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Executive Interview

  • April 01 2001, 1:00am EST

Acxiom is the global leader in real-time, multichannel customer data integration, providing data products and services to global corporations in the financial, retail, telecommunications, media, technology, automotive and consumer goods industries through products such as AbiliTec, Solvitur and InfoBase, as well as database management and IT outsourcing services. Acxiom Company Leader Charles D. Morgan has provided nearly 30 years of dynamic direction for Acxiom associates (now numbering more than 5,900 worldwide), about 150 of whom are headquartered at an impressive campus on the shores of the Arkansas River in Little Rock. During a recent interview, Charles Morgan, AbiliTec champion with a decisive leadership style, spoke of Acxiom (founded in 1969 under the name Demographics), its products and services, and the company's dedication to consumer privacy.

When Morgan, a life-long car-racing enthusiast, graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1966, he jokes that he realized racing would not prove his best career choice from an earnings perspective. With his mechanical engineering degree, Morgan gained a systems- engineering position at IBM and relegated racing to a hobby. But that doesn't mean he approaches the sport with anything short of 100 percent enthusiasm. Morgan has won the Sebring twice and the Daytona twice in category, success he attributes to his strong concentration and focus – innate traits that do not discriminate between work and play. Perhaps the speed and dynamics that drew and continue to captivate Morgan in racing were not present in his position at IBM because during his tenure at the company, Morgan decided he wanted to do something "entrepreneurial that related to computers."

To appease his entrepreneurial desire, Morgan began working for Acxiom as a vice president in February of 1972. Thanks, in part, to Morgan's concentration and focus, the company has seen great changes since that time – including the introduction of a unique culture and the dissolution of titles that began in the mid-1990s when Morgan became the company leader. A problem-solver and self-professed "project guy" by nature, Morgan was integral in the 10-year development of AbiliTec. AbiliTec was introduced in late 1999 as revolutionary customer data integration (CDI) software that enables companies in virtually any industry to obtain a unified view of their customers with unprecedented speed and accuracy.

Morgan's focus, endurance, concentration and drive that enable him to be successful in racing also are clearly evident in his leadership of Acxiom. "My proudest moment to date at Acxiom was getting AbiliTec into production because it is the biggest single technical thing that we've ever done. Getting that software from the development to the production stage and knowing that we had demonstrable results has been very gratifying. It took almost 10 years to get AbiliTec from its original ideas into a product. Even though I've been here 29 years, literally 10 of them have been around this concept. Throughout that time, I have enjoyed engaging people and encouraging participation to ensure a productive team effort. I always enjoy the idea of attacking a challenge, and AbiliTec development was a huge challenge. I even wrote a lot of the prototype for both the business and consumer version," he states.

Morgan elaborates, "During development of AbiliTec, we had, and still have, competing demands on our time and resources. At any point in time there were, and are, a hundred things we could spend our money on and people pulling us in different directions. Acxiom has been very much an action and results-oriented enterprise, and our people were considering all these different opportunities. We were in direct media, we were in information products, and we were developing survey solutions for different industries. We were starting to grow, grow, grow – and I was maintaining focus by standing in the background screaming, 'AbiliTec, AbiliTec, AbiliTec!' It was a watershed event for Acxiom when we actually brought our first customer live on that software."

"AbiliTec changed everything for Acxiom," emphasizes Morgan. "There isn't a single person at Acxiom whose job didn't change in some way with this. It's the way we deliver our solutions, it's the way we center our marketing, and it's the way we will craft our products. It's the way we sell, it's the way we partner, it's the way we pay people, it's what we spend our money on for development. This is what I call a transformational time at Acxiom. This transformational period, which is probably going to take five years, will house our transition from primarily a service-delivery company to a more product- driven company."

"In terms of our information products, everything is now AbiliTec-enabled in one consistent infrastructure," Morgan explains. "Acxiom is in a very tightly knit business area now versus where we were some years ago. Our primary capability now is customer data integration. We really are managing informational content using AbiliTec. With AbiliTec and InfoBase, we are delivering a different kind of information. It's things such as best address and household indicators as well as our traditional enhancement variables. We are using the value proposition represented by AbiliTec and InfoBase to build our services and outsourcing opportunities and also – very critically – to understand a whole new marketplace represented by all of our alliance partners. Our products and services enable CDI, which is an integral component of successful customer relationship management (CRM) or e-business projects. Companies are increasingly aware of their need to identify customers and to consistently have a 360-degree view of the customers in real time. Many companies understand the necessity of having demographics of their customers so they can see and understand their customers more fully. Every company that has customers, whether B2B or B2C, is placing this strategy at the very heart of its business – and Acxiom is there to assist with these needs."

"The differentiators that make our information base better than any other are its AbiliTec-based accuracy, a greater number of sources and our amount of enterprise-wide focus on the information base. We're investing more in our products and services so that they're better and more accurate. AbiliTec is the fastest, most accurate customer data integration tool to ever be introduced to the marketplace. It links, in real time, all the information available about a company's customers across the enterprise using proprietary linking technology. It is dramatically reducing the demands placed on mainframe computers and saving thousands of workforce hours. With Acxiom Data Network, AbiliTec's licensees can learn even more about their customers through online data enhancement with the InfoBase repository of demographic and lifestyle data," explains Morgan.

As a company enabling others through consumer data, the excitement could be tempered by consumer concerns about privacy. Acxiom, however, is prepared for the challenges presented by privacy concerns. "We're witnessing a dramatic transitional change in this country in how we deal with information and what consumers and businesses think is appropriate. This change in attitudes is going to affect all companies, not just Acxiom. It's going to add cost and risk for any product or business. Acxiom is very engaged in the process of helping develop a rational information policy for this country," states Morgan.

"At Acxiom, we believe that the unrestricted flow of information has been one of the most underrated drivers of the U.S. economy, saving businesses and their customers vast amounts of time and money. Of course, any company that uses consumer data must also take steps to protect the consumer's right to control how it is used – a core focus of our business since we first entered the data products arena. This means giving individuals access to their own data, establishing a process for correcting inaccurate information and respecting the consumer's right to privacy. It's important to realize that completely shutting off the flow of consumer information would paralyze the economy. AbiliTec's success at linking customer information across the enterprise is the same technology that will allow businesses to comply – on a company-wide basis – with their own customers' demands for information access, privacy and correction in a way that hasn't previously been available. At the same time, we're lobbying for more stringent privacy guidelines for the direct marketing, e-commerce and data industries independently and through our active membership in organizations such as the Individual Reference Services Group, Online Privacy Alliance, and the Direct Marketing Association. Acxiom was a founding member of the Online Privacy Alliance and Individual Reference Services Group and embraces the landmark Privacy Promise of the Direct Marketing Association," emphasizes Morgan.

Acxiom is also committed to the global requirements of its current and future customers. According to Morgan, "The global challenge is to be able to develop the AbiliTec product with the expertise to be able to serve the Fortune 1000 companies that all have a key global component in their strategies and want Acxiom to be as global as they are. For us to be successful, we've got to have technology infrastructure or data content infrastructure. The critical mass that we need globally does not exist yet because the industry is not as well-developed around the whole customer as we are, but we're optimistic we can gain critical mass through partnering."

  • Publicly traded (Nasdaq: ACXM)
  • Number of Employees: More than 5,900
  • Revenue: $1.06 billion in the 12 months ended 12/31/00
  • Net Income: $90.3 million in the 12 months ended 12/31/00
  • Last book read: Machine Shop Practices
  • Favorite entertainer: Barbra Streisand
  • Most entertaining game: Bridge
  • Most respected politician: Winston Churchill
  • Dream car: 360 Modena Ferrari
  • Perfect vacation spot: Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
  • Favorite sports team: Arkansas Razorbacks
  • "Can't live without it" food: Chinese
  • Hobby: Designing and building racecars, flying
  • "Can't live without it" beverage: Jack Daniel's
  • Most admired individual: Jack Welch, GE (vision, willingness to make tough decisions, ability to stay on course)

Morgan knows the value of partnerships. "We're looking to grow all segments of the business, but clearly percentage-wise, the biggest revenue growth is going to come from our Abili-Tec and InfoBase products. However, if you look at the large base that we have right now, big dollar revenue numbers for future years will come from our services business. Our global partnerships represent our biggest opportunity. The only companies that are going to succeed in the new economy are the ones that partner well. We've learned a great deal over the past 30-plus years about managing customer data. We have new tools, and we're going to apply these tools enterprise-wide using the application software that is produced by other companies. We're becoming an infrastructure company and not a full-service provider. We now partner with not only CA, Compaq, IBM, Oracle, Siebel and others with whom we have agreements, but also with our large customers' IT departments because we're now delivering infrastructure. Then, using the expertise of all the integrators like the PricewaterhouseCoopers of the world, we'll deploy this solution across the enterprise."

While partnering is a strong component of his leadership strategy, Morgan knows that success would not be possible without a dedicated team. "I really focus on the people aspects of what we do and understand that it is only through people that you have a successful business. It's people that create technology, serve customers and run a company. To succeed, you must hire good people, give them a clear focus and hold them accountable for their results," states Morgan. He summarizes the strategy that has led to Acxiom's success by saying, "If you forget about the human factor, the customers or the financial results, you're not going to have a successful business."

Products and services aside, it's clear that Morgan is leading a strong company. One of the tools Morgan uses to continuously monitor and strengthen Acxiom is the employee satisfaction survey. "One of the biggest events of the year at Acxiom is not when we get our year-end numbers, but when we get the associate satisfaction survey results. This year, 90 percent of all Acxiom associates completed the survey that measures personal employee experience, satisfaction with the workplace environment, evaluation of the leaders and opportunities for growth. We are able to track our performance and make decisions as appropriate," states Morgan. It's therefore not surprising that Acxiom has been recognized on numerous occasions as an outstanding employer. Proudly speaking of their 1998, 1999 and 2001 selection as one of Fortune's 100 Best Places to Work in America, Morgan pronounces, "Of the thousands of great companies in America, to be included in the Fortune ranking just once is an honor, but three times is incredible."

Morgan and Acxiom have endured the demise of the dot-coms, the initial outcry regarding consumer privacy and the Y2K scare and there's substantial evidence that the team will continue truckin' – or endurance racing, as the case may be. Morgan is quick to note, "The Acxiom that existed five or six years ago and the Acxiom that exists today are rather different. Even though people are growing to understand AbiliTec and its customer data integration concept, it's still pretty new. We are now a very different Acxiom in terms of our core strategy and what and how we're delivering in terms of value. With our demonstrated capacity for growth and the promise of AbiliTec, we believe that Acxiom's opportunities are now greater than ever."

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