This Month’s Q&A: January 2021

An old man with gray hair and glasses wearing a blue and white checkered shirt standing outside in front of a tall statue made of silver boxes.

Charles Morgan,
CEO, First Orion, and Chairman of ACDS

OVER THE PAST two years, Charles Morgan has appeared in the ACDS newsletter several times, but never as the interviewee of the month. We thought it was time to rectify that, especially considering the moment we’re living through. Morgan has long had his finger on the pulse of the tech and startup worlds, so we sat down with him—remotely—just before Christmas 2020 to hear his take on the year ending and the one to come. And we have a scoop to announce—Charles Morgan, serial entrepreneur, is starting a brand new company.


Here we are approaching the start of a new year after a particularly tough one. How are you feeling about life in general?

I think everybody looks at the world differently than they did in January of 2020. Almost every norm that we can think of about work life, family life, where we go to work and play—everything is turned on its head.

People are creatures of habit and if your whole life you’re used to living a certain way, and for the last five years you’ve been working in this location and have this particular group of friends and you do these social things—I mean, it’s taken the symphony away. It’s taken the movie theater away. It’s taken a night out with friends if not away, then restricted severely.

At the same time, we’ve been listening to all this incredible upheaval in our political world. So there’s nothing that I would call “normal.” It’s a different world and it is going to change the world in some ways, I think, forever. Nobody seems to really know what the end result will be.

We see a few inklings that work at home is going to be more of a commonplace thing than anybody ever thought it might be. I had somebody in our company just tell us that they’re being recruited for a job in Silicon Valley. But that job is in Arkansas. That person does not have to leave and move. He can be an executive in this company remotely.

That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

It is. A year ago, if somebody had said they were going to be a senior executive with a corporation in Silicon Valley and stay in Arkansas, we would’ve laughed. I mean, it’s crazy.

What have you learned about leadership over the past year?

What I’ve learned is, it’s very difficult to do innovation. It’s difficult to really stay in touch with people. We didn’t realize how important the conversation before and after a meeting can be. If you have a meeting of three or four people, before everybody sits down, you’ll typically talk with one or two people. After the meeting breaks up, you’ll have a five-minute conversation and somebody will say, “Oh, by the way, we haven’t talked about such-and-such and what exactly we’re doing on that. I’d love to hear your ideas on it.”

You just don’t get that anymore. Things now are a lot more structured. I have six meetings today, and every one of them has specific topics that I’m dealing with. And while a lot of them are one-on-one meetings, we just don’t have that spontaneity that we used to have. Before, on the way to a meeting I might’ve ducked my head into somebody’s office and asked a question—just because I saw that person and remembered something I needed to ask. Now I’m sitting at home, and I have to just note it and remember to ask that the next time I talk with that person. So we’ve lost a lot of the value of spontaneous meetings.

Well, let me go back to the question, which was about leadership. How are you trying to deal with that?

I have begun doing many, many more remote calls like this, and I’ve increased my number of calls with people at all different levels in the company so I can feel like I’m staying in contact with them. And I’m actually asking some people to come all the way up to Greer’s Ferry, where I’m hiding out. This includes some young people I’m trying to bring along. So I’m forcing some in-person meetings. And I’m pretty careful in these things. I don’t want anyone giving anybody a big hug.

I’m also about to start scheduling remote meetings with teams throughout the company. I’m thinking one such group call a week. In 52 weeks, I could do 200 or 300 people in those meetings. So I’m getting around. These times require new ways to interact in maintaining relationships. Before, you may have seen someone several times a year in the hall or at the coffee pot, and then you don’t see them for a year or more? It’s like, “Who are you?”

You moved First Orion to a big new headquarters building just as this pandemic started. Besides the communication problems you’ve mentioned, where are the pain points for you and your company during COVID?

I think communication is the biggest thing, really. The pandemic fortunately didn’t kill us, but it has offered up plenty of challenges in trying to get stuff coordinated. And through it all, we have never shut the building.

But what I suspect is going to happen when we really go back to work is that instead of having 80 percent of our people come into the office in a given week, we may only have 50 or 40 percent. So we’re going to have fewer and fewer. Three months ago, we were hearing it would be at least 2022 until we drive things halfway back to normal. Now with the vaccines rolling out faster than people thought, I’m hearing it’ll be by the end of this year. But then there’s all this talk about people resisting getting vaccinated, yadda, yadda, yadda. I’m not worried about it. We’re going to have hundreds of millions of vaccine doses available by summer in this country, and I’m going to take mine. I’ve heard too many horror stories about COVID.

Do you have a New Year’s resolution?

God, no. I’m just trying to get to the new year. My New Year’s resolution is to be alive and healthy on January 1, 2022.

What do you see for the world of technology in general in 2021, both good and bad?

The tech world is the one area that has remained pretty healthy through all this pandemic stuff. Tech companies have generally done pretty well during this period. Their stocks have done well. The industry in general has done well.

There are some underlying trends that are happening that are more subtle than revolutionary. We’re beginning to layer our software technology so that it becomes easier and easier to deploy Cloud solutions. We’re going to an API-driven world where everything can be driven through API connections.

So we can build more and more complex things in fewer and fewer man hours, and this functionality can be shared by many, many more people. In the first iteration of the Cloud, you just got a raw data center. Now you can build an exactly tailored data center by checking a bunch of boxes as to the functionality. It will create all your back-up and recovery and all the software modules you need—standard software. And in a blink, you’ve got something that might have taken six months to create in the old world of physical hardware.

I mean it’s just crazy. Everybody is kind of doing the same thing to make it easier to build stuff like, because everybody has learned from AWS about how you make the tools API-driven and automated and now Salesforce can have these complex functionalities that interact with a lot of different functions.

We’re integrated with Salesforce. We’re creating APIs that will connect to Salesforce’s call-in solution. So we’re doing more and more automation, and we have tools to make that automation easier. But it’s not just more automation. It’s automation to help automation. Does that make sense? We’re automating, automating, automating.

What does this mean for the kinds of people coming into the tech field today? Does it change the requirements?

It does in the sense that they need to have an understanding—an in-depth understanding—of how Cloud solutions work. They need to know what core functionalities are available and how these different layers are built. They need to understand deeply the concepts of API-solution-based solutions. Sure, they’ll be writing code, programming. But a lot of what building solutions is going to be is dragging all this stuff together and using existing analytical tools.

So, coming in, they need to see a bigger picture. They need to understand the broad landscape and what’s out there. How do you interact? How do you drive this data out of all these systems, and how do you put it in a format that somebody who’s not a programmer can use? It needs to be really easy for them to access and use this data.

How about tech and Arkansas specifically? What do you see going on here?

There’s a lot of interest in trying to strengthen our tech infrastructure. I’ve had many conversations recently about enhancing our tech education at all levels—K-12, two-year institutions, four-year institutions, and also through apprenticeship programs. I’m proposing to and working with the Walton Foundation that we make that a facet of Arkansas’ economic development.

We’ll see if that goes anywhere, but hopefully we’re going to get more and more things that will support and enhance what we’re trying to do through the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences. I think we’re seeing a realization that what we’re doing with apprenticeship programs is important, but we need to engage more citizens to get involved in these things. We need to have encouragement from the government and from industry to get the right kind of education and to make our people aware of these kinds of things.

I contend constantly that we have plenty of very smart people in Arkansas, but they’re just ignorant—in that they don’t have the education or the experience for these jobs. For example, I’ve got a 29-year-old guy working for me up here in Cleburne county who’s really smart. He’s got two years of college, he speaks well, he communicates well. And there are people like that all over Arkansas—people who have no clue these types of tech jobs are available.

But once they get the chance, they have an opportunity to figure out something like this young man did. He went off and worked on a pipeline for three years, made a lot of money but realized that’s a horrible life. So he came back here and ended up having a kid and he doesn’t want to leave, so he’s kind of stuck. But he wants to start his own business. And he could do anything, I’m convinced of it. He could work for First Orion.

This young man, you could hire him and give him some training in an apprenticeship program, and I think he could do damn near anything he wanted to do. He and I are starting a new business up here. It’s a dirt business. We’re going to do dirt work.

Wait a minute—a dirt business? I can’t wait to hear about that.

This young man was actually working here on the weekends with the guy who was doing all the rock work when we were building our place. He had a full-time job with another dirt contractor up here, but he was basically running this guy’s company. He made a good salary for up here, I’ll tell you.

Anyway, when I was growing up in Fort Smith, there was a guy on a bulldozer building a subdivision near us, and I would go over and watch him all day. It was one of my great thrills as a kid—I was probably 12 years old. One day he motioned me over to let me ride on his dozer and it was like the high point of my life to that point.

And later, one of my bucket-list things was to learn how to drive a dozer, and I rented a bulldozer and built a small pond out on Highway 60 when I lived in Conway. I’ve just always been fascinated with big machines and especially bulldozers. Remember, I’m a mechanical engineer. I love machines. And these new machines all have joysticks in them. That’s how you operate them. It’s really cool.

Speaking of machines, you’re up there in the country with your Tesla and your bulldozer. Which one is better in the woods?

The bulldozer, hands down. One of the great thrills of this past year for me was getting that bulldozer and pushing down a tree that was about 80-feet tall and two feet in diameter. It was a huge tree. I dug it out and pushed it. We’re clearing two acres for our equipment barn, so I pushed over a very substantial tree. I was all by myself up here on the lot and I had to dig around and dig out the roots. I finally got it to push over and I was saying wow, the power. The power.

This is what you wanted to be when you grew up.

That’s right. A bulldozer mechanic.

Finally, you achieve success.

I did—I made it! But about the business of dirt, there are a lot of little guys who have a backhoe and a little Skid-steer. There are other people who have excavators. The guy who did all our rock work has a number of excavators and some dump trucks. He hauls rocks and shale, and he mostly does bank stabilization, putting nice rock walls up on the river.

But there’s not much in the way of high tech in the dirt business up here. There’s not a single website that talks about having dirt capability in Cleburne County. It’s a small county, but you’d think there would at least be one company big enough to at least have a website, right? But no, it’s all word of mouth. We’re going to change that and have a high-tech component to our company.

In terms of equipment, this young man and I are going to have a big bulldozer. We’re going to have two excavators, one small and one that’s medium-sized. A big excavator will lift trains. Those are huge things. Ours won’t lift a train, but it’ll lift up an eight-ton rock. So it’s not a little excavator. And we’ll have tons of attachments for all this stuff. Not only that, but we’re adding a lot of electronics to this equipment to make our workers more productive and accurate with their work.

What kind of bulldozer do you have?

It’s German—a Liebherr. It’s a 35,000-pound machine, so it’s not a lightweight. It’s big but not so big you can’t haul it around on a truck. And this bulldozer has heat and air and good rock and roll on the radio, because these guys like to listen to crazy, loud music while they run the machines.

So you’re putting your toys to work in a dirt business with this young guy.

Yeah, absolutely. You know how I do. I’m starting a new business.

If I moved up there, what are some of the requests that I might make to your dirt company?

If you moved in on the river, you might want us to do bank stabilization. You might want us to clear the heavy trees out of the way or build some rock retaining walls. Maybe you need us to create a pad for a house or build a septic system. All those jobs require moving rocks, grading land, moving the still dirt, cutting trenches for the septic system. You use excavators to move the rocks and you can even use the excavators to pick up big trees and put them in stacks. You could also use a dozer to push the trees over and push them into stacks.

This interview will come out in January, traditionally the month of the Consumer Electronics Show. What other gadgets are you into these days?

I’m fascinated by all the automation that we put in when we were building the house. I can control everything remotely—all the locks at our house, all the lights…yard lights…the front gate. I’ve got cameras all over the place, switchable cameras, and I can access them from everywhere. I can raise and lower all the garage doors. See this? Here’s our little extra shed. We built that when we started having too many toys, and we’ve already outgrown it. I’m now building a 70-foot x 80-foot equipment barn on the hill. And now I want another bulldozer. I don’t know where I’m gonna put so much equipment—it’s just nuts.