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Morgan, Preston Give Advice, Share Perspectives at Economic Future Forum

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Mike Preston, the executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and Charles Morgan, a longtime leader of the Arkansas technology industry, were the keynote speakers for the final day of the International Economic Development Council’s annual Economic Future Forum at the Little Rock Marriott Hotel.

Morgan, the former CEO of Acxiom Corp. of Conway, now leads First Orion Corp. of Little Rock, a startup founded in 2008. First Orion focuses on technology that aims to stop scam phone calls. The company scans about 240 million phone calls a day, trying to root out numbers making scam calls. 

During remarks on Tuesday, Morgan said that some of the customers they work with are caught off guard by the company’s Arkansas location.

Morgan said a cell phone carrier executive asked a First Orion staffer where the company was located, at which point the staffer told him Little Rock. “Oh really, come on. No, where are you really?” the executive responded.

“He literally did not believe we were located in Little Rock because he just had the idea that if you weren’t on the left coast or the right coast that you couldn’t do something like that,” Morgan said.

Morgan said he doesn’t agree with that line of thinking.

“What I discovered with Acxiom, just like I discovered at First Orion, if you can fund it and you can hire the skills or create the skills, you can build extraordinary tech companies anywhere — anywhere,” he said.

First Orion has been keeping up with technology innovations, but policy and education programs have a way to go, Morgan said. 

“Every single job is going to be seriously impacted by this rush of technology,” Morgan said. “All this is just saying that we’re going to have big problems and if we don’t recognize the impact this is going to have on us.”

Preston, the executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Council, spoke after Morgan and shared some of his experiences working with Gov. Asa Hutchinson in attracting foreign investment in Arkansas.

In 2008, the ADEC opened an office in China. After nearly a decade, those efforts are starting to pay off, as companies from the Shandong province have announced plans to invest $1.7 billion dollars in Arkansas in the past 14 months, Preston said.

“As the governor alluded to, it takes time,” Preston said. “We’ve had to be very patient. We’ve had to court a lot of companies, work a lot of the channels.”

Preston offered advice to fellow economic development leaders in the room.

“Don’t announce and walk away,” he said. “Announcement is still a part of the first step, we’ll call it, there’s so much more that goes into it. So you announce the project, you cut the ribbon, everyone smiles and it’s great. You got a lot of work to do after that — it doesn’t end there.”

The investing companies will need help with permitting, community engagement, taxes and shipping, among others things, Preston said.

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