Tom Morgan's new job

Tom Morgan looks around his Apalachicola store with a smile that exudes confidence. It’s the look of satisfaction that comes from knowing he has built something from the ground up and answers to no one but himself.

Leap of Faith Having left a successful career in commercial real estate, Tom Morgan is now trying his hand at retail By Lee Gordon Originally published in the Dec 2010/Jan 2011 issue of 850 Business Magazine


Tom Morgan looks around his Apalachicola store with a smile that exudes confidence. It’s the look of satisfaction that comes from knowing he has built something from the ground up and answers to no one but himself.

The experience has been exhilarating, partly from his sense of being free of corporate America, where he spent most of his career. And, admittedly, it’s been exhausting.

“I don’t say ‘a sense of freedom from big corporate America’ in a negative way at all,” said Morgan, 56. “I loved working for big, publicly traded companies, which afforded me the opportunity to live and work in many exciting places, meet scores of very interesting people, travel the world, etc. It was great.

“But owning your own business has been very fun,” he said. “You make decisions every day. If they are wrong, your pocketbook suffers. If they are right, your pocketbook profits. No chain of command here!”

The 56-year-old Morgan is the owner of Apalach Outfitters, a one-stop shop specializing in men’s and women’s outdoor apparel. This kind of a niche business was never part of Morgan’s master plan. Three years ago, he was president of the commercial division of the St. Joe Company, a multimillion-dollar development company. Three years later, he turned in his gift for commercial real estate and cast a line into the deep end as a small-business owner.

“By 2009, we all know that real estate development activities were at a standstill, especially in Florida,” Morgan said. “Having touched just about every real estate class during my career, I yearned to own and run my own business. I had become enamored with fly fishing for tarpon in the Apalachicola area, and Sharon Baggett and I decided to open an outfitter/specialty retail shop in historic downtown Apalachicola.”

The shop is housed in a 100-plus-year-old building with the original antique tin ceilings and beautiful heart pine walls and floors — truly a historic gem. It officially opened for business in April 2010, just as the Gulf Coast was besieged with millions of gallons of oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

A Rebel with a Cause

Morgan graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. His first job was with Arthur Andersen & Company in New Orleans. After several years in the bayou, he went to work for Delta Steamship Lines, which transports goods to and from South America. Morgan was 24 years old and in charge of overseeing a staff of 45 accountants.

“By 1985 I had become tired of the accounting world, although it formed the financial foundation which allowed me to excel in a career that I loved — real estate development,” he said.

That year, he moved to Dallas and began a career in real estate development with Embassy Suites Hotel Company. He was responsible for development and franchising for the western one-third of the United States. Under his leadership, Embassy Suites grew into the largest upscale, all-suite hotel chain in the world, and it remains No. 1 today.

In 1992, with hotel development in the doldrums, Morgan moved to Memphis, Tenn., to develop new casinos for Harrah’s Entertainment, a sister company of Embassy Suites. Casino expansion was taking off during the 1990s as states looked for ways to create new jobs and tax revenue.

“We grew Harrah’s Entertainment into the largest gaming company in the U.S. in terms of revenues,” he said of the company’s leadership at the time.

It wasn’t long afterward that Morgan received a call from Trammell Crow Company, one of the leading firms in the commercial real estate arena. But after years of learning the ropes, he yearned to develop master-planned communities, and in 2004 he moved to Bay County to work for The St. Joe Company.

“I was originally hired to develop residential communities in Bay County and then became responsible for residential communities in both Bay and Walton counties, which included St. Joe’s heralded communities of WaterColor and WaterSound,” Morgan said. “In 2007, I was promoted to president of the commercial division, which encompassed office, industrial, retail and apartment developments.”

Building The St. Joe Company

By the time he arrived in Northwest Florida, Morgan had developed just about everything in the commercial arena of real estate except for master-planned communities that combined residential and commercial elements.

“St. Joe was the clear choice, as their reputation and track record for creating really special places was unparalleled,” Morgan said. “As with everything in life, I got an ‘in’ to St. Joe from a good friend and peer that I worked with at Harrah’s who had moved to Jacksonville to work for St. Joe. That paved the way for an interview.”

Morgan says St. Joe has no debt and more than 500,000 acres of land, but the company, like everyone else, had a rough year in 2009. And no one in residential real estate is thriving anymore — the correct term might be that they are “surviving.”

The new climate in real estate, coupled with a chance to follow a dream, is what led Morgan to Apalachicola. The opportunity to create his own path opened up, and Morgan jumped head first.

Apalach Outfitters Opens for Business

Morgan and his partner, Sharon Baggett, came up with a unique business model for their new venture. It came from years of learning how corporate America survives: Do something that no one else is doing and do it better than everyone else. If you can achieve those two goals, you have a fighting chance at success.

“Our model has included having exceptional, hard-to-find brands, offered in a very cool space, coupled with very personal service,” Morgan said. “No hired hands with surly attitudes sending text messages while you are waiting to be checked out!

“We had some very good friends that own and operate an outfitter store, and they were instrumental in helping us understand what brands were strong, what margins we should expect, what it was like living through the winter with few tourists, etc.,” he said. “We never could have created Apalach Outfitters without their insights.”

Morgan said there was no shortage of naysayers, all telling him he was crazy to open up a retail business in this economy. Add the oil spill to the mix, and most people have written off the project as a failed venture. But Morgan has been successful everywhere he’s been — and plans to keep it that way with his new store.

“A business plan is important: understanding your market and then developing a pro forma to include revenues, fixed costs, variable costs and capital requirements,” he said. “Many people fail at this point because they believe their dreams and don’t really figure out what will set them apart from others so that the revenue projections become a reality.”


How have you been able to maintain such a high level of success for such a long period of time? My successes in business have all resulted from really caring about the people that work for and with me, sharing my experiences, giving advice and then letting them make decisions. So many people in business today view themselves as leaders when really they are managers. The successes created by empowering people to make decisions — and at times having them temporarily fail in doing so — are exponential. True leaders see strategically; managers can’t or don’t.

What advice do you have for younger businessmen/women who are hoping to follow a path similar to the one you’ve taken? For the college student who is about to graduate and enter the work force, my advice is to network tirelessly. Ask your parents and other adults you have a relationship with to set up time with their contacts for you to meet with. This is not necessarily for interviews; it is to get face time with executives that may then have contacts for you to meet. Those who have worked hard in college and work hard networking will find the good jobs.

What is the best advice you ever received? Love what you do. If you don’t love it, look for it! This was advice from my father in 1985 that helped me take the leap from my comfort zone (accounting/finance) into real estate development.