ND Founders Profile #131: From Humble Roots, this Ground Zero FouNDer Is Bringing Jobs and Respect to Minority Frontline Workers

Author: Melanie Lux

Nd Founders Seth Fb


Company Founded: Morales Group Year Graduated: 2014
Title: CEO Degree: MBA
Location: Indianapolis, IN Residence Hall:  

Seth Morales firmly believes in Luke 12:48 “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

Given his family’s roots—his grandparents were migrant farm workers originally from Mexico who traveled to Indiana each summer to pick tomatoes—who would have ever imagined this man, this Latino man, would rise to the highest heights in sport, in business, and finally, within his community. It’s as if his grandparents, Manuel and Josephine who eventually found a permanent home in Indiana, are by his side, cheering.

Truth be told, there have been a number of important people in his life who have challenged him to reach beyond real or imagined limits to make an impact, from family members to the University of Notre Dame. His own father, Tomas Morales, inspired by setting a high bar. The senior Morales was the first in the family to graduate from college and work for large, publicly traded companies as an engineer.

Then there was former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees. The story is a favorite of Morales, who played alongside Brees for three years as a walk-on receiver and punt returner.

“I wasn’t heavily recruited in high school and went to Butler University my freshman year. I transferred to Purdue as a walk on and it was a tough; Coach Joe Tiller was not a fan of walk-ons. I earned a starting spot and sophomore year, caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Drew to beat Ohio State, which gave us the opportunity to win the Big Ten Championship and play in the 2001 Rose Bowl.”

During college, Morales dreamed of becoming a football coach, so he majored in Education. His dream was replaced with a more pragmatic career in sales. For five years, Morales lived and breathed sales and business development, learning the challenging but foundational part of every business.

Back at home, his grandfather was dying from cancer. “My grandfather asked my dad to make an impact for others. Not long after, in 2005, dad quit his corporate job to start a staffing company with a partner in Indianapolis.”

The Morales Group had good intentions to provide staffing for frontline light industrial jobs, but growth was slow to materialize. Morales pitched the idea of joining the company as a ground zero founder in charge of business development. “Every day was a struggle trying to figure out how to keep the lights on and cover payroll for a handful of employees. Dad gave me a chance. I spent the next 10 years in sales and sales management growing the business from $850,000 in annual revenue to more than $145 million in annual revenue. In 2020, I was named CEO.”

It was a long, grit-filled climb. However, two things happened that fueled a new passion for life, personally and professionally. Morales explains. “In 2008, I met my future wife, Jackie, at work. She was in sales and marketing. I asked my dad for the greenlight to date her. Fortunately, he said yes. She became the x-factor in our business.”

Four years later, Jackie Morales convinced her husband they should both return to school to earn their Master of Business Administration degrees. She applied and was accepted to the University of Notre Dame. Not to be outdone, Morales applied and was accepted, too.

“What attracted us to Notre Dame was the school’s brand of service-based leadership, and the idea of working with a purpose to make an impact, not just a profit, with business. This resonated with us, and ultimately transformed my approach to The Morales Group, “ he explains.

Inspired by what he’d been taught at Notre Dame, Morales whittled the company’s 12 core values  down to three: be humble, be courageous, be a light. “I learned to love the gift of service and focused on building our culture. But I have to give Jackie credit. She ramped up our community service in a big way and we all ran with it. This gave the Morales Group a sense of purpose that really propelled the company forward.”

Having a sense of purpose and commitment to serving others became a critical differentiator in the highly competitive staffing industry where companies like The Morales Group place temporary workers in short-term and work-to-hire roles. Morales’ niche, light industrial which includes warehouses and distribution centers where workers pack and ship goods all day long, is a particularly tough space for staffing companies.

“It’s a very difficult labor force to recruit and retain. These are typically low-skill jobs that require physical, tedious labor. Many workers come from a diverse background from all over the country and world. Turnover can be high because it’s not seen as a career but as a transaction: I work, you pay,” Morales explains.

“We set out to change that. Our workforce today is 90 percent minority based including many who have migrated or immigrated to the United States. About half of our corporate team—which is a huge human resources department on steroids—is multi-lingual. We treat people with respect. Pay ranges from $17 to $22 an hour. We see it as an honor to serve and provide for our employees.”

This attitude of going far beyond what is required of a typical staffing company, has made The Morales Group a very “sticky” employer of contract labor. The company currently has from 2,000 to 3,000 employees in temporary and work-to-hire roles across Indiana and Kentucky. Since 2005, the company has made more than 200,000 job placements. Workers who come for that first assignment often stick around for years.

Not that the company has always seen smooth sailing. Morales admits to making mistakes along the way. Among the biggest challenges to date was the global pandemic that sparked economic and work-from-home lockdowns in spring 2020. “For the first 90 days, no one ordered people from us for their distribution centers and manufacturing jobs. All we could do was wait it out,” Morales says.

People need to eat, and America’s supply chains were among the first businesses to re-open, though most never really closed. The pandemic required big changes from Morales. “Because physical interactions were limited, we moved to virtual hiring. Traditionally, you can’t hire anyone without going through I-9 forms in person, but during the pandemic that was required virtually. That removed an important barrier to getting people back to work.”

The pandemic was particularly hard on the Morales Group’s culture. “I found it difficult to lead and operate with our corporate team working remotely,” Morales admits. “As restrictions were lifted, we transitioned to a hybrid model. Today, we’re happy to be back in the office full force. We found out how essential it is to have that personal interaction to fuel our energy.”

Three years post pandemic, The Morales Group is facing new challenges ignited by COVID. “The pandemic put workers on the sidelines, with many people opting out of coming back. A lot of Baby Boomers have chosen to retire, which has created a real problem. The Boomer generation came to work and kicked butt. That attitude is not always there with the different generations. There’s a huge skills gap and filling positions now takes a lot more work,” Morales says.

There is a silver lining because the demand for people in supply chain and manufacturing is strong and those who want to work are finding employers willing to ante up better pay and benefits. “For those who are looking for work in these industries, this is a good time to find a job,” he says.

In this new era, Morales has found willing workers among those newcomers to America from countries such as Venezuela and Haiti. “If they are legally eligible to work, it’s a big positive. We’ve found people who are highly educated but their degree doesn’t transfer here. Still, they want to work and are willing to take less pay to get a start in America. They are diamonds in the rough.”

Now, with a cascading series of layoffs in the tech sector, an entirely new population of potential employees is entering the contract labor market. The Morales Group, which now has grown from the original five people to more than 150 team members, is benefiting. “We have added some incredible talent for our team.

The biggest win, says Morales, is the impact The Morales Group has on the Indianapolis community. In addition to creating jobs, Morales says they have used the company to give back in a variety of ways. Each year, the team contributes more than 3,000 volunteer hours to local charities. They have built 23 homes for a nonprofit called Homes for Hope, which is a part of the global organization Youth With A Mission.

Says Morales, “We’re a cause disguised as a business.”

When not working, Morales volunteer his personal time to multiple organizations. He currently is on the board of directors for four nonprofits, serving as the chair of the Indiana Latino Institute. “I see it as both a responsibility and a legacy to my family to be an advocate in Indiana’s Latino community, which is the state’s fastest growing minority group.”

Asked what advice he would offer to others who want to start a company and Morales offered this: “The success rate of startup companies is not great, so you have to go all in. Make sure you have a purpose and understand why you are doing it. Lastly, be willing to burn your boat at the shore. Once you’re in, there is no retreat!”