Innovation Junkies Podcast

Charles Morgan on Leadership & Innovation are Inseparable

The Jeffs talk with Charles Morgan, CEO of First Orion. Learn all about organizational innovation with topics that include: how leaders set up a culture of innovation in their companies, bringing apprenticeships into the worlds of technology & data science, & innovations happening now at First Orion.

Jeff Standridge: This is Jeff Standridge, and this is the Innovation Junkies podcast. If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategy, and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Over the next half hour we’re going to be sharing specific strategies, tactics, and tips that you can use to grow your business, no matter the size, no matter the industry, no matter the geography. We’ll be talking about everything from sales and marketing to organizational, operational, and leadership effectiveness, to innovation, digital transformation, and everything in between. Routinely, we’ll bring in a top mover and shaker, someone who’s done something unbelievable with his or her business. We’ll dig deep. We’ll uncover specific strategies, tactics, and tools that they’ve used to help you achieve your business goals. Welcome to the Innovation Junkies podcast.

Hey guys, if you’re looking to put your business on the fast track to achieving sustained strategic growth, this episode is sponsored by the team at Innovation Junkie. To learn more about our strategic growth diagnostic, go to Now let’s get on with the show.

Jeff Standridge: Hey guys. Welcome to the Innovation Junkies podcast. I’m Jeff Standridge.

Jeff Amerine: And this is Jeff Amerine.

Jeff Standridge: Glad to have you here today. Boy, we’ve got a great guest with us today, Charles Morgan. Charles is the Chief Executive of First Orion, chairman of the board, chief data inspector, race car driver, jet pilot, and all around good guy. Extensive experience in managing and investing in private and public companies, served as CEO and chairman of Acxiom Corporation for decades. Grew that company from a small, unknown company to a publicly traded, almost a billion and a half dollar annual revenue.

Jeff Standridge: First Orion is his newest endeavor. We’re going to learn a little more about that. But Charles is also very engaged in the community of trying to develop talent, particularly in the areas of technology and data sciences. In 2018, he received the lifetime achievement award from Marketing EDGE. Charles, it is awesome to have you with us today, and it’s great to see you.

Charles Morgan: Jeff and Jeff.

Jeff Standridge: The Jeffs.

Charles Morgan: The Jeffs.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah, we’re-

Charles Morgan: Nice to … The Jeffs. That was a very kind intro, and sometimes I look kind of schizophrenic on all these things I’m involved in, but the main thing, you know, Jeff, I like to do is stuff I enjoy doing. And I really, really … One of the basic principles of your company is innovation. You know from our background together that I’ve always been in innovation and leadership. And I notice you all also focus on execution, and that’s kind of important, too. I think you all got the keys to the kingdom, but to back all that up, some of the things I’ve been interested in is talent development, which you know, and it’s also been a topic of yours. We’re really big into apprenticeship programs. That’s one way our new business is being built, on a foundation of training people know through innovation programs.

Jeff Standridge: Well, we’re going to come back and talk about … We had a bonus episode that we’ve recently recorded, that’ll be released around winning the war for talent. And the apprenticeship program is a good thing that I want to dig into a little bit later. We’re starting off today with a random musing, if you will. We’re talking about drinks of choice. What’s your drink of choice?

Charles Morgan: Woodford Reserve.

Jeff Standridge: There you go. Woodford Reserve.

Jeff Amerine: And I just so happen to have the Kentucky Derby person as a prop. That’s the Kentucky Derby.

Charles Morgan: All right.

Jeff Amerine: I’m a bourbon guy, too. Good choice.

Charles Morgan: All right. Well, that’s quite unexpected, boys.

Jeff Standridge: Well, and I’m the outlier here. I’m probably more of a Grey Goose guy.

Jeff Amerine: Well, and listen-

Charles Morgan: Well, you and my wife … No. I mean, my wife actually …

Jeff Standridge: You know, when I was in Poland … Charles remembers the time when I was spending a lot of time in Poland, and I took the office manager out to a liquor store to buy some Polish vodka, because I wanted to bring it back. And so I find this vodka over here and it’s a honey vodka, and I ask her. I said, “Marta, do you think this would be a good one to take back home?” And she says, “I think your wife would like it.”

Charles Morgan: Yeah.

Jeff Amerine: What’s she trying to tell you there?

Jeff Standridge: She’s trying to tell me, yeah.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. Craft beers are a dime a dozen, but I really like an imperial stout that’s been barrel-aged in something, where you get that nose of a bourbon or a good whiskey, and it’s a really dense, hearty beer. That’s probably my drink of choice. But it’s hard for me to just choose one, because I like the brown liquor a lot.

Jeff Standridge: Is it Lost Forty, that’s got that barrel-aged version of Love Honey, that’s bourbon-aged or something like that?

Charles Morgan: I don’t know.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah. It’s pretty good. I think you can only buy it in the store.

Charles Morgan: I can see where this whole thing’s going. We’re going to forget about innovation and all that crap. We walked into it. Anybody got a drink?

Jeff Standridge: Yeah. That’s right. Get it started, and then it just goes downhill from there. Well, let’s talk about innovation, Charles. Maybe just start about … And I have to tell you, and even say publicly, I tell people every time when I talk about my own origin story, that I came to the world of innovation and entrepreneurship from the world of being a change agent and an entrepreneur. And that comes from you and Acxiom and the experiences that you gave to me. So publicly, I just want to say a word of thanks. I wouldn’t be where I am today or doing what I’m doing today had you not pushed me into areas that perhaps I wasn’t comfortable at the time, but you gave me experiences that were invaluable.

Charles Morgan: Well, I appreciate that. I think the business that we’re in, and the business we’re in now, they’re truly driven by innovation. We’re trying to do something that’s never been done before in the world. And that’s two of them. One of them is create scam solutions, but also now our business is focused on what we call branded calling, so that when you get a call on your phone, you’re going to know who it is and why they’re calling. And we want that to be delivered to every handset, from every carrier. And the technology behind that is absolutely enormous, absolutely enormous. So our need for innovation, technologists, and people that can operate in the world of telecom, as well as in the world of big data, it is a challenge to get the people that we need. And it’s training, but it’s all got to be driven by extraordinary innovation.

Jeff Standridge: So let’s talk about that. You mentioned the word leadership a few moments ago. We say a lot that innovation and leadership are inseparable, particularly in the technology fields today. Can you talk a little bit about how a leader and how you particularly as a leader set up your culture in your organization to be one that innovates?

Charles Morgan: Well, innovation doesn’t come all from the bottom. It doesn’t come all from the top. I’m trying to generate a 30-page white paper right now, and instead of me doing it all myself, I’ve got a team of four people working with me, and three of them are around the age 30. And one of the members is a little bit older leader, a lead in the marketing organization. But I think you’d have to be able to insert the right kind of talent in the right place and put them in the right environment. And you said the point, leadership. I’m trying to map out a lot of concepts and have them explore these concepts and put them into a form that is consumable by the entire organization. You’ve got to innovate, but you’ve got to figure out, how do you sell? And I’ll go back to the days of Abilitech and Acxiom. You were there.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah I was.

Charles Morgan: Yeah. You can’t just innovate and they will come. You’ve got to innovate and sell it to everybody. And you’ve got to get the lowest to the highest level in an organization. Innovation is, again, about leadership. Does that concept make sense?

Jeff Standridge: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles Morgan: You’ve got to infuse these ideas in the whole organization. It’s got to be top to bottom, and as you develop it and you educate people on it, you have to use planning events. We’re going to do a planning event in three weeks, which you’re very familiar, the same planning events you used to go to, Jeff, or knew about. And those planning events are all entailed around exploring components of an idea or technology or a changing concept, and get everybody to have, again, participation in helping mold that into an executable plan. Innovation is no damn good unless you infuse it into the organization and you have a real action plan. All innovation goes with all those components.

Jeff Standridge: I love it.

Jeff Amerine: As you look at that, and it’s clear that you’ve had a history of building a culture of innovation, some larger enterprises get trapped with … They put the innovators in a box, and they set them over here. It’s kind of a skunk works, and off they go. And nothing else good happens in the rest of the organization, because-

Charles Morgan: Well, Jeff, that’s why big companies can’t innovate.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. Exactly.

Charles Morgan: They’re way too burdened by process, and they put people in a box. They put people in a box and often a corner, and say, “Go, build something cool. And then that we’ll have all our committees review it.”

Jeff Amerine: Hey folks, we’ll be right back with the episode. But first, we want to tell you about a limited opportunity to take advantage of our strategic growth diagnostic. For a short time only, we’re offering a free strategy call, to see whether or not our unique diagnostic tool is right for you. Go to to learn more.

Jeff Standridge: You know, Charles, you’ve always been an innovator in … You were an innovator at Acxiom in org structure, and having a flattened hierarchy. You were an innovator in building a team-based work environment. You were clearly an innovator in inviting me to join the co … I’m kidding. Just a joke.

Charles Morgan: It was the biggest risk we took, ever.

Jeff Standridge: Now you’re innovating in the areas of talent development. Talk a little bit about some of the innovations you’re doing around bringing the concept of traditional apprenticeships, which we usually know for plumbers and welders and carpenters and electricians, how you’re bringing that to the world of technology and data science.

Charles Morgan: Well, going back to my historical experience, and again, something you’re very involved in, we had Acxiom University. We’re trying to teach DBAs and all other kind of people the concepts that would allow them to be successful in handling who our customers were at Acxiom, which was database kind of stuff. But in this day and time, it’s more about learning SQL and data, which even though people may even have a computer science degree, they’re going into a technical organization, they have absolutely no idea of how the infrastructure of a company works. There are 19 different ways how to do software development, how to store, manage your software, how the systems interoperate, what the security protocols are, what the privacy protocols are. Even if you’re a really smart, let’s say C++ programmer, and have a good introduction to computing, you don’t know shit. Nothing. [inaudible 00:13:12] nothing on this show. Anyhow.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah, absolutely.

Charles Morgan: I guess I did. I did, I did. [inaudible 00:13:21] progressively gets worse as we go on.

Jeff Standridge: Really?

Charles Morgan: Well, when I get all excited about a topic, it just flows. It just flows so-

Jeff Standridge: I hear you. I hear you. That’s good.

Charles Morgan: But it’s really important to understand that we look for a new generation of Acxiom University, and the idea was we need to teach people how we were. We used to call that culture. Well, how we work also means how do we stare data? How do we move data between the AWS and network? How do we work in AWS? How do we use APIs as a foundation for everything we do? And on and on and on. And if you do that as a part of just coming to work and a little introductory stuff, guess what? Everybody, if you’re growing real fast, the people on the team spend all their time teaching people, new people coming in, how to find the bathroom and do all those basic tasks.

Charles Morgan: So we came up with the idea, how about let’s put together a 14-week course for data analysts, or a 14-week course course for software engineering. Well, specifically, for example, in building our apps, devise our phone apps, for Android and iPhone. Put it together through a 14-week program, and that program, all that content is directly tailored to what we’re doing and what they’ll do on the job, so that their last task in that class will be about a two or three-week capstone project. And the capstone project will be something directly related to the work that they’ll be doing. In other words, they will be handling all the same data, working with all the same assets, and the same people they’re going to be working with will have something to do, generally, with it, monitoring and overseeing a capstone project.

Charles Morgan: They go through all this process, they graduate from this thing, and the next Monday, they go sit down and their boss can say, or their leader can say, “Hey, Jimmy. Here’s your first project?” And they’ll say, “Oh yeah. I did something like that as our capstone project.” And they’ll just be immediately productive. And in a huge way, it takes what would take a year to infuse in people, you can really force feed them in an interactive way over 16 weeks, and they are immediately productive. It’s also a great recruiting tool for us. We have the best luck recruiting for our apprenticeship programs, all, because these are certified programs. You actually get a certification when you finish it. It’s …

Jeff Standridge: From the Department of Labor, right?

Charles Morgan: Yes. It is. Department of Labor certification. That’s kind of a big deal.

Jeff Standridge: That is. So you’ve also, as part of this, or in partnership with this, you’ve led the creation of the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences, which is a public-private partnership, really devoted to upgrading computer and data analytics skills across the state. Talk a little bit about that.

Charles Morgan: Yes, exactly. By the way, we have programs running all over the State of Arkansas. I think we’ve got 80 cohorts, either running or soon to be running. And each one of those have multiple, obviously, people enrolled in them. Some of them are rather small, 5 to 10, and others are 30 people. So it’s a really, really big effort. We have top flight leaders that are doing these. And the companies, remember, have to hire these people. Their company hires them. They put them in this apprenticeship program that their people participate in building, and it has been an absolute roaring success. We get college universities to cooperate, companies to cooperate, the State of Arkansas to cooperate. It is clearly the way of the future for crediting. People coming out of college, universities, ought to all transition into jobs through these kind of things. They’re so much more efficient for the person and for the company.

Jeff Standridge: Very good. Very good. Let’s talk a little bit more about First Orion. I know you mentioned it a little bit, but talk about some of the innovations that are going on there today, and where you see that going. How big is First Orion now?

Charles Morgan: We’re at 270 employees. We’re profitable. We’re in our new headquarters. We had 70 cars in the parking lot, I think, yesterday. We’re getting back to work pretty good. We have locations in Little Rock and Seattle are our two big ones. We have about 25 or 30 in Seattle. We have, I think, five in London and about five in Dubai and about nine people in Sao Paulo, Brazil. So we’re growing. We expect to add at least 50 people by the end of the year, so it’ll be over 300 people by the end of this year. I know we’re adding about, it seems like every week we have three or four new people coming in. We announce them at the Monday morning meetings.

Charles Morgan: The innovation that we’re doing, Jeff, is all around the things that I mentioned earlier. We just call it all branded calling. When you got a call coming in, we want that call to be a full-screen display that says, “This is United Bankshares calling about your account. And on the line is Jeff Standridge. He wants to talk to you about your account.” And it shows that it’s a secure call. That’s where we’re headed. And we’re providing the underlying technology. We have 80, 80, eight zero servers inside the T-Mobile network, who is our largest customer. We have … I keep trying to find out how big our Amazon footprint is. All I know is our expenses, just Amazon bill alone, is about 400,000 a month. So we are using a lot of IT resource at Amazon. And by the way, that would be about a two acre data center, I think, actually, in old terms. But it’s an enormous amount of resource.

Charles Morgan: We’re providing a product directly now. We have 80 billion people connected to our scam and enhancement solutions. We call that all … We enhance a call, and we call it a branded call. And when it’s branded, it is also scam protected. In other words, part of branding is saying, “Hey, this is a scam call.” That’s a brand. We also say it’s US Bank, or it’s a scam call. Those are services that are being expanded by adding more and more capability every day. And we are right now in the negotiation to be able to expand those services to some elements of both AT&T and to Verizon. It’s really an exciting time for us.

Charles Morgan: I’m sorry. I’m almost embarrassed to say, I’m having a lot more fun than I think I ever had at Acxiom. My main worry is that this grain field we’re in right now is probably 10 times the size of the grain field we had at Acxiom, in the early days of direct marketing.

Jeff Standridge: Well, the business problem is bigger, and it’s more known by the general public. We had to educate a lot of people at Acxiom in terms of what we actually did. In fact, my wife never knew. People would say, “What does Jeff do?” and she said, “I don’t know. He works at Acxiom.”

Charles Morgan: Right now, there is no branded calling except Caller ID. And most of the calls that come in, even though AT&T and Verizon both have some level of scam protection in their calls, I do know, because AT&T made the mistake of publishing the fact that, “We stop 16 million scam calls a day.” Guess what? We stop at T-Mobile, 65 million a day.

Jeff Standridge: Wow.

Jeff Amerine: Charles, a question about that. This is clearly a great value to consumers. Do you see this as having a bit of a regulatory impetus as well? Do you see, on a worldwide basis, the regulators saying, “You have to do this if you’re a carrier, because people are fed up with getting the scam calls”?

Charles Morgan: Yeah. In fact, there are in the US. And the rest of the world always lags the US on this particular point. But right now, a [inaudible 00:23:24] you call STIR/SHAKEN, which will require all carriers to put certs in the outbound calls from their network. In other words, they’ll put a token inside the signaling of an outbound call. And if that arriving call doesn’t have it, then eventually that call is not going to be delivered.

Charles Morgan: Now, we’re a long way from that, because there’s so many ways that they don’t get certified on the outbound side. Right now, the calls we get in from the outside on T-Mobile, I think about 30% have those certifications on them. That is from Verizon and some people that do cert. And it’ll still be a long time before all the calls will be certified. And there still is some opportunity for fraud in that system, so as long as there’s an opportunity for fraud, the bad guys will figure it out, explore it. But the US is definitely leading that worldwide. And the STIR/SHAKEN, which is the foundational technology, has been mandated by the FCC. It is mandated today.

Jeff Amerine: Will that extend? Will your capabilities extend to cover unwanted SMS text messages as well? Because I know recently I’ve been getting a variety of these things that are clearly phishing efforts.

Jeff Standridge: I have one, they think my name’s Cindy, and that I need to lose weight. And they’ve sent me several.

Charles Morgan: I thought the same thing.

Jeff Standridge: You’re Cindy.

Charles Morgan: That’s it. I’m Cindy. That’s exactly right. Believe this or not, we are in discussion … I’ll tell you all stuff that I hope they don’t hear, but we are in discussion with T-Mobile to do that. If they hear that, they’ll probably yank the whole deal, but whatever. Whatever.

Jeff Standridge: Well, Charles, it’s been a pleasure talking with you today. And we’re with Charles Morgan, CEO and chairman of the board of First Orion, and an innovator at heart, a change agent at heart, someone who’s been disrupting the status quo pretty much since he exited the womb, I think. It’s been a pleasure to have you with us today. It was even more of a pleasure to be on some of those disruptive journeys with you over the years.

Charles Morgan: Thank you very much. My mother would agree with that verdict on this.

Jeff Amerine: Thanks so much for coming on. You have laid down a path that’s illuminated the way for a lot of people, and I think a testament to the impact you’ve had on the state, beyond the great businesses, are you’ve got a lot of alumni from your ventures that are out there making big things happen, including Jeff Standridge, so thanks for all you’ve done and all you will do.

Charles Morgan: I’m still trying. I’m getting a little older, but I don’t feel it in my brain yet. As soon as I feel it in my brain, I guess I’ll have to get my wheelchair. I don’t know-

Jeff Standridge: The body’s a different story. I used to say, “I still feel like I’m 25 in my body and in my brain.” Till I hang out with my 26, 27, 28-year olds, and I go, “Nope. I’m not. I’m 55.” Well, once again, this is the Innovation Junkies podcast. Charles, thanks for being with us, and we’ll see you all in the next episode.

Jeff Amerine: Take care. Thanks so much.

Charles Morgan: Enjoy.

Jeff Amerine: Hey listeners, this is Jeff Amerine. We want to thank you for tuning in. We sincerely appreciate your time. If you’re enjoying the Innovation Junkies podcast, please do us a huge favor. Click the subscribe button right now and leave us a review. It would mean the world to both of us. And don’t forget to share us on social media.

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