1.800.ARKANSAS

Arkansas Inc. Podcast: First Orion Chairman and CEO Charles Morgan

 March 09, 2022

In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. Podcast, First Orion Chairman and CEO Charles Morgan discusses the technology industry in Arkansas, his history as a tech pioneer in Arkansas, workforce development for tech companies, and building a pipeline of tech workers for the future.

 

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TRANSCRIPT

Charles Morgan:     
         
I'm Charles Morgan, CEO of First Orion Corporation, and you are listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast.

Narrator:                            

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc Podcast, where we discuss the latest topics and trends in economic development with subject matter experts and influencers from across the nation and around the world.

Clint O'Neal:                      

Welcome to the Arkansas Inc Podcast. This is Clint O'Neal. I serve as deputy director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. I'm excited to welcome our guest today on the Arkansas Inc Podcast, Charles Morgan. Charles is the chairman and CEO First Orion, an Arkansas-based technology company that connects businesses to customers while providing trust in mobile phone communication. He is the former chairman and CEO of Acxiom Corporation, which Morgan grew from a small Arkansas company with 25 people to 7,000 employees globally, and 1.5 billion in revenue.

Charles is the author of two books, “Matters of Life and Data: The Remarkable Journey of a Big Data Visionary Whose Work Impacted Millions (Including You)”, and “Now What? The Biography Of A (Finally) Successful Startup.” Charles also played a critical role in the creation of the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences, a nonprofit working to grow Arkansas's IT talent pipeline, and recently served on Governor Hutchison's economic recovery task force.

A self-proclaimed gadget geek from childhood, Charles has raced motorcycles, flown jets, and built and driven race cars in a professional racing career. With everything he's done, and continues doing in his storied career, it's safe to say that Charles Morgan is truly an Arkansas technology pioneer. Charles, welcome to the Arkansas Inc podcast.

Charles Morgan:              

Thank you very much, Clint. I'm very pleased to be here. We're talking about things which are near and dear to my heart, and that's developing Arkansas talent so that the people in Arkansas can have jobs that will really use their talents and their ability. And the businesses I've built here, I have found incredible talent in Arkansas. We just need to have better vehicles to bring that talent into the right jobs, and bring the right jobs here.

Clint O’Neal:                     

Well, we're very excited to dive in. And I want to start by asking you about First Orion. For those who aren't familiar with the company, please give us an overview of this fast-growing technology business.

Charles Morgan:              

Clint, we are in the branded communications business. We're trying to help not just the carriers, but we're trying to help every citizen of this country have a telephone, that when it rings, they know that it's not a scam call, or it's not a robo call.  It is a call that they likely want to answer. And to be sure it is, we are doing what we call branded communication, so that that call will say who is calling, and why they're calling. And we're working with the T-Mobile network, and now we're starting with a second major network in the very, very near future.

Clint O’Neal:                     

Well, you had a long and successful career with Acxiom. Charles, tell us, what motivated you to get involved with First Orion and start this new company?

Charles Morgan:              

I was scared to death that when I retired, I'd be bored. So, I saw an opportunity. I was fascinated with the idea that this new thing called Blackberry and mobile communication. I had watched the computer industry grow from its very early days, and it struck me. If you could put a powerful computer in the hands of every citizen, just like we didn't have any idea in the early days what computers would turn into, we had no idea what these mobile computers would do in the hands of the citizens.

And I just felt like there was going to be a great opportunity. And as our opportunities morphed to be in the scam detection business, and working with the T-Mobile, that one carrier, now we are working with others, and we're in other parts of the world. But it's just been exciting. We know what cell phones turned into is much more than I even envisioned in those early days with these, all we had was a Blackberry, and that was it.

Clint O’Neal:                     

There's no way we can cover your entire career here in one podcast. But as I understand it, back in the 1970s, you were working for a company called Demographics Inc, in Conway, Arkansas.

Charles Morgan:              

Correct. That became Acxiom.

Clint O’Neal:                     

Right. So, you became the CEO of Acxiom, as a young company.

Charles Morgan:              

Yeah.

Clint O’Neal:                     

Under your leadership, Acxiom evolved from a small sideline business designed to collect voter information, to a $1.5 billion a year company, and one of the largest data brokers in the world, processing more than 50 trillion data transactions per year. How did you chart Acxiom's path to success, and navigate the constantly changing world of technology?

Charles Morgan:              

Well, again, it was not much different than I spoke of a few minutes ago. I realized that what we were doing initially was trying to use computers as a marketing service tool. And the problem then, like many of the problems today, is sending the right message to the right person. We were often called a data broker, but what we really did was build the most sophisticated marketing databases and infrastructures that were used by the largest, literally the largest corporations globally. That is so that we could get the right message to the right person. And hopefully what we sent out was not so much spam as it was something that helped the company and the individual.

So, we built databases for Citibank, General Motors, many of the large, Federated Department Store was another customer. So, many industries, many companies. And as we grew, we spent most of our money to grow this business right here in Arkansas. We had, I think at one time, 4000 employees in Arkansas, in a tech industry.

Clint O’Neal:                     

Well, when it comes to sending the right message to the right person, our team at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission really wants to send this message, that Arkansas's a great place for technology companies. From your standpoint, what makes Arkansas a good state for building and running a tech company?

Charles Morgan:              

You know, I continue to be amazed at, right now we're building some...this branded communication technology we're building is some of the most absolutely, in a very real sense, it's the most exciting thing that I've ever done in my career. And I did a lot of that at Acxiom. But, I'm still involved in the technology and the development. We undertook, actually, really now it's about five, six years ago, to start building this current generation of branded communication.

And in the last year, we have really seen that explode, and the people that are doing that are, every single damn one of them, are from Arkansas. And they are building some of the most extraordinary technologies, using the most advanced tools in computing today. We use Amazon Cloud, we use things that you've never heard of, like Data Bricks, for data management. And all of the data management and creation of all of the online portals, and database management tools we use are real cool.

And guess who's doing it, Arkansas people. And we train a lot of them with our own apprenticeship program. So, they're born here, they're raised here, they're educated here, and many of them have computer science degrees from college and universities around. Not all of them have computer science degrees. But then, we put them through 12 to 14 week apprenticeship programs, which has become the model for what Arkansas Center for Data Science is doing.

Clint O’Neal:                     

That's encouraging to hear. Let's talk a little bit more about recruitment and retention of tech talent in Arkansas. Are there certain characteristics that you find in successful technology employees?

Charles Morgan:              

Yeah. I think the natural curiosity. I mean, obviously you have to have some skill and ability. But just like anything else, Clint, want to. "I want to do this. I want to solve this problem. I'm excited by this problem." That's what I tell all young people, if you don't like what you're doing, you're not going to do it well. But if you like to solve problems, and you like to create something special, and in our case something that nobody else in the world is creating, which is kind of cool, you'll do well.

You may not be the best programmer, you may not be the most brilliant, but if you have desire, you'll find your niche. And maybe it's in project management, maybe it's in software development, maybe it's in... We even have some absolutely outstanding people in our marketing group, and our communications group, also using advanced tools and technologies. And many, or most of those are Arkansas people. So, we cover the gamut. But you've got to find people who like what they're doing, are energized by the job they're doing, and like to work in teams, and are willing to give it whatever it takes to get the job done and get something built.

I tell... You don't have to be the brightest. It's not important to be the smartest person in the whole wide world. You just got to have the person that has the want to, and get yourself in the right job.

Clint O’Neal:                     

After all the success that you've experienced, you've mentored several Arkansans, what are some of the most important business lessons that you've learned during your career?

Charles Morgan:              

Well, I will say that the guy that influenced me the most was, because I did a lot of reading of history in my early days, was Winston Churchill, who never accepted defeat. And there's another guy in Arkansas who never accepted defeat, and that Sam Walton. Sam Walton succeeded. And I had the privilege, when I worked for IBM, we didn't talk about that, when I worked for IBM, I actually worked with Sam. I was the IBM technical representative in northwest Arkansas.

And I worked with Sam and his team. And I watched Sam motivate people. I watched him do things which others said are impossible, absolutely impossible. People actually laughed at Sam Walton for what he was trying to do. And said, "The five and dime is no business you could ever make success of." And being tremendously motivated by him, and of all things, another Northwest Arkansas person who has in some ways a checkered career, but Don Tyson took the chicken business from the most boring business in the world, and changed the chicken business for the whole wide world. And both those things happened within 30 miles of each other, and it's pretty amazing.

Clint O’Neal:                     

We believe in Arkansas, that in the K-12 system the next Don Tyson, the next Sam Walton, the next Charles Morgan is in our school system, they're getting ready to be world changers and world leaders. What advice would you give to these upcoming students, these future entrepreneurs of Arkansas?

Charles Morgan:              

Well, obviously early education is so incredibly important. And don't do what's expected of you. Don't do what you can do to make the most money. Do what you can love to do. Edit links back to those earlier comments. Find something that you can really get passionate about, you can get excited about, and that will keep you up working late at night on. And then do all those things, and try to do those in balance with your personal... You have to have a personal life, and a civic life, and these other things. Try to be a balanced person. Find what you like to do, educate yourself, have the want to add the desire, and apply yourself. But apply yourself equally and broadly across personal business and civic things. And tried to lead a balanced life.

Clint O’Neal:                     

Excellent advice, and duly noted.

Charles Morgan:              

That's something people struggle with. It's just hard to... People, they get completely out of balance one way or the other. And particularly as we've gone through these times with COVID, it's been incredibly stressful for a lot of people.

Clint O’Neal:                     

That's right. And burnout's a real issue those that…

Charles Morgan:              

It's a real problem.

Clint O’Neal:                     

Don't have the balance.

Charles Morgan:              

Absolutely.

Clint O’Neal:                     

In 2017, Governor Asa Hutchinson invited you to co-chair a blue ribbon commission to address business challenges in computing and data analytics, and identify ways to build a pipeline of local talent to fill the tech jobs of today and tomorrow. One of the recommendations of the commission was the formation of a nonprofit dedicated to training and sustaining an information technology workforce. From that recommendation, the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences was created. Tell us about your involvement with ACDS, and what they are working on.

Charles Morgan:              

Well, I've been sharing that organization, and Mike Preston has obviously been also very involved in, and absolutely instrumental in getting it going, as has Asa Hutchinson. The concept is related to all the stuff we've been talking about, how do you take people who have the ability, but have no skills? And how do you take people who have may be a computer science degree, and make them so they are able to take on Arkansas jobs?

Unfortunately, a lot of our computer science and our engineers have gone out of state, because people out of state were willing to take them on and train them to do the jobs they have. And what we were attempting to do is link up the college and universities, and the businesses, and the state, and even with federal programs, and put together things which would help link all those entities together, and assist with training programs, communication programs, and other things that would develop workforce.

And the main thing that we have found that has worked for us at First Orion are our apprenticeship programs. We have, I think in January, we brought on about 20 young people for apprenticeship programs. We've recently graduated a bunch of them. We just graduated another group of people in technical product management. So, they're all kind of jobs. So, it's assist with those kind of jobs. Assist with providing some funding, some guidance, some instructional.

Just before I came over here, I approved a number of payments to people who are doing the instructional work, and working with companies. These apprenticeship programs, we've tried to show the way with them. That's been one of our main initiatives. Not the only one. But it's something that's most visible in all of what we're doing, Clint. And we are literally training hundreds of young, literally hundreds of people.

And it's not we at Arkansas Center of Data Sciences doing it. We are finding companies to do this as a joint project to train people for their company. Walmart has found this has been incredibly beneficial, and they are, as I understand it, planning to roll this whole concept out nationwide to Walmart. So, the apprenticeship programs are specialized training that takes somebody who has maybe a basic computer science skill, knows how to program, and teaches them how to program and build solutions in the environment of that particular company.

So, how do we work, what is our culture, what is the tools that we use, what is important for us? And those kinds of programs take a person who has the ability, but again, no specific skills. And in 14 weeks, they graduate, and they go and sit down and become a productive member on a development team, literally overnight. Our capstone project is the way we graduate these young people, get them ready at the end. And they take anywhere from two to three weeks on these capstone projects.

And I just sat in on a capstone project for the project management people at the end of last week, and it's stunning to me what these people have learned, and what they've done. They're taking a real problem at First Orion, and coming up with a solution to solve that problem. And here they are, brand-new, didn't know anything about the, much about the topic. And now they're producing work that's productive.

And the group before that was equally impressive in data science. I look at these young people and go, "Wow." And by the way, this class, one of the last ones I saw, many of them had been out in the workforce, and actually some of them had been in other jobs even at First Orion, but not in these high skill jobs. They've been in a data verification role, and then they step up and take a full-time job in software development. So, it's just been unbelievably, unbelievably productive for us. And also, by the way, it's a great recruiting tool.

Clint O’Neal:                     

That's great. Another group that you've played a lead role on is being a big part of the governor's economic recovery task force. So, a couple years ago Arkansas had some decisions to make as how we're going to navigate the pandemic. Governor Hutchison appointed you and others to help lead that effort. Tell us a little bit about, from your perspective, how Arkansas navigated the pandemic compared to other states.

Charles Morgan:              

You know what I think was a great part about that is, in this state, and this governor... You know, we're small enough that we can do these kind of things, and touch all aspects of the state and state government. It's not like the government of Texas, or New York or something, where you've just got a mammoth bureaucracy. It is a size that could be managed. And what it also did, what this task force did was put all those people in... We had a lot of people in state government people, we had business people on that.

And so, the Chamber of Commerce people. So, we brought all those people together. And what it was, the brilliance of it, was the communication. So, all these people understood the different perspectives. And state government wasn't doing stuff in a vacuum. And industry wasn't saying, "What the hell is state government doing?" So, it was a great communication tool, and discussion format allowed.

And it was another case where an industry person, Steuart Walton, I think it was one of the first times he had ever gotten involved in a major statewide initiative like that. And he did a fine job, and I commend the administration, particularly the governor, Asa Hutchinson, did a great job. He came to a lot of those meetings. And obviously your boss, Mike Preston, was key to that also. So, it was a communication tool. It provided us all with a light into the others' problems, and the other issues. And it was both the formal and informal programs that establish better communications all around.

Clint O’Neal:                     

And out of that working group, out of the response to the pandemic, we came up with a marketing slogan that wasn't a slogan, it was the truth. There's one category of business in Arkansas, essential. And I like the way you put it. And I think we have our quote for our podcast. We don't want industry sitting around wondering what the hell state government's doing.

Charles Morgan:              

Right.

Clint O’Neal:                     

So, I appreciate that. Well, you made a significant impact on Arkansas, and have a well-deserved place in the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. As you look back over your career, what are you most proud of?

Charles Morgan:              

That's really a challenge for me. I think that as much as anything else, I feel like I've tried to make a difference in not just in the bigger things. It's very interesting. In all of my life, I've judged the success of my life by how successful I've made other people. I've had so many mothers and fathers say, "Thank you for keeping my son or daughter in the state. They would've had to go out of state." I think I've helped create better jobs in this state.

I've helped give people that have the ability to themselves help this state get those kind of jobs where they can stay here and earn a good living, and build their family in the Arkansas environment. And I think we've got something really special here. I think this pandemic has shown that it is a hell of a lot better to live in Arkansas than it is in Michigan, or some of these places that have just gone through hell.

Every day when I talk to people, I deal with a lot of people in New York and New Jersey, they look at the life we've lived with some envy. So, I think I've tried to make Arkansas a better place to live, a better place to work. And I feel like I'm still able to do that. And this company, First Orion, is eventually going to be bigger than Acxiom, and certainly in terms of revenue.

Clint O’Neal:                     

We're recording this podcast on March 1st. So much has happened over the last week in Ukraine. Charles, I know that First Orion has employees in Ukraine. Can you give us a little bit from your perspective on business, as well as what's going on with the Russian invasion?

Charles Morgan:              

Well, the first thing I thought about when I heard about it was, we have an employee who was born and raised in Ukraine, came to UCA to go to school, and he is one of our technology leaders. And his whole family is in Ukraine. And partially as a result of that, we have built a technology center in Ukraine that does application testing. We have 14 employees over there, and my first thought was, "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I hope they're going to be all right." And some of them lived in western Ukraine, a few of them lived in Kiev.

 The ones that lived in Kiev have gotten out, and one of them is a male, and he's not able to leave the country. But he's taken his family to the border. Our head of the technical lead, Anastasia, is gone to the Polish border, now has gotten into Poland, and gotten safely into Poland. But, the thing that is stunning to me is, the days after the invasion, they were very concerned that they would not be able to get all their work done. They did, they got all their work done overnight.

It was... I couldn't work, and there they are working. I stopped to Anastasia, she had been awake for five straight days, four or five days. And she was literally delirious. But she said, "Don't worry, we'll be up and set up by next week so we can get our work done." Of course, she didn't, I don't think, quite make that. But, they're worried about keeping their jobs, and continuing to do a good job for their... Because they've developed relationships, see, with the people back in Arkansas. I've never seen the spirit of people like that, that are determined not to be overcome by Russian aggression.

But beyond that, to be useful members, and get work done. They want to see our workforce grow over there, and this is horrific for them. So, we all watch on television all the terrible stuff that's going on. No matter when somebody listens to this podcast, the stain of this whole affair that Vladimir Putin has gone on will be a stain forever on Russia. And I think that's bad, because I know we've had Russian employees working for us, and from some of the feedback I've gotten, we don't have any right now. But from some of the feedback I've gotten from others, they are just as horrified by it as we all are. It's a terrible, sad thing.

Clint O’Neal:                     

Well, Charles, thank you for sharing that. And thank you so much for being on the Arkansas Inc Podcast today. Any final words for our listeners?

Charles Morgan:              

Well, we're always recruiting talented people.

Clint O’Neal:                     

Well, where can interested prospective employees go to find out about opportunities?

Charles Morgan:              

Well, you can go to our website, FirstOrion.com. You won't have any trouble finding information there. It's been a great pleasure to be here with you, Clint. You're doing important things. And you and your whole Department of Commerce, Arkansas Economic Development Commission and all, I think are doing one of the most outstanding jobs of any state anywhere. And I say that just because leadership matters. And we've seen leadership by yourself and your team, and Mike Preston, and Asa Hutchinson. So, keep up the good work.

Clint O’Neal:                     

Thank you, sir. Much appreciated. Our guest today on the Arkansas Inc podcast has been Charles Morgan, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of First Orion. Charles, thank you for spending your time with us here today.

Charles Morgan:              

Thank you very much, Clint.

Clint O’Neal:                     

You've been listening to the Arkansas Inc podcast. This is Clint O’Neal, Deputy Director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. For more information on AEDC, and to sign up for our monthly newsletter, visit ArkansasEDC.com, and connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Thanks for tuning in.