In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Charles Morgan, a University of Arkansas alumnus, CEO, chairman of First Orion, and Arkansas Business Hall of Fame inductee. Charles was working in big data before anyone knew what big data was and has continued to scale companies and develop leaders.
Listen as Charles recounts his extensive career in big data and how writing his many books helped others to understand big data.
0:00:08.2 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education, and your life today.
0:00:31.6 Matt Waller: I have with me today Charles Morgan, who is the CEO and Chairman of First Orion. He is a visionary, former chairman and CEO of Acxiom Corporation, which is a world leader in data gathering and technology. He grew this company from 25 people to over 7000 employees globally, with revenue over $1.5 billion, and he's an alum of the University of Arkansas. His latest venture is called First Orion, although you started that 13 years ago, so it's really not new. [laughter] I first met Charles at the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame when he was inducted in 2004. He has really been a leader in what people call big data, data science, predictive analytics, things like that, they don't use a lot of buzzwords, but that's what you would think of this. You really were in the big data business before it was popular.
0:01:40.2 Charles Morgan: It was certainly big data before you called it big data, Matt. We just said, we got so much data it's taking over 100 reels of back tape. [laughter] That's what we call big data, anything over 100 reels, and I think we had some files literally on 16-hour BPI tape, there were like 500 reels. I know it's hard to imagine. To pass the data, or database, you gotta pass 500 reels in tape, and that's crazy. You'd have tape running as fast as it'd go, and then as soon as it finished you'd start reading from another drive, maybe reload the first one, and it would just keep going and, so yeah, we got into lots of data, very early.
0:02:29.2 Matt Waller: And I would like to encourage the listeners to... If you Google Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, Charles Morgan, you'll see a video that we have on our website about him and his life. I think it's just about five to seven minutes long, but really good background. I would encourage you to watch that. Charles, I know you grew up in Fort Smith, I believe.
0:02:54.9 Charles Morgan: Right.
0:02:56.9 Matt Waller: And you came to the University of Arkansas, majored in mechanical engineering.
0:03:00.7 Charles Morgan: Yep.
0:03:01.7 Matt Waller: And I believe you started at IBM, is that right?
0:03:04.9 Charles Morgan: IBM. I was at IBM for about five and a half years, and then joined what was the predecessor to Acxiom. That's where I was until I retired. But it didn't take. It didn't take. [laughter]
0:03:15.9 Matt Waller: Now, oh yeah, obviously. It didn't take...
0:03:19.6 Charles Morgan: Am I gonna have to explain my jokes to you? [laughter]
0:03:22.7 Matt Waller: It very clearly did not take. 13 years ago you started First Orion. Why don't we start with First Orion? You had so much experience already, you had been with Founder and CEO and Chairman of Acxiom for 36 years, and then you started the new company. That's a little unusual. What inspired you to do that?
0:03:47.8 Charles Morgan: It was, I think part of it... My second book I've written is called Now What? And part of Now What? Was I was scared to death to get bored and not having enough to do, so I was already doing investments and I had a number of other projects. At that time I was still very active in car racing, and so I was doing, we had a race team, two-car race team, and I was actually going to a lot of races then, and we were doing engineering on these cars. And when I first invested in First Orion, it was 'cause it looked very fascinating, and the thing that fascinated me about it, I had watched computers go from big mainframes and then we had desktop, laptops, and servers, and I watched all the different iterations of growth and how computers had changed the world entirely. Everything. Everything about the world had changed.
0:04:55.2 Charles Morgan: And when I saw smartphones for the first time, I said, these things are gonna have more power than the first computers I worked with, and eventually they're gonna, and I probably had no idea even then, and that was 13 years ago. Realize, we didn't have smartphones. What did you have? It was about the time Blackberry showed up, right? And so, Blackberry had apps on it, but it wasn't... People didn't realize it as the game-changer it was. Of course, I always say Blackberry snatched the feet out of the jaws of victory, but that's another story. [laughter] And early on we started developing apps on Blackberry. But back to the original question, I just said this is gonna be a fascinating field to get involved in.
0:05:46.9 Charles Morgan: And the original idea was to interconnect Blackberrys, not just to apps on Blackberrys, but connect the device to the network so they could leverage some additional network capability, and originally we wanted to block calls in the network. That turned out to be impossible, but we figured out how to do it with an app on the phone. And now we're back fully in the network, like at T-Mobile we have 80 servers inside of T-Mobile right now. Plus we have a couple of thousand servers running in Amazon. So we've got huge footprints for data, and data analytics, and processing, but I was fascinated with First Orion because it just looked like this is gonna change the world again. I didn't actually join First Orion full-time until 2013. It was run by Jeff Stalnaker and some others, but I was involved, but I wasn't involved daily. But in 2013 I decided to come back and be CEO.
0:06:52.9 Matt Waller: So Charles, I know First Orion right now, the focus is on phone transparency and data.
0:07:00.7 Charles Morgan: Yes.
0:07:02.2 Matt Waller: But did you start with that idea?
0:07:04.5 Charles Morgan: We started with the idea of doing call blocking and helping people, and we had early on, we had our motto was Make people love their phones again, so they don't get unwanted calls. And that was really before the days of scam calls, there were no scam calls back 13 years ago, but there were unwanted calls, and that was our first idea. Interesting that our first big market, guess what, I hate to say, it was debt collectors, who were just pounding people in the ground, and we gave people a way to block debt collectors. So that was our, kinda our first market, and we got lucky that Metro PCS wanted to use, make our app, at that time we were app-based, and we moved to Android and make our app part of their standard offering. We offered that app for a dollar a month, and we split the revenue with Metro PCS.
0:08:09.1 Matt Waller: So I know the tagline for First Orion is transparency and communication.
0:08:15.1 Charles Morgan: Yes. Yup.
0:08:17.3 Matt Waller: I'm curious about what that spans both currently and sort of your vision for the future.
0:08:21.9 Charles Morgan: Well, the thing right now that it expand... It is, transparency is, if it's a scam call, we want you to know it or be able to block it, and so that is the transparency in a call. I get a call comin' in, and it says scam likely or whatever, then I'm probably not gonna answer it. But if the call that comes in says something like... I just did this this morning, I wasn't for you, but I don't know if we can see that or not?
0:08:57.7 Matt Waller: It says... Of course, we're only gonna use the audio, but let me read it.
0:09:00.6 Charles Morgan: Yeah.
0:09:00.9 Matt Waller: It says First Orion customer service.
0:09:03.7 Charles Morgan: That is actually a 32-character display, and if that 32-character display is shown as a verified caller, so you know that's who's calling, and you have a relationship with First Orion, there's a real good chance you're gonna answer that call. If it says 1-800 da da da da da, you're almost assuredly not gonna answer that call, even if you have a relationship with First Orion or not, 'cause you may or may not have that number into your phone. So enhanced displays, verified displays, scam likely and our goal is to have every mobile handset, every single mobile handset in the country connected, and we have now about 105 million T-Mobile and former Sprint handsets that can do this. That's live, what you just saw is real. Actually, we've expanded the number of characters we display as of this week, which helps it give more complete information.
0:10:13.8 Charles Morgan: But we also have a capability called Engage, which lets us actually put a full-screen display on. It will have an extended message, logos, pictures, all other kind of stuff and that is the precursor for a revolutionary technology that's gonna actually be standard around, at least in the United States, called RCD, rich display of data. Bunch of stuff you can put on, and so it could actually link to a website or a bunch of other stuff. So all these technologies are coming down the road, and the idea is if we can secure all this with a technology called STIR/SHAKEN, which again, I'm not trying to bury everybody in acronyms here, but STIR/SHAKEN says we know who initiated that call, and we can verify that if it says it's this person, that whoever initiated that call, if it was initiated by Verizon into the T-Mobile network, we know that Verizon holds her hand up and says, I know that ABC Financial did generate this call and it was not spoofed.
0:11:32.4 Charles Morgan: There's a lot of underlying technology that's all converging to make the calling environment secure, and we are well down the path to becoming what we'll call the central exchange for all this branded calling. That's our goal right now. And I jokingly say to people, this company is gonna be way bigger than Acxiom, even though we only have 300 employees right now, but I'm convinced they'll be a bigger company than Acxiom.
0:12:05.0 Matt Waller: Great entrepreneurs solve problems that persist across large groups, and this is clearly a problem you all spotted it early.
0:12:15.4 Charles Morgan: Yup.
0:12:16.3 Matt Waller: People talk about it like they talk about the weather almost.
0:12:19.0 Charles Morgan: Yup. Exactly. You never go to a party and somebody says I've got an IRS camera, I got this, or I know a friend who just paid $500 for da da da da da, and it was a scam. It just happens all the time.
0:12:32.7 Matt Waller: So I would imagine Charles, this type of technology requires a huge amount of R&D.
0:12:39.6 Charles Morgan: Yes. [laughter] That's what I love. As you can well imagine, I'm the Chief Technology Officer for this company really, and I meet with all our tech teams, and I'm involved in... I'm the one who generally writes the white papers, and says kinda here, map out the plan. I'm working on a second white paper for this year actually. It's kinda mapping out our organizational strategy to take on the massive growth that we're about to undertake. I like to grow things, and I like to grow people.
0:13:18.6 Matt Waller: I wanna come back to that, that's a really interesting topic. But before we do, I'm really impressed with how involved you are and everything, but also you write the white papers, you've also written books.
0:13:31.8 Charles Morgan: Yeah. Just so you're clear, I'm a terrible writer, but I have pretty good ideas and I'm a damn good storyteller. Well, the white paper that I'm working on right now... Right now my outline is about 13 pages of my comments and commentary. And I'll work with the guys, and I'm writing some more of it right now. It'll turn into a 25-page paper that I am also collecting input from other leadership, but I manage the narrative.
0:14:02.5 Matt Waller: Still, most leaders don't do that as much.
0:14:06.9 Charles Morgan: Well, I've still even originally written design software, and I actually prototyped some in the last 12 months. So, most leaders don't do that.
0:14:15.7 Matt Waller: Yeah. You graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1966, I believe.
0:14:22.9 Charles Morgan: Yeah.
0:14:23.5 Matt Waller: So you're 78 and you're still involved in that level of detail. It's really impressive. But I am interested in the writing piece. Even though I know you get input from lots of other people, and you have editors and so forth, all writing at your level should be that way anyway. But you still have to do writing because you have to get the concepts down on paper 'cause no one else is gonna be able to do it.
0:14:47.4 Charles Morgan: No, that's right.
0:14:48.6 Matt Waller: But it's an interesting thing to think about because, again, I think a lot of leaders don't do that. And I'm curious 'cause I'm like you in the sense I write a lot, but I found that writing helps me think strategically.
0:15:01.7 Charles Morgan: It organizes your thoughts, and you are forced to think about, what next? You're forced to think about how this stuff fits together, 'cause you go back and read it and say, that doesn't make a lot of sense, or, I completely underestimated this element of it and I need to go back and rethink that. If it sounds good to you in the end, it's logical, and you can sleep on it and come back and read it and it sounds like a rational plan, then it probably is.
0:15:34.7 Matt Waller: Yeah. I think too if all you do is just whiteboard and you don't really get your thoughts down...
0:15:40.6 Charles Morgan: Right.
0:15:42.2 Matt Waller: They're so loose that you can overlook really important errors in the logic.
0:15:46.1 Charles Morgan: Right. Right.
0:15:47.1 Matt Waller: The other benefit of getting it written out clearly is that it gives other people the opportunity to critique it and say, Well, I see an issue here.
0:15:57.3 Charles Morgan: Let me tell you, it's an interesting story. The earlier white paper I did this year we had been talking about branded calling, and this thing that I just showed you, the screenshot. I wrote my first white paper on that topic in 2015. This year, in January, I said, this organization is struggling, really gathering all the aspects. That we're adding people all the time, and it's pretty clear the organization is not clear on the vision. Even though we talk about it every week, it's like, how does all this fit together? How do we sell it? What exactly is it? How do we keep the displays so that they're consistent? And we got some of the feedback on our leadership survey that our vision for the company is not clear. I'm saying, what the hell? We talk about it every week. But we talk about it as a point. We talk about it as an addition to a product. We talk about it as a concept, but not how all that stuff fits together.
0:17:04.7 Charles Morgan: So I said, I'm going to write a white paper, and then we are going to do all we can to be sure that it gets out in our employee base first and then, in some cases, with our partners so they understand what we're doing. And guess what happened? It was a total game-changer, Matt. It was like, ahh! I didn't know that's what it really was. You've got... What the hell do you mean? When you talk about it for five, six years, and you didn't understand it? And that was sometimes pretty senior people. It's like, they had kinda understood this part, but not how it fit with that part. And I got fairly detailed on how all the underlying technology's gonna work together, 'cause it's complicated. And I ended up working out some of those issues, not just myself, with some of my senior leaders. Some of the things I hadn't thought about either, Matt. And so we worked through all that. So we've got a 35-page white paper, and next thing I know we're shooting videos on segments of it.
0:18:12.7 Matt Waller: When you create the content in written form, it is easier to repurpose it using other media more accurately.
0:18:23.0 Charles Morgan: Absolutely. Everybody is saying the same thing.
0:18:26.5 Matt Waller: One important part of leadership is setting direction. Those white papers clearly help with that. I noticed, of course, that you also have written books, including Matters of Life and Data.
0:18:41.5 Charles Morgan: Right.
0:18:42.2 Matt Waller: I have not read that book. I would like to.
0:18:45.2 Charles Morgan: It's a little bit more sex and a little more Acxiom. I kinda tell it all, brother. Some people said, I don't know if I'd told all that! But... [laughter]
0:18:56.3 Matt Waller: What inspired you to write a book?
0:18:58.8 Charles Morgan: The first book is kinda silly but, and I wrote this what, seven or eight years, 10 years ago. I had people for 10 years before then or more tell me, You need to write a book and explain what Acxiom is and what it does. And my son or daughter worked for you, and I never knew what they did. I didn't understand the company, but I bought your stock, made a lot of money on stock, and I don't know what you did. My wife and I went on a trip to Italy, and I don't know if it was a conspiracy, there were only about... The were about eight couples, and we went to Accademia dell'Arte, and we spent a week there. And I won't get into Accademia dell'Arte, but we ended up being kind of a patron of this thing. Crazy. But these people stead, and I got hot-boxed one time by a couple of them, a banker and another guy who's a respected guy said, Charles you just need to write a book. You need to break down and write a book about what you did.
0:20:05.8 Charles Morgan: I started looking for somebody to help me, and I stumbled on Jim Morgan. He had written a number of books, including the book with Bill Clinton's mother, he "co-authored" that with her. She died before the book got finished, so he actually ended up being a co-author on that. But he wrote Chasing Matisse, which a lot of people have heard of, it's a fairly well-known book, and he'd come back to Arkansas. One time he was the editor of The Playboy Author, which it actually had some really good articles in it. It was not trash at all. But anyhow, he helped me, and the first book I think we had over 2000 pages of transcription. He'd sit down with a tape, and we had a chapter we were gonna work on, and things that we wanna cover, and he'd ask me a question, and then when I ran out of gas, he'd ask me another question.
0:21:00.3 Matt Waller: So writing is a big part of your leadership style obviously. I wanna talk, you mentioned that you enjoy scaling companies and building people, developing people. And I know you have scaled two companies, clearly. You're in the process of scaling one. Scaling is a tricky thing, finding the right people, developing the right processes and systems, 'cause you can scale too early, like happened a lot in the dot-com boom of the '90s. You had these companies that really didn't have customer traction or a good business model, and then all of a sudden they were scaling them.
0:21:47.0 Charles Morgan: Right.
0:21:47.0 Matt Waller: And that was a really good learning from the dot-com boom. The great companies came out of the dot-com boom, but a lot of wasted money.
0:21:54.2 Charles Morgan: Mostly wasted money, yeah.
0:21:57.5 Matt Waller: But how did you know, say let's take First Orion, for example. How did you know when you had... When you were to the point where it was, Okay, it's time to scale.
0:22:07.5 Charles Morgan: I've got a really simple way that we were managing this company, for example is, we were trying to manage to having a minimum amount of EBITDA. And early on, you don't have any revenue, so you gotta invest. And you have got to see a point that you can see opportunity is... Have gotten big enough that if you wisely manage a company, then you won't be able to get it composited. I'm not comfortable managing a company that has negative EBITDA, and I know that's not very fashionable these days, but I'm old school. When I first took over the business in 2013, I came in and I said, We have had our worst quarter in history. We burned a lot of money. And by that time, I probably had $6 million invested in this thing, and I had most, I had 90% of the money that had been invested was my money. And I said, I'm gonna take over and be CEO. And by the way, the guy that was running it up until then has stayed with the company and he's still a key part of the company. But I'm gonna take over, and we're gonna have this thing profitable by November or December.
0:23:32.3 Charles Morgan: Before the end of the year we're gonna be... We're gonna have a positive EBITDA month, and we did. And I said, We're gonna cut our computer expense dramatically. We're a very little bitty company, we're spending way too much on computers. I said, We're gonna do everything to cut expenses. We've gotten sloppy. We had... I said, What the hell we doing? We're a little bitty company with 20 employees and three copiers? We're gonna attack expense on every level. And I said, If we can drive 80,000 a month in expense out of here, and with our revenue growth going, we will be positive EBITDA, and we did. I think we reached, I don't know if we took 80,000 out, but we took most of it out, and we grew our EBITDA, and sure enough, I think about November, we showed a $5000 profit.
0:24:24.8 Charles Morgan: And it just takes focus on that, but you also have to invest, and I will hire somebody, and I've hired... I've done it many, many times. I don't have a job for you, but you can be a part of this company's future, so just come to work. And I'm gonna... I'll make you an offer. If I have to put you on a consulting gig for a little while until we figure out what your job is, I'll do that. But if you see talent, you just gotta get 'em on board. It's people, it's all about the people. You gotta get the right people and put 'em in the right place, and hire 'em when you can get 'em, and the other ones you hire and you train 'em, and you really focus on training, thus apprenticeship programs and internships, and all that kind of stuff.
0:25:09.0 Matt Waller: Charles, I know that you think culture is very important in a company, and there's lots of research that shows that that's certainly true. I would like to know, how do you build a culture?
0:25:23.2 Charles Morgan: When I first got involved with Acxiom, I never thought about a concept of culture, it didn't hit me. But early on, I had been at IBM, and I had seen IBM hire the best, very best people. So I knew that was a concept that I oughta think about, and I did, that was... My only thing about building culture was hiring smart people when I first joined Acxiom at 29-years-old. And what happened for about the next 10 years, is we grew that business a lot, and along the way we thought about hiring a lot of good people. We were forced to put in educational systems, and do other things to help us grow our people. But it was not all that intentional, Matt. It was just, Hey, we need some education, we got these people, we can't hire 'em. We'll make some classes and hire people and put them in classes. And we had all kind of issues with leadership and organizational structure. Workplace we had, and when we went back and looked at it, we had 13 levels of management in one area.
0:26:32.5 Charles Morgan: And our data center operations, and obviously, when you start translating leadership direction to 13 levels, you know if you're playing whispers, and musical chairs, and stuff like that. You get groups like that, there is no real true communication across the ranks. It took me, obviously, 20 years to figure that out at Acxiom. So in early '90s, we realized what a cluster we had on our hands in terms of leadership and culture. And the concept of culture started, and it was driven by the quality culture, which was something that was kinda raising its head around the late '80s, early '90s. I had read some books along, Tom Peters infected me early in my career, and so I had picked up the idea that people have got to communicate across levels. Tom Peters Management By Walking Around, very influential book. And so I knew there were some things that we weren't doing. We solved problems, but we didn't try to look at why we had problems.
0:27:45.1 Charles Morgan: So the quality thing came along, and I visited Militan Carpets, it was just doing some amazing stuff, and innovation, and letting people make a difference, and not just try and tell them stay in a dark room, and produce mushrooms. We put together a very organized culture, and then did a year-long process of educating everybody. We got rid of levels, we had about 75 people had title of Director that went all the way back to Associate, and so we cut levels out, and it was painful. I didn't wanna do that here at First Orion, that was a big mistake. And then building this business, I've been able to learn from mistakes. So I hired one of my senior people from Acxiom early on, way before we needed it, and said, Libbi, her name's Libbi Whitehurst, said, Libbi, we are not gonna make the same mistakes over here that we made at Acxiom. I'm not gonna go through the pain that we went through at Acxiom.
0:28:46.4 Charles Morgan: So we have been working on building a culture as we built the business, and we try to keep it simple, but the first day you walk in this building, you'll hear people talk about our culture, and it's, get this, people first, people first. And there are only four cornerstones. Your upper left-hand corner is people first, and the lower right-hand corner, guess what? It's innovation. And another cornerstone is trust and transparency. Your leader has to be trusted, your leader has to be transparent, tell it like it is brother, and that goes across all levels, but the upper right-hand corner, I've forgotten the words, but it's get shit done. [laughter]
0:29:34.8 Charles Morgan: We have no vacation policy, we do free lunches, we do beer 30 on Thursday at 3:30, and everybody shows up for that. We only ask people, you could do all that, and we don't have any sick leave policy, but if you don't get shit done, you don't have a job. And we do performance reviews, and people know how they're going, but if they're not performing or they take advantage of the environment, they don't have a job. The culture is, starts day one when you arrive here, and it's pervasive in everything we do, and you'll hear people refer to it almost every day. Everybody in the building is responsible for building and maintaining the culture. Everybody that works here knows about it and can talk about it, and just to look at our surveys, everybody feels it's an important part of their life at First Orion.
0:30:40.7 Matt Waller: As a final question, what would you recommend to our students?
0:30:48.5 Charles Morgan: I probably would have more advice than they're willing to listen to, [laughter] but what I will tell students is, while most people at their age are looking pretty short-term, it's I wanna finish this semester, I wanna get a job, I wanna make enough money I can buy a new car or I can buy whatever they're interested in. The horizon that they think about is, once they got a job is how can I get a raise? But even before that, students tend to think about school as, not what's the most interesting challenging course I can take, or what can I be great in, or what would be interesting I might be great at. And they're not necessarily doing what I will call long-term strategic thinking.
0:31:42.6 Charles Morgan: I know that's a mouthful for somebody who's 20-years-old, but one advice I could get is, remember, if you are lucky, you will be 40-years-old one day, and what you're doing right now will determine who you are, where you will be when you're 40-years-old. And if your thinking is, I wanna get the best job I can get, and then when I get that, then I'll start looking for the next job that'll give me a little bit more money, and I'll chase dollars, and I'll chase, I'll chase money, but I'm not thinking about the long-term. And what I tell kids time and time again, what do you want to do when you're 40 that's fun? That you can get excited about, you know you can do well. And if people think about it hard enough, they have an idea, and I say if you can't get to 40, how about just getting to 30? And to get to the best job, to get to the thing you wanna do, you're gonna have to learn as much as you can learn, you gotta be continuously learning, and you're gonna have to look out not just for yourself, but for those you work for.
0:33:00.0 Charles Morgan: The guys that get promoted are the guys that work best with others, and are seen as somebody who influences the action in, by the way, gets stuff done, and is part of an active team, and once you get into a managerial role it's the guys that hire people smarter than they are that are the most successful ever. If you say my goal, and I've got two or three people working here say, all I try and do is look for people, and I just insist they be smarter than I am, and this guy's real smart, so it's kind of a joke. But look for real smart people, and look for people that can work together, and have a vision for what they wanna be and do, and not just be chasing, hey, it's salary dollars, or it's I want a job with a lot of time off, or I want, that's kind of a dead-end view of the world.
0:33:52.7 Charles Morgan: A lot of people who are successful lawyers, let's just take that professional class, over the years I can't tell you how many 45 to 55-year-old lawyers I have had come to me and say I would like to change professions, you have any ideas? I don't like what I'm doing. Don't do something you don't like to do. And if you really love something, and it is something that gives you great satisfaction, you'll be a happy person even if you're not the richest guy in town, you'll be a happy person, and very successful.
0:34:32.2 Matt Waller: So true. What great advice, Charles. Thank you for taking time to visit with me today. And really great story.
0:34:41.5 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be Epic Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching Be Epic Podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C Podcast. And now Be Epic.