"It is a messy story. In the big picture, this could be called a narrative of America since World War II. But in the micro telling, think of it this way: The man who opened your lives to Big Data finally bares his own."
Charles D. Morgan
Matters of Life and Data
Mother, Father, my little brother, Speer, and me, in the early 1950s in Fort Smith, Arkansas. My father worked at Speer Hardware, Mother’s family business, where he was browbeaten by my pompous Uncle Ralph, who’d been born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth and looked down on anyone who really had to work. In 1953, largely to stake out a measure of independence, Father bought a small, 10-room motel, and we moved in as owner/operators. Father still worked at the hardware store, but now he wasn’t totally controlled by Uncle Ralph.
The motel—we had five two-room units like this one—was a life laboratory for me. I started working there at age 10, handling repairs, cleaning bathrooms, checking in guests after school. At the motel, I learned two things that have helped me in my business career—managing money and talking to grownups one on one. I also learned that I liked being essentially my own boss, managing my own time, and earning my own money. A car nut from the get-go, I bought my first automobile at age 12 from my motel earnings.
The year 1966 was a pivotal one. After graduating college in mechanical engineering, I really wanted to work on a racing crew. Fortunately I came to my senses and joined IBM, where the hardware geek fell in love with software. At about the same time, I also fell for a hometown girl, Jane Dills, and we got married. Our daughter, Carrie, came along the next year, and son Rob followed six years later.
At IBM, I seemed to have landed where I was supposed to be—in both 1969 and 1970, I was named Outstanding IBM Systems Engineer in the state of Arkansas. But in fact the most important thing that happened to me at IBM was meeting Alex Dietz, who shared my love of both machines and racing. I arranged my schedule so I could knock off early and ride motocross with Alex. We didn’t know it then, but he and I would go on to play huge roles in each other’s lives.
In 1972, as IBM was about to promote me into a life of corporate suffocation, I jumped ship to a small company called Demographics, which rented computer time to clients. Alex had moved there earlier and I joined him as “co-president,” an ultimately unworkable idea. Soon Alex transferred to Saudi Arabia to launch a Middle Eastern branch of Demographics, but when he became involved with our Saudi benefactor’s mistress, he had to leave the company. I traveled to Jeddah to clean up the mess and eventually bought his shares. Demographics would one day become Acxiom Corporation
In 1978, I finally got the chance to race, beginning a several-decade career that would culminate in 19 wins, including the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours at Daytona. Racing soon became a family activity that even Jane embraced. We bought an RV to travel to weekend races, and before my racing career was over my son Rob and I would race as a team. In this picture at Daytona from the early ‘80s, I had lost the rear deck lid and finished with no wing—but I did finish.
Life at Demographics was tough, but we had put together a strong core management team (Jim Womble, Rodger Kline; Jerry Adams; Jennifer Phillips; Alex Dietz even returned to the fold) and by the late 1970s we had reinvented ourselves as an early data mining company. In 1983 we went public, and suddenly all of us who had worked so hard to build Acxiom Corporation were worth big money on paper. Here I am in the mid-80s with Sam Walton and then-Governor Bill Clinton at a meeting of the Arkansas Business Council, known jokingly as “The Good Suit Club.”
The mid-‘90s brought both personal loss and personal gain. Here I am with Speer and Mother following Father’s 1996 funeral.
And here I am at a race with Susie Peeples, whom I met shortly after Jane and I split. Our marriage had been in real trouble for a long time, and the long, drawn-out divorce only added to the turbulence. It was such a high-stakes divorce that I was even invited on Oprah’s show to discuss it. I politely declined.
The divorce coincided with the most dramatic growth in Acxiom’s history. Between 1990 and 2000, our customer base and revenue increased approximately tenfold, while the amount of data we were managing rose by a factor of a thousand. The divorce was over in late ’97, and Susie and I were married the next May. On our honeymoon, we fell in love with Cabo San Lucas. We never planned to buy or build there, but a year and a half later we had built this house overlooking the sea. So much for best-laid plans.
As we early employees of Demographics grew Acxiom Corporation into a global behemoth with 7000 employees worldwide and $1.5 billion in revenue, everything became a lot less fun—I felt nibbled to death by stockholders, lawyers, proxy battles, and the administrative hell of running a company that size. In 2008, after 35 years, I was forced out in a boardroom coup, and soon Jim Womble and Rodger Kline were out too. Alex Dietz worked there until 2014! Surprisingly, in time a new CEO of Acxiom hung a painting of us four founders in the lobby, and named the company auditorium for me.
Just when I thought my next act was retirement, along came an opportunity to invest in a startup company called First Orion. . . .