degree if she hoped to keep the company in the family. Her father’s health was deteriorating, and the prospect of retirement became more eminent.

“I knew when my parents decided to retire, this was what I wanted to do,” she said. “And then dad’s illness moved that decision along.”

She chose Oklahoma City University for its quality business programs and its willingness to personalize her path to a degree. Her professors were willing to help her beyond class time.

Not long after graduation, her father had a heart attack. The succession plan was accelerated, and Paula was named CEO in 1984.

“I moved into his office, changed the décor. I remember thinking ‘this feels weird.’ But I felt like I knew what the requirements were in running the business, and instinct took over,” she said.

Paula was only 27 years old at the time, but she did have five years of experience working next to her father.

While running the company, Paula worked toward a doctorate degree from OCU. She used the company for her doctorate thesis case study.

“A lot of my professors, I could call and talk to them about some problems we needed to work through. I wasn’t just learning a bunch of theory. Most of them have real-world experience,” she said.

Paula eventually took the company international. They’ve had operations in China and a branch in Poland. Although the facilities in Tulsa have changed over the years, Bama Co.’s headquarters are at their original location on Route 66 east of downtown.

The company is known for its humanistic culture, a sentiment Marshall shared during her presentation at OCU. She explained her company’s motto, “people helping people be successful.”

“People aren’t the cause of the problem – the system is to blame. We focus on the process first, not blame the people,” she said. “I want them (team members) to find joy in the work they do.

“Happiness is directly attributed to productivity. People appreciate when they feel like their opinions are heard. Our team members won’t leave if we listen to them.”

A fourth generation has since joined the Bama ranks. Jacob Chapman, Paula’s son, is working to finish his business degree at OCU while serving as Bama’s director of business development.

He grew up around the facilities, as a young boy playing with toy Bama delivery trucks in the office while his mother worked. Now, while working on his OCU degree, he has worked his way through several positions at the company, learning as many sides to the company as he can.

“Our family has a lot of history in Tulsa. It’s so cool to be a part of that,” he said. “When I read about Bama in history books of Tulsa, to be a part of a city’s history and to carry that on is very enticing to me. It’s motivating.”

Brewing success

After a few twists and turns, Daniel Mercer (BSB Economics ’01) ended up in a strange place – owner of one of the largest craft breweries in the state, COOP Ale Works in Oklahoma City.

One major life story plot twist came in the middle of his college term. Originally on the path to a degree in criminal justice, Mercer changed his major to economics after enjoying an intro class taught by recently retired professor Jonathan Willner.

“They looked at me like I was crazy,” he said, referring to the guidance counselors when he told them of his new plan. “I was more than halfway done, and had no base business classes in the first two and half years. I had a lot of catching up to do in a year and half.”

Catch up he did, taking two extra courses per semester (plus summers) at other schools while concurrently enrolled at OCU.

I’m really grateful that benefactors like Margaret Petree and Herman Meinders set a foundation of philanthropy to allow students without other means to attend college. -Daniel Mercer, COOP Ale Works

Mercer also worked three jobs through his college career before graduating, on time, with 154 credit hours in 2001. One of the reasons he chose OCU was for its scholarship offerings.

“I did not come from a family with financial means to send me to college, so it was clear early on that if I was going to college, I’d have to find a way to pay for it,” he said.

Thanks to high ACT scores and a generous Petree scholarship reserved for Canadian County residents, Mercer was able to package enough financial aid to finish college without paying more than $2,000 out of pocket.

"I’m really grateful that benefactors like Margaret Petree and Herman Meinders set a foundation of philanthropy to allow students without other means to attend college,” he said.

After graduating from OCU, he joined a startup community development venture capital firm. In 2005, he was recruited to join the technology commercialization consulting firm i2E, where he was a director of enterprise services, helping startups raise capital and grow their businesses.

In 2006, Mercer and two acquaintances planted the seed for a craft brewery the way many others begin. They brewed batches of beer in their garages, perfected their technique along the way, all while dreaming up a way to make it their living. It all started with iterations of Gran Sport Porter, DNR Belgian Strong Ale and Native Amber Red IPA.

The next twist came when Mercer joined the U.S. Air Force to pursue a lifelong dream of military flying. He wrote the COOP business plan while at flight school in Colorado.

After leaving the Air Force in 2010, he decided to return to Oklahoma, where he put his degree and background in venture capital to work with the finance team at Chesapeake Energy’s midstream gas business. COOP was growing rapidly before it hit its stride in 2012, so Mercer decided to then make it his full-time job.

“We didn’t want a ‘hobby business.’ We wanted something sustainable, and it required a higher level of attention to grow and manage the business,” he said.

Between 2013 and 2017, COOP “spooled up” its operations, moving from a seven-barrel operation in the Western Avenue entertainment district into a 30-barrel operation in an industrial area southwest of the city, and distributing their beers to neighboring states.

“We let the bow settle into the water a little bit” over the next couple years, Mercer said.

That is, before the hard seltzer revolution arrived. Hoping to capitalize on a growing trend, COOP created a hard seltzer product line called Will & Wiley, named for two famous Oklahomans. The timing was perfect, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing consumers to favor staying in rather than going out.

“People started ‘pantry loading’ packaged goods. It turned out to be the perfect launch pad,” Mercer noted.

In late 2020, the brewers wanted to expand the Will & Wiley flavor offerings for early 2021 and began discussing unique slush flavors like ocean water and lemon berry from another famous Oklahoma name: Sonic. Later embarking on a partnership with the iconic brand, COOP launched Sonic Hard Seltzer in May 2021. The new product line proved popular. Currently in 40 states, Mercer anticipates the Sonic Hard Seltzer will be in up to 48 states within the next nine months.

The next chapter in COOP’s history is one of the most eagerly anticipated developments in the city. The team has nearly cleared all regulatory hurdles toward converting the former 23rd Street Armory and its surroundings into a mixed-use facility. The new location near the state capitol will allow the brewery to expand once again. The 60-barrel brewhouse will occupy the former drill hall, and the perimeter is set to house offices and storage on the first floor while a restaurant, taproom, beer garden, pool club and 30-room boutique hotel will occupy the upper two floors overlooking the brewing operations and surrounding property.

“The timing couldn’t have been better. We were growing fast and needed more space but wanted to eventually move back to the heart of the city we know and love,” he said. “The 23rd Street Armory fit the bill perfectly.”

One dance step at a time

She has the voice of a natural teacher, with notes of kindness, patience and a genuine fondness for people. With those tendencies and a focused education from Oklahoma City University, Ira McCurry (BS American Dance Pedagogy ’17) has combined two of her favorite things and made it her career – teaching and dancing.

Originally from the Kansas City, Kansas, area, McCurry is now owner and operator of the Sunflower Dance Academy in Moore, Oklahoma. She recently decided to leave her full-time preschool teaching job to focus 100% on running the studio full-time.

I wouldn’t have been comfortable starting my own studio without learning what I learned at OCU. -Ira McCurry, Sunflower Dance Academy

McCurry shared the story about how her lifelong passion to dance began at 3 years old.

“There was a dance studio next to a Walmart where me and my mom would shop. One Saturday morning, I stopped at the window to watch a class. After that, every time we ran errands I always stopped to watch, so my mom decided to sign me up,” she said.

Later, in middle school, McCurry thought she would become a kindergarten teacher. Once high school came around and she started exploring colleges, that dream took a turn into teaching dance instead. Her mother discovered OCU and convinced her to take a closer look.

“I was hesitant at first because it was so far away from home,” McMurry said. “When I started looking into it, I saw the Christmas show (Home for the Holidays) was coming up. We got tickets and went down to see it. I was pretty much hooked from there. This was the place I needed to be.”

Since graduating, McMurry has held various dance instructor roles, including dance director for the Oklahoma City Public Schools system.

She’s had the Sunflower Dance Academy, which she named for her home state’s official flower, since 2020. She was already teaching at the studio part time when the owner decided to retire and offered to sell it to McMurry. Once again, her mom proved to be a guiding light.

“She said, ‘You know you want to open your own studio. What’s the point of waiting when you have this opportunity right now,’” McMurry recalled.

Sunflower teaches classes to students as young as 2 years old and up through adulthood. They teach several different styles, including ballet, contemporary, hip hop, jazz and tap, and they prepare students for competitions. McMurry herself likes to teach jazz the most for its upbeat mix, creative dance moves and endless combo possibilities.

“Kids seem to enjoy it more since the class flows pretty quickly. They love having the freedom to express themselves. It also was my favorite style growing up and while at OCU,” she said.

It was a difficult time to take over a studio, with the pandemic requiring new ways of operations. But McMurry took it in stride.

“While I was working there in March the studio went on spring break, right as everything was starting to shut down because of COVID,” she said. “We thought it would stay closed for a few weeks. We weren’t able to open back up until May.

“Things started to get better, so I wasn’t too worried about taking it over. Summer classes started in June and everyone seemed to be comfortable attending in person. We kept the dancers spaced out during classes and sanitized the facility every night. Everyone returned for fall classes, and we even had new students enroll, so I took that as a sign that parents were still comfortable bringing their kids to dance. We did have to initiate a mandatory mask-wearing rule about one month into fall classes due to the rise in numbers in our area. My biggest fear was having to shut down the studio due to COVID spreading, but we remained lucky and never had to close.”

The academy couldn’t put on major shows as normal that year, so they did some showcases in the studio instead. She said it was difficult to find a venue for the following spring recital. Once they did, they scheduled two shows instead of one so they would have enough seats to accommodate social distancing.

Her life patterns have changed slightly since taking on the studio full time. She’ll get up a little later in the morning now, walk her dog Laila and revive with a cup of coffee. Then it’s lesson planning time for classes. During competition season she’ll select music and costumes, and focus on drafting routines. Later in the day she’ll head to the studio and teach until about 9 p.m., then either watch Netflix or get a jump on planning out the rest of the week.

“I can’t have too much free time or it drives me crazy,” she said.

Despite her young age, she has an air of confidence as a business owner.

“With my dance degree, I learned how to teach others and how to structure classes,” she said. “We also took business classes and a dance studio management class, where we learned how to open and operate a dance studio. It made it easier for me to start my own business because I had already done a whole business plan before graduating. I used my school project and made a few edits to fit my dynamic.

“I wouldn’t have been comfortable starting my own studio without learning what I learned at OCU.”

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