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PROFILE • YOUNG GUNS • MANAGEMENT TIPS • MANAGEMENT TEAM • BUSINESS ACUMEN
“I was so focused on being at the top of the mountain that I didn’t stop to savor some of the most incredible views of my life during the journey. So many of the very best memories occur while you are climbing the mountain.”
Blazing New Roads Developer John “Thunder” Thornton survives housing collapse, still in the game BY DAVE FLESSNER
fter the wettest year in a decade, the red clay beneath the new roads being erected atop Jasper Mountain is still too muddy for workers to pour gravel or asphalt on the newest phase. But behind the wheel of his Porsche Cayenne, John “Thunder” Thornton is undeterred in showing off his newest real estate venture. Thornton turns the wheel of his 4-wheel-drive SUV and heads cross-country across the plateau where he is developing the second phase of his Jasper Highlands development, confident he won’t be stuck in the muddy ruts ahead. “This is as beautiful of a spot as anywhere in the country,” Thornton brags as he gestures to the Tennessee River valley below. It’s the kind of drive and passion the 60-year-old developer has demonstrated throughout his business career. PHOTOGRAPHY BY TIM BARBER
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John “Thunder” Thornton
THORNTON AMASSED A FORTUNE making and selling rugs to Walmart in the 1980s, selling Wyoming ranch land to millionaires in the 1990s and developing resort and golf course developments across eight states in the past decade. In many of those ventures, Thornton blazed his own path, risking his fortune to pursue his next dream. “When I really believe in something, I know it will be successful and I’ve never been more passionate about any project than I am about Jasper Highlands,” he says. Thornton’s business fortunes are now dependant upon the success of the 8,893 acres of mountaintop land he acquired in Marion County, Tennessee in January 2008 just before the housing collapse hit the market. Thornton was developing projects in Tennessee, Wyoming, Montana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Hawaii prior to the Great Recession. But the demand for luxury and resort homes plunged when the housing bubble burst. Two major East Tennessee golf course projects that Thornton initiated in the past decade and a half — the 1,450-acre Tennesse National in Loudon County and the 578-acre Rarity Club in Marion County — were sold to other developers. At Rarity Club, Thornton says Maryville developer Mike Ross failed to complete what he promised, which left the golf course project unfinished and cost Thornton $14 million. “That hurt me and all of those who bought into Rarity Club,” Thornton says.”I can take it, but that did hurt.” Thornton is suing Ross, who he once called “the Bernie Madoff of Marion County,” referring to the New York Ponzi scheme operator. Ross and other developers whose projects stalled or failed to complete promised amenities not only cost Thornton money. They also have made it that much harder to convince home buyers to invest in new projects.
BUT UNLIKE MANY of the high-flying developers of the past, Thornton is still in the game, albeit in a lesser league than he once played. Thornton says he is paying his bills and fulfilling his obligations, even if such work takes longer and with lower margins than in the past. Home lots on Jasper Highlands that Thornton recently sold for $30,000 to $100,000 would have easily fetched $50,000 to $500,000 in the 1990s, Thornton contends. The 98 lots in the first phase of Jasper Highlands are all sold and home plans and construction are taking
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root atop Jasper Mountain. In 2014, Thornton plans to pave the roads through the complex, extend South Pittsburg water service to all the developed lots and aggressively sell property in the next 110-lot phase. “What I admire about John — and what led me to join Thunder — is that you know he does what he says he will do,” says Dane Bradshaw, a former Tennessee basketball star who joined Thornton five years ago after playing briefly in a European basketball league for the Den Helder Seals in the Netherlands. “A lot of developers got into trouble and couldn’t or didn’t do what they promised, but John is not like that.” As he has throughout his life, Thornton is betting big on Jasper Highlands. His business, Thunder Enterprises, has spent more than $20 million to buy three major tracts along the Cumberland Plateau and to build a new road up to the top of the plateau where road, water lines and at least one house are already taking shape. Thornton acknowledges it may be years before he gets his money back. But Thornton insists his project offers an attractive mountaintop alternative to the more tourist-oriented Great Smoky Mountains around Gatlinburg and should appeal to both relocating retirees and Chattanooga area workers. Others may buy into Jasper Highlands for a second home or a retirement site for the future. The key to the development was to find a more direct and quicker route up Jasper Mountain. Otherwise the land atop the plateau, as beautiful as it is, was probably only useful as woodlands or a natural wildlife area.
› Age: 60 › Nickname: “Thunder” › Job: Founder and CEO of Thunder Enterprises › Education: A native of Maryville, Thornton is a graduate of Tennessee Wesleyan College.
› Career: He began his career with Salem Carpets
and Beaulieu of America before founding American Rug Craftsmen, Inc., in 1984, which he built into the biggest throw rug maker of its kind before selling the business to Mohawk Industries in 1993. He founded American Weavers in 1994, which was a Walmart supplier sold to Stephens Inc. in 1996, Thunder Enterprises LLC in 1991 and Thunder Air Inc. in 1992 and began developing and building homes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the 1990s before buying the Crescent H Ranch in 1997 for $52 million. After developing and selling the ranch by 1993, Thornton has developed other major real estate developments, including Tennessee National, the Ridges at Franklin Forest, Thunder Farms, Thunder Point and Jasper Highlands. › Civic activities: He has served as a trustee for the University of Tennessee, Bright School, Baylor School and UC Foundation and chairman of the UTC Chancellor’s Round Table and the UT Development Council. He was Chairman of the University of Tennessee Development Council, Chairman of the UTC Roundtable, past Co-Chairperson for the University of Tennessee Lady Vols Development Campaign and the past Chairman of the Chattanooga United Way Alexis de Tocqueville Society. › Business boards: He served as a director of Propex Inc., INBRAND Corp, Olan Mills Inc. and Med Center Display. › Family: He has two daughters, Katie and Dori, and three sons, Ryan, Sam and Johnny. He and his wife, Eileen, reside in North Chattanooga.
Major Thunder businesses and projects:
American Rug Craftsmen, started by Thornton and two others in 1984 and sold to Mohawk Industries in 1993 Thunder Enterprises LLC, parent company of most of Thunder’s development formed in 1991 Jasper Highlands, 8,893-acre residential development atop Jasper Mountain in Marion County, Tenn. The Ridges at Franklin Forest, a 4,000-acre gated community near the Franklin State Forest Crescent H Ranch, a 1,300-acre development on the Snake River near the Grand Teton Mountains in Jackson Hole, Wyoming Tennessee National, a Greg Norman waterfront golf community in Loudon County › Former projects that Thornton worked to develop before selling his interests include Thunder Ranch along the Utah and Colorado border, Flathead Lake Estate near Bigfork, Montana, Nickajack Shores in Marion County, Tennessee, Mountain Top in Cashiers, North Carolina and the Kua Bay Lodge in Hawaii.
To reach the top of the summit from Interstate 24 previously required a long, circuitous route through Jasper and the back side of the mountain, which takes more than a half hour to drive. Thornton saw a quicker path to the top and acquired 224 acres and blasted hundreds of thousands of pounds of rock to build a new road. Thornton is having to pay entirely for the multi-million-dollar road to the gated Jasper Highlands community himself. The new route up the mountain puts Jasper Highlands just six minutes from the stores in Kimball and only a half hour’s drive to Chattanooga, including Thornton’s own 10-bedroom log home in North Chattanooga.
THORNTON LIKENS THE VISTAS overlooking the winding Tennessee River to those around the Grand Tetons and Snake River in Wyoming. But Thornton has had to change his prices and pitch in Marion County from what it was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the late 1990s. Instead of pitching multi-million-dollar sales to business leaders like Excite co-founder Joseph Kraus or Goldman Sachs investment banker Richard Hayde, Thornton is now selling his property in Jasper Highlands to more middle- and upper-income families and retirees. Some lots this summer sold as low as $29,999 for a couple of acres, although a prime brow lot is under contract to sell for $450,000. During the heydays of the 1990s, Thornton was able to sell out the Crescent H ranch for more than $100 million in only five years time with some 35acre tracts priced above $5 million. Thornton bought the bankrupt 1,300-acre ranch on the Snake River for $52 million in 1997. By 2002, he had sold the last of the ranch land after he set aside 180 acres along the Snake River in what was then one of the most valuable conservation easements ever given. Thornton, an avid hunter and fisherman, says he has tried to preserve prime parcels in their natural state in most of his developments. The Crescent H ranch is located at the base of the Grand Teton Mountains and includes land along the Snake River. Harrison Ford’s ranch was on the east side of the Snake River and the ranch Thornton bought and developed was on the west side of the river. Thornton acknowledges he put all of his chips on the table to buy the Crescent H ranch. He had to borrow the last $8 million in a few days to match a competing offer. He paid an upfront $3 million fee to get that loan, plus 20 percent interest. “I had a lot at stake, but I just knew it would work out. All signs were pointing toward success,” he says.
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John “Thunder” Thornton
THORNTON MADE HIS FIRST FORTUNE in the floorcovering industry, which is what first brought the Maryville, Tennessee native to Chattanooga. After graduating from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Thornton worked selling carpets for Salem Carpet and Beaulieu of America. He quickly realized there was a growing market for rugs and when his bosses didn’t buy into the idea, he decided to start his own business. With a $40,000 loan from Commerce Union Bank, the backing of his friend Bob Garrett and most of his own savings his personal guarantee on the line, Thornton and two partners started American Rug Craftsmen, Inc., in a small warehouse in East Ridge in 1984. “I put in all of my money,” he recalls. “We worked seven days a week and practically slept at the plant.” When consumers weren’t buying as many of the new rug designs as he had hoped, Thornton convinced one of his buyers — and later his wife, Eileen — to relocate from New York to join the fledgling company in 1986. Thornton promised to make Eileen head of product development and to let her stay in a company apartment on the lake. Eileen quickly found out she was the entire product development department and the lakefront apartment was only a lake when East Ridge flooded. With new more colorful designs from Eileen and Thornton’s gifted salesmanship, American Rug sales quickly grew and the company expanded into an abandoned carpet mill in Sugar Valley, Georgia. Within a decade, American Rug grew into one of the country’s biggest rug makers with annual sales of more than $100 million. The company really took off when Thornton convinced Walmart to put American Rug products in all of its major stores. In a deal struck during a softball game between Walmart and his vendors, Thornton convinced then Walmart President Bill Fields to sell his rugs — but only after Fields got Thornton to cut his price for area rugs from $69.99 down to $49.99. “Walmart was the best customer I ever had and made our company a better vendor not only for Walmart but for all our customers,” Thornton says. From Wal-Mart, Thornton says he learned to stay focused on the customer and to not lose sight of your business plans when times are good and money can be easily made. American Rug won Wal-Mart’s top “Vendor of the Year” award two of the last three years Thornton owned the company. Thornton remembered his business relationships with Walmart’s top officials when his fifth and
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last child was born at East Ridge Hospital. He named his youngest son Samuel Fields Thornton after Walmart founder Sam Walton and former Walmart President Bill Fields. Thornton eventually sold American Rug in 1993 to Mohawk for $34 million, according to Forbes magazine.
AFTER SELLING his rug business and working briefly for Mohawk, Thornton turned his attention to real estate in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he had gone fishing and hunting since 1982. Thornton built a number of speculative homes in and around Jackson Hole before 1997 when the Crescent H ranch filed for bankruptcy and Thornton entered the bidding to buy the land along the Snake River. Thornton’s initial $32 million offer for the 1,300-acre ranch was intially topped by Farhad Ebrahimi, a wealthy investor who offered $52 million for the property. After scrambling to up his bid, Thornton matched the higher offer — and added 13 more cents to win the bid. Thornton has developed other resort and golf course properties in East Tennessee and a half dozen other states, but he has sold out of all but two properties in Marion and Franklin counties. He still owns about 1,100 acres of the Ridges at Franklin near Monteagle and owns or has options on nearly 9,000 acres of Jasper Mountain in Marion County. “East Tennessee is still my favorite place in the world,” he says. While busy building his rug and real estate empires, Thornton also has been an active and avid fan of the University of Tennessee and Republican politicians. Although he graduated from Tennessee Wesleyan, The road leading to Jasper Highlands.
Thornton points to a nearby waterfall and view of the Tennessee River at Jasper highlands.
Thornton says growing up in Maryville “you had to be a fan of Big Orange.” He donated $1 million to UT’s athletics program for an academic center for student athletes and got to run through the “T” during the opening of a Tennessee football game. He later served as a trustee for the University of Tennessee for six years. Thornton is a long-time friend of former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer, who he has fished with from Wyoming to Alaska. Thornton was once taught by Sen. Lamar Alexander’s mother in Maryville. He has been a frequent donor to Alexander and other Republicans, giving nearly $190,000 in political contributions over the past two decades, according to the Federal Elections Commission. He also has been a donor to a variety of community causes in and around Chattanooga.
Thornton says he learned early the value of gratitude from his late father Lloyd. Thornton said his father “never missed an opportunity to say ‘thank you,’” which Thornton calls the two most valuable words in the English language. In a commencement address to graduates of Maryville College last year, Thornton conceded that in working to make his business ventures succeed, he sometimes didn’t take time to savor his blessings. It’s a lesson he learned in a note he received early in his career from Chattanooga accountant Joe Decosimo, who advised Thornton’s to stop and enjoy “these moments.” “I was so focused on being at the top of the mountain that I didn’t stop to savor some of the most incredible views of my life during the journey,” he said last May. “So many of the very best memories occur while you are climbing the mountain.”
“East Tennessee is still my favorite place in the world.”
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