Don Morgan • Written August 2014
Don Morgan is Senior Partner and Co-Founder of GMA Research, a leading full service market research firm headquartered in Bellevue, Washington serving a wide range of clients in transportation, tourism, retail, high tech, health care and consumer packaged goods.
Don founded GMA Research along with Richard Grant in 1970 with the first office in Portland, Oregon. The two met while completing their MBAs at Portland State University. GMA grew from a small, fledgling research boutique agency to a multi-office, international research enterprise with a national and international reputation for providing high quality, strategic, actionable market intelligence. While the original name of the firm was Grant-Morgan Associates, very early on the name was changed to GMA Research. Today the firm is managed by two senior partners, Don Morgan and Dick Anderson (who is informally referred to as the “A” in GMA).
Over the years, GMA has served the needs of long standing client relationships with major brands including Boeing, United Airlines, Holland America, Macy’s, Whitbread Breweries, Ivar’s, Anthony’s Restaurants, Heinz, Sunkist, Destination Marketing Association International, Alaska Tourism, Palm Beach CVB, Essentia Water and Fisher Broadcasting. In addition, Don has assisted a number of arts organizations including ENCORE Media, Seattle Symphony where he served on the board of directors, Seattle Opera, Seattle International Film Festival, Seattle Repertory Theatre with audience research and development.
In health care, representative clients include Regence, Swedish, Overlake, Evergreen, SCCA, Fred Hutchinson, Franciscan Health System, Kadlec Medical Center and many other providers throughout the US.
Don graduated with an MBA from Portland State University with an emphasis in Management Science and Research. He lectures and has taught at several leading universities including the University of Puget Sound and the University of Washington as well as a guest speaker at conferences and symposiums throughout the country on research techniques, consumer trends and conducted seminars on research planning including focus groups and survey methods.
In addition, he has authored a number of articles and white papers on research methods, marketing and public opinion surveys.
Don is active in several professional associations include Marketing and Communications Executives International, American Marketing Association (Past President, Puget Sound Chapter), Puget Sound Research Forum, and the ESOMAR (European Society of Market Research.)
He has also been featured in Time Magazine, Marketing, Marketing News and on a CBS Television special. He has written guest columns and articles on marketing research and consumer trends for a number of trade journals including Marketing and Media Inc and contributed to several leading business books.
Don is also a certified expert witness in using survey research as evidence in litigations involving trademark/trade dress litigation and other intellectual property rights.
One evening in the Fall of 1970, I was sitting with my fellow MBA student (and soon to be co-founder of GMA Research), Richard Grant, at Sam’s Hofbrau House next to Portland State University in downtown Portland, sharing a pizza and couple of beers. We’d just finished an evening class where we completed a practicum course that involved each student being assigned a company to work with on a case study. Our professor, Dr. James Manning, had instructed us to act like Peter Drucker, only younger, and advise our “clients” on what to do to improve their “enterprise”—although in those days, we didn’t use that kind of language.
Richard and I got to talking about our assignments and how we enjoyed consulting with companies and that it might just be something we would consider doing once we received our MBAs and graduated. A few more beers and slices later, we became even more excited about this prospect. And before we knew it, we’d hammered out a draft partnership agreement to become management consultants. And we wrote it on a napkin. How typical of entrepreneurs—then and now.
We decided to call ourselves “Grant Morgan Associates.” That seemed like a good idea, since his name was Grant and mine was Morgan, and even though we didn’t have any “associates”, it always sounded better if you pretended like you did. We even went so far as to come up with the tagline…“The Young Professionals,” because we thought that, rather than hire a seasoned, experienced professional like Peter Drucker, companies would much rather hire a couple of young MBAs who, other than academic training, had no idea what they were doing. But that didn’t stop us. Of course, we discovered pretty quickly that calling ourselves “The Young Professionals” was not such a good idea after all.
Our first break came not as management consultants (no one wanted to hire a couple of “20-somethings” with no experience) but as market researchers. Our first real client was the Blitz Weinhard Brewery in Portland. Our professor, Dr. James Manning, had recommended to the marketing guys at Blitz Weinhard to talk to us about doing a consumer survey. At the time, Blitz also was bottling a lower-price brand (Bohemian) and they were worried consumers were purchasing Bohemian, thinking it was just Blitz beer with a different label. So we designed our very first consumer survey questionnaire and went knocking on doors, asking people if they drank beer and some questions about Blitz and other brands. In those days, we were just beginning to use the telephone to conduct surveys and the standard method of interviewing was face-to- face or door-to-door. I can remember going out on Winter evenings, knocking on doors and asking people if we could ask them a few questions. This was my first taste of what all interviewers experience…rejection. The bane of the interviewer—then and now—is people not wanting to be talked with, and I got lots of doors slammed in my face.
I also experienced first-hand what was then called the “German Shepherd Factor” in market research. It simply meant that homes with large dogs were underrepresented in surveys, since interviewers feared approaching these houses. Of course with the advent of the telephone survey and now online surveys, the German Shepherd Factor no longer is a consideration. But the unwillingness of the public to participate in surveys continues to be a major problem for our industry.
We did finish the Blitz Weinhard consumer survey and spent many long hours preparing the report, which we wanted to be very impressive so the client would hire us for other work and recommend us to other companies. At the time, Blitz Weinhard was like the Rainier Brewing Company in Seattle in stature and reputation. Our survey found that the consumer was not purchasing Bohemian, he low-end brand, thinking it was Blitz beer in a different label. They just liked the taste and the price, so Blitz continued to produce and market that brand without worry it was taking market share away from its flagship product.
To show how naive we were, when we finished the presentation and were congratulated on a job well done, we expected not only to get paid but also to receive a “tip” on top of our fee. When the check arrived for the exact amount of our invoice we were greatly disappointed, since we had planned on spending the tip on a nice dinner and drinks on the town.
Blitz Weinhard did recommend us, however, and the rest is history, as they say. In fact the Rainier Brewing Company heard of our work from the marketing folks at Blitz Weinhard and they contacted me to come to Seattle and conduct a consumer survey for Rainier. Heckler Associates was the agency for Rainier and I remember meeting Terry for the first time when I presented a report to the marketing staff at the brewery offices in Seattle. We hit it off well, and I continue to conduct work for his agency. I’ll always remember one thing that happened during the presentation. We used overhead projectors in those days to show the research results (this was long, long before laptop computers and PowerPoint) and the machine I was using was missing the pad on one of the legs. When I tried to move it along the boardroom table, made of expensive mahogany wood, the exposed metal leg made a huge screeching noise and carved a half-inch-deep groove right down the middle of the table. I didn’t know what to do, so I just kept on talking (another life- lessoned learned…Don’t stop, even when you make a mistake, you may never get started again). I did offer later to pay for refinishing the table.
Rainier Brewery referred me to Peoples Bank and I began conducting research for them, which led eventually to work for Boeing. To this day, I continue to work with Boeing on conducting passenger research on each of its models—most recently the Dream Liner 787. Until Boeing moved the corporate office to Chicago, we also would conduct a periodic corporate-image study with the public throughout the USA. I would present the results to the Boeing Board of Directors at the corporate headquarters next to Boeing Field. That was a big thrill for me, but I learned another life lesson in the process. I needed an image of a commercial jet airplane for the title page of my overhead-projector presentation. So, without really thinking about it, I grabbed some clip art. However—what I had used was an image of an Airbus —not a Boeing—jet! You should have seen the looks on the faces of the Boeing directors when I put up the title page. But they gave me a second chance, and I really did learn that lesson: two sets of eyes are always better than one when it comes to proofing a report, a presentation or a survey questionnaire.
In the mid-70’s, our business in both Portland and Seattle continued to grow . So in 1977, I packed up my wife and our six-month-old daughter and headed to Seattle to open an office of what was now called GMA RESEARCH. No more Grant Morgan Associates, and no more “The Young Professionals”. We were no longer management consultants; we were “market researchers,” which at the time was just beginning to grow as a discipline in the Pacific Northwest.
Between 1970 and today we’ve opened satellite offices opened in Vancouver, B.C., Denver, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and London. We also sold a highly profitable and growing division of the company that focused on media research and were hired by AT&T to pioneer a customer-feedback system called TELSAM (for Telephone Service Attitude Measurement) which remains the industry standard. I’ve conducted literally thousands of projects: surveys, focus groups, product tests, public-opinion studies and political surveys. At one point, I calculated something like 50 million-plus interviews, and that was a few years ago.
I’m still fully engaged in conducting market research for a wide variety of clients in a number of segments. I still very much enjoy what I do and approach each project as a new challenge. Boeing invited me to travel around the world to conduct research as input to the new 787 cabin design and related features. It was quite a trip and the experience of a lifetime.
I’m also involved in providing expert witness testimony in litigations involving trademark law and intellectual property rights. While I can’t yet charge some of those hourly rates senior partners of law firms do, it’s very interesting, stimulating and challenging work that I greatly enjoy.
But it all began back in 1970 over a few beers and slices of pizza at Sam’s Hofbrau House in Portland. Richard Grant retired some time ago and my current business partner, Richard Anderson (whose last name fit nicely with our GMA RESEARCH brand) and myself continue to enjoy the challenges of helping our clients make better decisions with strategic insight, through market research.
As Howard Shultz noted as the title of his 2008 best seller…..Onward!