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Corporate compassion

The Hope Awards each year recognize outstanding nonprofits, but a for-profit family business shows another way to help

Corporate compassion

Tom Morales, co-founder and CEO of Morales Group Inc. (Charlie Nye/Genesis)

INDIANAPOLISFifteen years ago Tom Morales wasn’t planning to build a $100 million staffing business.

He had lived the American Dream and wanted to share it with immigrants for the second half of his life. The Purdue University grad had climbed the corporate ladder at companies such as Procter & Gamble and Union Carbide. He was looking for a way to give back to the growing Hispanic community in Indy: “I knew there was more to life than just being successful in corporate America.”

Now the Morales Group lobby in this growing city looks like an immigrant welcome center.

The lobby wall features the word “welcome” in several languages. A four-panel painting shows a welcome stance from several cultures. A partially constructed Lego set shows how employees can earn a homebuilding trip to Mexico. Water bottles rest under an “enjoy” sign that also says it in Spanish: “disfrutar.” One or two employees greet each applicant.

Next stop behind the lobby: the application room, with booths and computers. Job candidates fill out their forms on the computers. On one wall is an 8-by-10-foot world map. Then comes an interview in the customer service bullpen. Flags from 30 countries hang from the ceiling. Paintings on the wall display scenes from Central and South America. One of them, La Posada, shows the hope of Hispanic immigrants.

About 100 Morales employees can accommodate more than 20 languages in interviewing. They wind up dealing with immigrants from about 25 countries. Top managers come from Mexico and several Central American nations. “Our workforce is from all over the world. A lot of them are refugees,” says co-founder/owner Morales. “They have the willingness to take any job. They see it as an opportunity.”

His staffing company has become a major Indianapolis player in the city’s temp employment business. The company offers a temporary workforce for businesses that either don’t have full-time employees or use temps on a probationary basis until they are hired. Morales has staked out a niche in temp employment for immigrants.

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Seth Morales, president and COO of Morales Group Inc. (Charlie Nye/Genesis)

His parents came to Indy from Mexico in 1953, one of the first Hispanic families in Indianapolis. Morales’ father Manuel often challenged his successful son: “When are you going to give back?” His father also set the example, informally welcoming Hispanic immigrants to Indy from the 1960s until his death in 2003.

Launching into the second half of his life, the younger Morales set up a resource center with a social work emphasis. He helped some Hispanic immigrants with food or housing, but one of them gave him some divinely inspired direction: “Mr. Tom, thank you for trying to help my family with this resource center. What I would really like you do is to get me a job. I’ll take care of the rest.”

The result has been a closely held, family-controlled business that integrates Scripture into the core of the business in several ways, yet in a style of subtle common grace as opposed to Bible verses on the walls.

With 100 full-time employees, Morales had a payroll of about 11,000 associates in 2017. About 40 percent move into full-time positions with the companies where they start on a temporary basis.

The others work for Morales Group, assigned to temp jobs week to week. Wages range from $9.50 to $16 an hour, depending on job skills. Example: A business would pay Morales $13 an hour per employee, with $10 going to the associate. Then the additional $3, called a markup, is used by Morales to pay for business taxes, workers’ comp, and Morales company administration. Morales negotiates each markup with the hiring company. Revenues were close to $100 million in 2017, with net profit of about 6 percent.

The Morales launch caught a wave of expansion of the temp business in the American economy. Businesses used independent contractors for about 9 percent of the workforce in 1995, with the number rising to 15 percent by 2015. Large businesses sometimes outsource half of their workforce or more to staffing agencies. Sometimes businesses need seasonal employees. Other times they improve their profit margin by cutting employee costs.

“Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people,” Wall Street Journal reporter Lauren Weber wrote last year.

The company tries to maintain a human touch in a fast-moving business. “If it weren’t for associates, we wouldn’t be in business,” says account manager Hansel Garcia. “Each candidate needs to be treated with dignity and respect. We try to put ourselves in their shoes, remembering they may be living paycheck to paycheck.”

The personal touch offers an edge in the growing field of temp employment. Big players such as Manpower, Kelly Services, Adecco, or TrueBlue are publicly traded with an emphasis on quarterly earnings. The larger publicly traded companies tend to miss a segment of the market that works through personal word-of-mouth connections that Morales has in the growing immigrant community in central Indiana.

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Alan Omar-Abbas  (Charlie Nye/Genesis)

PEDRO RODRIGUEZ came to Indianapolis earlier this year from Miami, going homeless for a few days, sleeping in the bus station, washing dishes at a downtown restaurant. He found shelter for a couple of weeks at Wheeler Mission for the homeless, then learned about the Morales Group. There he found not only work but also some help getting an apartment. Now he has a Huffy bike to get to places off the city’s bus routes and is working in manufacturing through Morales.

“It’s been a surprise to me to find a family here at Morales,” he says through a translator: “Nothing in life happens by coincidence.” He fled from Panama to Costa Rica in 1990, later landing American citizenship with his mother because she was born on American soil in the Canal Zone. “Everything has a purpose. When you are a believer and ask God, He always answers back.”

Word-of-mouth referrals are the key to immigrant labor. “We have been a real magnet for the immigrant,” says Morales. “Diversity is very broad even in the Hispanic community. You have the differences between Argentina or Brazil or Ecuador and Bolivia. Then there’s Mexico and Honduras.”

Alan Omar-Abbas, 22, came to Indiana from Turkey, where he was a refugee from war-torn Syria. When terrorists attacked his hometown of Aleppo, he and his family fled across the border to Turkey in 2013. “We went two weeks without food,” he said. “They bombed the school I had attended.”

He found factory work in Istanbul and became popular with fellow workers because he played so well on their intramural soccer team. With United Nations refugee status, he was assigned to Indiana in 2016.

He thought his soccer skills could open doors to play professionally. Instead his multilingual skills have opened doors for him to work in recruiting, translation, and team leadership with Morales Group. He knows Kurdish, Arabic, and English and is learning some Spanish. He still hopes to play pro soccer, but he is working through night classes on his GED certificate and wants to maintain a plan B beyond the soccer field.

Like Omar-Abbas, Sang Zothang found his language skills opened doors. He fled Burma at age 13 with his mother and family, reaching Malaysia. There they applied for asylum in the United States, getting sent to Indianapolis. With 300 other Burmese refugees, Sang finished high school and found some refuge in a growing Baptist church of Burmese refugees. He became a Burmese interpreter for a business client of Morales and is now a coordinator of client services: “I never get tired of helping my people.”

The company has developed partnerships with 15 Indianapolis charities and community centers that help immigrants and refugees get oriented to a new country. Partners include some churches with ESL ministries and immigrant outreach as well as the Immigrant Welcome Center and Burmese American Community Institute. These partnerships turn out to be a good business practice, as Morales gets plenty of references for people looking for work.

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Francisco Mendoza (center) assists a couple applying for temporary positions as forklift operators.  (Charlie Nye/Genesis)

One Morales partner, Jay Height of the Shepherd Community Center in Indy, thinks the Morales long-term approach was more common a generation or two ago but now stands out as unusual: “You don’t treat employees as commodities, but as being made in the image of God.”

Inc. magazine has now named Morales one of the 200 best places to work in the private sector category. In recent years the company also has been one of Indiana’s fastest-growing private businesses, with revenues jumping from $20 million in 2010 to almost $100 million in 2017. The company has expanded to some smaller cities in Indiana, as well as to Louisville.

A newer division at Morales, Acción (Spanish for “action”), provides both a temp force and management. Acción branch manager Ben Slaughter says most of the work is low-skilled but “our team leaders are very skilled in people leadership. We’re not just talking about how many people you need, but how we can help operations be more effective.”

Another expansion for Morales: workforce development, or moving employees up the ladder to better-paying jobs at businesses that want more skilled labor. Vanderbilt grad Kofi Darku has taken up that assignment for the company, in part because his parents came from Ghana and demanded excellence: “In Ghana school is not free. There were repercussions if I did not do well.”

A low unemployment rate in Indiana could help open doors for Darku’s assignment, which he likes to identify with an acronym, ABC. “Right now it is easy for someone to get Any job, but we want to help them get a Better job, then develop a Career, ABC,” he says.

The company is doing well now, but Tom Morales remembers the earlier lean years, when lending institutions would not give him a line of credit. His company was new and small, with little collateral. He sometimes had to turn to friends for personal loans: “The biggest difficulty was making payroll. I knew that many of the associates lived from paycheck to paycheck for what they needed to buy food and pay rent in order to survive.”

The big spurt of growth in recent years offers another challenge: how to know employees personally. “It’s like coming down to the kitchen in the morning at home and seeing someone that I don’t know, sitting there and drinking coffee,” Tom Morales notes. “You become a bit more distant and can’t know everyone,” but he still tries to keep in mind sick children of employees or other hardships he hears about.

Businesses owned by Christians sometimes dedicate a substantial portion of profits to missions and charities for the poor. Morales does that, and also keeps the Bible at the heart of the business by welcoming strangers, putting them to work (2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”), and helping the needy (Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”)

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Lidia Casimiro, recruiter (Charlie Nye/Genesis)

Morales also evaluates employees in part on their volunteer community service. Employees can earn a working vacation—an annual short-term mission trip to build homes at a mission in Mexico—if they fulfill 25 hours of community service a year. Last year 28 employees built two houses through the Homes of Hope ministry that partners with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Tom Morales’ daughter, Dori Hobbs, and son-in-law live in Mexico and serve with the Homes of Hope ministry.

As a business looking beyond the traditional bottom line, Morales has been able to retain top employees and avoid excessive staff turnover, especially among employees who sometimes seek significance more than financial reward.

Account executive Cynthia Hobbs, whose parents moved from Mexico to California before she was born in 1987, said the charitable emphasis has kept her with Morales: “I don’t want to be just part of a money-hungry business that only wants to grow, grow, grow. We’re in a world in which everyone is looking out for themselves. I did not expect to find a place like this.”

In a sense the Morales Group is pursuing two bottom lines: traditional profit plus a welcome to immigrants entering a high-stress, fast-paced industry. “It’s a tough balance,” says Monique Charlebois, director of human resources. “You’ve got orders to fill quickly. If you have associates working too slowly, you have to help them pick up the pace.”

Charlebois says she learned patience by living in four countries by the time she was 10: “I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.” She now finds significance at Morales in “helping a client create a habit of continuous learning. Some of our clients are still working on a high-school diploma because they came from Syria and all their documents are in some rubble.”

Russ Pulliam

Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.