This is the final story in a five-part series about family businesses with deep roots in the area economy.
In his entire life, Milton Morris has had a boss for only 30 days.
The oldest of five boys born to a Sully County farmer, Morris took over the family farm before being drafted to fight in Vietnam.
After returning home and working only a month for someone else, he opted for new management – his own.
So in 1970 he sold his Chevrolet Chevelle to buy an old pickup truck and a welder, and set out to service irrigation pipes for local farmers.
It was a humble beginning for Morris Inc., the wide-reaching irrigation, construction and manufacturing company that would employ hundreds of people and sell its services around the globe within a few short decades.
In those early years Morris wanted to start designing his own irrigation systems, so he journeyed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the center of sprinkler irrigation education at the time. It was first time he had set foot on a college campus.
After finding an expert in the field, Morris said he wanted to learn about irrigation but was told he had to take either a two- or four-year course on the subject. After some finagling, Morris walked away with the necessary course books to study. It was this private study where he learned what he needed to know about pumping costs, horsepower and design, he said.
With that knowledge, and after hiring some capable engineers, the company jumped into the irrigation design and installation business. Morris estimates that in 20 years, Morris Inc. installed systems for 70,000 acres.
When that industry slowed down, he began looking for other projects. His irrigation equipment could be used for some construction work, so he began taking on rural water and utility projects. Construction led to manufacturing, and today Morris Inc. handles asphalt, aggregate mining equipment, and even stonework, in addition to construction and irrigation.
The company’s machinery can be found across the country and internationally in places such as Canada, Mexico and Germany. And, because of his reputation, Morris has also spent time in Ecuador, Peru and Pakistan to put in pivot irrigation systems.
Morris said it was the simple thrill of taking things apart and making something work for a customer that has driven his company to its current height.
“Money has never really motivated me. I think the thing that motivates me is to be able to do something for somebody and have them feel good about it. I like challenges – somebody says I can’t do something, I’ll probably have to say I’ll prove them wrong,” he said.
Today the company employs about 230 people and Morris said it’s constantly searching for help. If business holds they will be pushing 300 in a year’s time, he said.
Morris said, like any company, his success is based on having quality people. Not only in hiring, but in helping them to grow.
“I think as an employer, your responsibility is to hang your hat on the fact that you can help people be better at what they are doing rather than criticize them for what they’re not capable of doing,” he said.
While the 42-year-old Morris Inc. is a child compared to some of the older, venerable companies in the area, it is positioned to become a new business dynasty. Morris and his wife, Dawn, who is in charge of human resources, have five children – two sons and three daughters - who are all involved with the company, even the daughter living in Arizona.
It’s not an easy process for a company to transition between a first and second generation, Morris said, and it has to be actively worked on or it probably won’t happen.
“So I think we’re trying to instill into the family that there are certain things you are going to do and there’s a lot of give and take. If we can do that I think it would go to the third and fourth generation. But it wouldn’t happen if it was just on a hope and a prayer, because then I say it would probably fail,” Morris said.
And though his first welder has since turned into 25 higher-tech models, Morris still has that first pickup truck. Reflecting on how his business started, he said back then he had no idea how difficult a road lay before him.
“If I had known everything I probably wouldn’t have sold that car,” he said.