“A can-do attitude for generations.” It is a motto that embodies the culture, work and history of Morris Group International (MGI). MGI’s roots go back many decades when Earl L. Morris started a company in his name as a manufacturer’s representative to sell plumbing products. In 1954, Earl Morris changed the name and established Acorn Engineering.
As Acorn Engineering grew through acquisitions of companies in similar and unrelated fields, the new parent company was formed to encompass all the divisions. In 2012, the Acorn family of companies was renamed Morris Group International to better promote the diverse industries and product lines it represents.
Today, the company has 25 divisions and partnerships, nine locations throughout the world, and 1,800 employees and counting. The company manufactures engineered products that address complex construction and installation needs.
Two common denominators throughout the company are selling through distribution and having a majority of the products specified by the plumbing engineer community. Don Morris, the current president and CEO of MGI, shared insights on the history of the company as a family-owned business as well desires for the future of the company and industry overall.
PHCPPros: What drives your passion for being a part of the plumbing, heating, cooling and piping (PHCP) industry?
DM: The industry has treated us good for many, many years. We’re one of the founding members of the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE). As a young man, when I was in high school, the very first ASPE was in downtown Los Angeles at the Biltmore Hotel. My dad said, “Come on down. We’ve got this ASPE, and I need you as a bartender.” So, my actual job at the first ASPE was to be a bartender in the hospitality room. I was working part-time at the company in the summer, but I was still in high school. I’ve been raised in the industry. It’s about all I’ve known. I have an MBA in finance, but when I got it my dad told me I was going to work for the family business and start as a salesman. That was almost 50 years ago now, and I love it. And obviously, all of us are salespeople one way or the other. I don’t care how big we get, we still have to make a product, sell a product that somebody wants. The passion in our industry is, it’s a good, stable industry. We’ve got good products and we’ve been here a long time. We continue to want to expand and grow in what we understand, what we know.
PHCPPros: What sets MGI apart from its competitors?
DM: MGI is a privately-held group of companies that are very independent. I’m a little bit crazy, because I have 26 to 28 direct reports. Everybody running one of our MGI divisions reports directly to me. I tell them the good news takes care of itself, if you need me it’s got to be bad news — and we’ll get together, roll up our sleeves, and fix it. Probably the thing that makes MGI viable is that we have entrepreneurial spirt in every one of our divisions. Everybody running a division knows that’s theirs. Sure, they don’t own it. But, I hand them the keys, they open the door in the morning, they work all day, at night they put the alarm on and close the door. If they got a problem, I’ll be there. I have my children in the business, three of them. They’ll be there. We have a lot of senior management, they’ll jump in. If we’ve got a problem, everybody works together and we fix it.
PHCPPros: What does MGI look for when acquiring a company?
DM: You know, when we acquire companies, they have to fit in our culture. I don’t think I’ve ever acquired a company from a public company, because normally when companies are public they don’t fit in our culture; they have a different mindset. So, the majority of the companies that we acquired or started from scratch (because a lot of our divisions we started from scratch, built them from the ground up), normally it has to be private-held. It has to be a reason to want to join with us, and it has to normally be succession. I’m fortunate with three of my children in the business. But, a lot of people aren’t. They may have no succession with their next generation, and they’re looking for an exit strategy. And, that’s what I’m looking for. The company doesn’t have to fit 100 percent in our distribution model. But, it has to fit in the manufacturing arena with us.
PHCPPros: What do you see happening for MGI in the next 10 years?
DM: Probably one of the biggest things we worry about is the “Amazon Effect,” which is happening with all the industries. I don’t care what industry you’re in, you can’t avoid it. Our websites have been enhanced. Our digital marketing has been enhanced. The way we’re all doing business today is different than what we were doing five years ago, 10 years ago. Everything is quicker. The delivery times have shrunk, they’re still not quick enough. Quick enough would be you order it and in 15 minutes it shows up to your door. I think our challenge as companies is to continue to evolve with the industries and stay relevant. Otherwise, you’ll be like a dinosaur. You’ll be sitting there on your back with your legs up in the air.
PHCPPros: How do you attract new talent to MGI?
DM: New talent in the company and keeping the company viable is very, very important. Everybody is now talking about the lack of employees and that you can’t get employees. I don’t believe that. We have had very little problem getting employees. We don’t want employees that are just going to come in and make it a quick turnaround and go back out the door. We use temporary agencies for that kind of work. But once our employees get past the 2-, 3-year mark, we just don’t lose people. We very seldom ever lose people. I have them reporting to me on turnover rate. If we’re losing people, we’re doing something wrong. We either had the wrong manager in place, we had the wrong policies in place, something’s happening. You should not lose people. People don’t want to switch jobs. People would prefer staying at a good company and having a stable environment, and we provide that.
PHCPPros: As a family business, what are MGI’s plans for succession?
DM: I’ve been fortunate enough to have five children. I’ve got three of my children in the business. My daughter, Kristin, is 28 years here, and she heads up the Whitehall and Neo-Metro divisions. My son Randall is a vice president of Potter Roemer and Elmdor, and he’s 23 years here. And my youngest son that’s in the business, Barrett, he’s 16 years here and he’s senior vice president of Acorn Engineering. So my children combined, I think that trumps me at 50. They’ve been here a long time. They’ve been raised with their grandfather. He was a heavy influence on them, and of course I’ve been a heavy influence on them. They, like me, have come up through the ranks. They are all college educated. But that’s fine, that doesn’t mean a lot. What’s more important is that they understand the people, the culture, and they want to perpetuate it.
PHCPPros: What hopes do you have for the next generation in the industry?
DM: When I came in a long time ago everybody said our generation was different than the prior generation. I hear that stuff all the time. I don’t believe there are a lot of differences in the generations. You know, millennials get a bad wrap for some things, but they’re doing things differently. I mean, look at me. I’m carrying around in my pocket an iPhone. I’m on social media; Facebook and Instagram. I’m checking it all the time. I wasn’t doing that 10 years ago. I think we just have to evolve. One thing is I like to surround myself with younger people and older people. Our company is made up of many younger managers and then a lot of older managers. We like to have mentoring back and forth. Probably they meet in the middle and it gets done. So, I don’t think there’s a millennial problem; I don’t believe in it. I think people are people. You have to treat them right, and you have to give them an area that they can be successful in. And you have to give them their space. One thing my dad was great with with me, he gave me my space. He allowed me to develop, make mistakes.
PHCPPros: What is next for MGI?
DM: You never know where Morris Group International is going to go next. We keep our eyes open. In our manufacturing scheme, we have our own injection molding company. We actually started from scratch Acorn Bee, which is a Bee Frames. But we had the capability of manufacturing the product within MGI at our Acorn-GenCon Plastics Division. So, the product made sense to us that way. It isn’t a product specified by plumbing engineers or put in by plumbing contractors. But, it fits in our plant utilization. So, I don’t know where the next acquisition is going to come from. We’re looking all the time. I ask our people to keep their eyes open. If they see a good company, regardless of size, that hasn’t been purchased and re-sold to private equity, and re-sold to another private equity, then I’m interested.