Mike Morse is the CEO of Morse Steel Service, which inventories, processes, and delivers steel commodities and finished steel parts to customers in Northwest and Central Washington. Mike is a fourth generation Morse to carry on his family’s rich history in Whatcom County.
In 1884, Mike’s great-great grandfather, Robert I. Morse, left San Francisco with $3,000 in his pocket, and opened a hardware store—Morse Hardware—in a small town that eventually became the city of Bellingham.
My first question is usually, What brought you to Bellingham? But, you have a long legacy here.
Yeah, I grew up here. My family has been in Bellingham since before it was Bellingham.
To answer that question, Lisa and I moved back here in 2000. I moved away for college in the late 80s. It was a conscious choice to move back. We thought eventually we’d have a family. I had already done some projects for my family’s company—it was fun to think about a workplace where I knew people, and I Iiked them.
Also, there was a tangible thing happening at Morse Steel. A lot of the other things I was looking at were intangible, like software. Stuff that was exciting, but I liked the manufacturing element here.
It’s funny because a lot of people say they want to stay in Bellingham but can’t find a job here, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in Bellingham but really liked the job here. Of course, it’s turned out great. I love being in Bellingham.
Your family opened the first hardware store in Bellingham?
Yeah. I’m horrible with family history, but here’s what I understand: my great-grandfather was the ultimate entrepreneur. He had gotten the message from his family back east that there was nothing for him there—he was the 7th or 8th child on the family farm. He packed up and moved to San Francisco, and did a bunch of things to raise enough capital to come here. He traveled here with some the lumber mill folks; they wanted him to run a supply store. He instead decided to go into business for himself, and off he went.
What’s the relationship between Morse Steel Services and Morse Hardware?
My grandfather, who was the third generation of our company, was an entrepreneur again. He bought the company from his half-brother, and started over. He took it into the steel business in the late 50s as some pieces of the hardware business were slowing down.
Until the late 90s, our company still had elements of materials and supply distribution. We sold the last of that in the late 90s, and have been a steel service center since then.
What do you love best about Bellingham?
I love everything outside. My perfect day in Bellingham would be taking advantage of the water, to take our whole family out on our little boat and run around the San Juan Islands.
What do you like best about your job?
I’m a manufacturing junkie. I’m not a mechanical person, that’s not what I’m good at. But I love the process of manufacturing, and looking at how our business interacts with a customer’s supply chain. Seeing how those things come together, and little niches where we can add value or remove costs. I like getting out and seeing our customers, what they do and how they do it. Then doing the creative piece on our part—asking how we can help, how we can be an asset to them.
What do people not understand about your organization?
[Laughs] The first thing people don’t understand is that we’re not a hardware store. We get that all the time.
You’re pretty heavily imprinted on State Street.
I just saw something the other day on Facebook. A bunch of people that grew up in Bellingham, contemporaries of mine, were jokingly lamenting the stuff that used to be in Bellingham, but isn’t anymore. One of them said, Morse Hardware. And another friend jumped in, and said, It’s still here! We went through that whole thing.
Also, people don’t understand that our business has a dual element—we’re distribution. We buy steel from steel mills, and sell it to manufacturers and fabricators. There’s the whole element of managing an inventory and material handling. We’re also a manufacturer; we do the first step of manufacturing for a lot of customers that use our distribution services.
Do you have local competition?
We have plenty of competition. The nice thing about competition in the steel industry is it’s hard for people to compete from far away. That’s the single biggest reason distribution exists in the steel industry. It’s a heavy, inexpensive commodity. People can’t transport it very far cost-effectively. Our competition comes from Seattle and Portland, but not much farther away than that.
Is there something Bellingham needs?
Honestly, taking advantage of the waterfront would be huge. A lot of people are thinking about the neat things we can do—creatively, commercially, retail. I also think the waterfront is valuable for industrial reasons.
I love the waterfront, and some of the stuff we have. Boulevard Park, the Bay Trail. I also want to see if we can take advantage of some of the industrial opportunities on the waterfront.
Is there a book you’ve read recently that you really liked?
A year ago, my wife and I adopted a little boy. Our third child. His birth mom is from Haiti—she was born there, and immigrated here. Because of David, I’ve been thinking a lot about the country of Haiti, and thinking I don’t understand it. So I’m reading about the history of Haiti.
Haiti has a fascinating, tumultuous history. You can understand from its history why it’s the poorest country in the Western hemisphere today. Its history is really integrated with the United States. The author argues that one of the reasons the US was able to complete the Louisiana Purchase from the French was because the French were so freaked out about their holdings in Haiti and the mess happening there, that they wanted to get rid of it, and dumped it on the United States. Haiti is also the only country in the world that had a successful slave uprising.
Do you have a favorite Bellingham restaurant, brewery, or store?
We live right below the university, so we can walk to the Cliff House. I love walking down on a sunny night to have a pint and some Whiskey Crab Soup.
Do you have a favorite spot downtown?
Maybe this is cheesy, but we go to First Presbyterian Church, and it’s downtown. It’s an important place to me. It’s a place that I feel authentic, and accepted.
What are people surprised to learn about you? Besides that you don’t run a hardware store.
People that know me wouldn’t be surprised, but from the outside looking in—people might be surprised to know that this is a distant, second-place favorite job for me. My first place is being a dad and a husband. I love that job.
If you had to enroll at Western today, what would you major in?
That would be fun to do that again. What I like about this business is supply chain, so I think I’d do something in industrial engineering, supply chain management, that kind of stuff.
They say that Apple’s strength is supply chain. Are there parallels to what you do—the same kind of thing, but with different scale components?
Yeah. It’s very similar. But lower tech. When we talk about what we can do with supply chain, it’s simple things—like managing our customer’s inventory on their site.
We have quite a few customers whose inventory we maintain, and even consign it in their facilities. Like they have a little version of Morse Steel inside their facility. We give them barcode readers so they can scan the material, and tell us what they’re using. The great thing about that is we have a better vision of what’s happening with their inventory.
Instead of waiting for them to order when they think they need something, we have visibility on whenever someone uses something. It helps us manage our inventory. Our customers love it because they have working capital we’ve given them back, they’re not sitting on raw materials inventory. It gives them cash flow. It doesn’t cost us cash flow. If anything, it gives us additional working capital because they’re giving us information that helps us manage our inventory better.
Is there a charity or cause you want to call out in town?
This is fresh in my mind. I just met with the Dean of Students at Cordata Elementary, Sharece Steinkamp,. Her purpose there is to empower students and families. I thought it was so cool.
She builds community for the parents, helping provide co-parents for them to go through life with. he also gives parents resources around parenting skills.
It’s such a cool program to see happening within our schools. And it’s happening on a shoestring, outside of the normal school budget.