Homebuilder has battled cancer, climbed ‘The Seven Summits,’ wrestled with housing meltdown

One of the hardest things in life is learning how to overcome obstacles.

Hugh Morton, president of Jonesboro-based Peachtree Homes, has faced three tough ones — climbing to the top of the highest mountain peaks on each of the seven continents, trying to withstand the recent housing crisis as a homebuilder, and fighting cancer.

Hugh Morton on Mt. Everest in 1992

Hugh Morton on Mt. Everest in 1992

By the time Morton reached his last summit — Vinson Massif in Anarctica in 1999 — fewer than 70 people in the world had climbed “The Seven Summits.” Morton endured minus-40 degree temperatures, severe winds and the sight of three people, frozen in the snow, who died trying.

Most of his climbs were made while he was running a homebuilding company that thrived when metro Atlanta grew rapidly in the 1990s and first half of the 2000s. But the collapse of real estate market starting in 2007 turned black ink into red, forcing Morton to decide between bailing out or repaying mountains of debt with money he didn’t have. While wrestling with that issue, he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Morton, 65, talks about his approach to life’s challenges.

Q: Did you learn something early on that prepared you for the rough patches?

A: My dad did some homebuilding and owned some rental property. He didn’t namby-pamby us. He believed in making me work. I would lay bricks when I was 8 years old. I think that was useful because there’s a lot of work involved and a lot of discomfort. It prepared me for a sport like mountaineering.

Hugh Morton

Hugh Morton

What I learned was the value of persistence. You don’t climb a mountain with one big leap. You do it one step at a time and one pull of the rope at a time. You keep doing it and don’t quit — although the conditions get difficult and you want to quit because it’s cold and you’d rather be back in your sleeping bag. You just don’t throw in the towel when things get tough.

My dad had a philosophy: Life is not what you can gain (monetarily), it’s how many experiences you can have. When I was 7, we were traveling through a sandstorm in New Mexico. I was very scared. My dad said, “just relax. This is an experience you’ll never forget.” I never did.

Q: Why did you start climbing mountains? What have you learned?

A: I got into hiking when I was in the Boy Scouts. When I was 39, I went on a trek to the base camp of Mt. Everest and I got captivated by it. I came back with the notion that I wanted some time to climb. Something in me kept pushing me toward the goal of climbing seven summits.

I did a lot of training first. I learned the value of heavy backpack climbing up Kennesaw Mountain and in the north Georgia mountains. I went to ice-climbing school at Mt. Baker in Washington state.

In 1992, after climbing to the top of Mt. Everest, I almost fell off that mountain — a 7,000 foot drop — on the way down. My goggles had frozen up and I missed a step. I slid out but was able to arrest my slide by flipping my body and cramming my ax into the ice.

Coming down a mountain is riskier than going up. The way your legs are made, you’re much more stable going up. You’ve got crampons, you’ve got an ice ax. If you slip, you’ll just fall on your belly. But when you’re coming down, your feet can come out from under you. Most of your accidents are on the way down because people are tired, you’re less alert and the weather starts deteriorating.

During the climbs, there were many times I got discouraged. But I’ve got tunnel vision. If I start something, I’ve got to finish it.

Q: How did you deal with your biggest financial challenge, the housing crisis?

A: I launched my own homebuilding business in 1991. I grew it slowly and progressively, building it up to 220 homes in 2006 for revenues of about $40 million.

You have to keep 200 lots coming to feed 200 houses a year. But when the housing market stopped like it did in 2007, the lots were still coming but there were no homebuyers. By 2009, there were 149,000 building lots sitting in the metro area.

We ended up in a debt squeeze. A lot of people threw up their hands in 2008. I lost my attorney, contractors, vendors. We were scrambling, trying to find another route. If one route on a mountain doesn’t work, you try to find another one.

We found an opportunity in Columbus with Fort Benning expanding. We went there to build in 2008 since we knew we wouldn’t survive here. A lot of our subcontractors were starving to death and went down with us.

We generated revenues there to try to do right by the bankers and lenders here. Everything we made down in Columbus went to pay somebody up here. I got rid of $20 million to $22 million in debt so far, but have more to go.

If I had not gone to Columbus, the doors would probably have closed. I didn’t want to file for bankruptcy. You just don’t quit.

Q: But your health is causing you to scale back, isn’t it?

A: Yes. I can’t help but believe that stress from this industry helped lead to my lymphoma. The doctors just keep telling me to reduce stress. They think there’s a correlation between stress and reducing your immune system.

I’ve gone through chemotherapy and I’m still doing some maintenance chemotherapy. I lost a lot of strength from it. I lost some weight. But mostly, chemotherapy beats you down mentally. Sometimes you feel you want to cry or scream at people. I’m usually more even than that.

You don’t get rid of lymphoma, but you beat it back. I’m symptom free right now, but it will come back. At some point, I know I’ll have to do more intense chemotherapy again.

Q: Of the three challenges, which one was the hardest for you to deal with?

A: The housing crisis. I went for months and months having to take something to sleep. Your mind wakes you up trying to figure out a solution. It’s not been a fun time.

As for the lymphoma, I’m doing pretty well right now. It’s under control.

And as for mountain climbing, there’s obviously some physical and emotional stress. But none of it lasts as long as the housing crisis. We’ve been in it for more than five years. It just won’t end. That, in itself, can cause you to lose hope. It’s dragged down so many of my friends and associates.

Although I’m not a big builder now, I’m proud I’m still here. The key to life is persistence. You have to press on, whether you’re trying to run a marathon, get a college degree, write a book or climb a mountain. You hang in there until you get it done.

Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.

16 comments Add your comment

Scott

March 3rd, 2013
8:06 am

Hugh, you’re an inspiration especially to those hit by the real estate crisis like me. I appreciate your endurance and wish all people were as self-reliant as you. Keep up the fight and good luck against the cancer.

Sonna Singleton

March 3rd, 2013
10:36 am

Hugh Morton-Still one of the finest businessman that I have had the opportunity to work with. “Prayers Out to the Morton Family”

rick

March 3rd, 2013
11:22 am

I had rather lose with integrity than win without a conscience. This mans heart and soul is the only thing that could save America. Thank you for your inspiration and I pray that you will live for many years to come telling your story of overcoming!

Gary

March 3rd, 2013
11:29 am

Inspiring words and story. “The key to life is persistence.” So true. Sly Stallone, of all people, said it so well in “Rocky Balboa”: “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”. Thank you sir for your inspirational story. Good luck to you and I know you will “keep moving forward”.

Stan Parrott

March 3rd, 2013
4:06 pm

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Stan Parrott

March 3rd, 2013
4:21 pm

hey Hugh, even though you may have lost some physical strength your inner soul & your persistence to move forward will carry you to the top of the mountain. After 26 years I had to close a business that I loved & started another business 2 years ago. There are still days I wish I could turn back the clock but I know that life is a challenge & people like you give myself & others hope to continue & meet the challenges we all face each day. May God bless & keep you strong for the hurdles ahead. Stan

Barbara

March 3rd, 2013
4:50 pm

Inspiring article….I worked in new construction as a realtor and was very stressed when the market changed. I can not imagine being a builder. I was also diagnosed with breast cancer while going through the new construction crisis. This article has blessed me……

Edie

March 3rd, 2013
6:25 pm

Hugh – I have not doubt that the stress of the last few years may have contributed to the lymphoma. But I also understand the desire to “do your best.” My dad hammered that one home to me years ago. “Do your best and never give up”. But I also believe that we have to enjoy life while “we are doing our best”. So glad that you are slowing down and enjoying the small things in life. I have a saying on my wall at home – “enjoy the little things in life, because one day you will realize that they were the big things—-”. Sometimes bigger is not always better. It took me a long time to realize that – but I am so much happier now!!!!! Will be praying that your health continues to improve——-

Bullwinkle

March 3rd, 2013
6:30 pm

To Mr. Morton: Congratulations on your achievements in climbing and for holding it together in your business. Best wishes with your health issues.

To Mr. Unger: Thanks for telling this story. Best thing I’ve read this week.

Ms. Johnson

March 3rd, 2013
6:45 pm

Mr. Morton,
I am inspired by your determination. I am also very thankful because my home was built by your company in 2003. I live in Peachtree Landing Subdivision. Thank you for your hard work and your “never give up attitude”! I will be praying for your continued health and strength.

Andrea Baker

March 3rd, 2013
8:11 pm

Hi Hugh,

I don’t know you but you’re such an inspiration. Thanks.

Connie Gieb

March 3rd, 2013
8:12 pm

Dear Mr. Morton,
Thank you for your expressing to Mr. Unger your insight, wisdom, advice. Isn’t it wonderful to see all the good that comes from these experiences in our lives. Eight years ago I was diagnosed with Follicular NHL and it changed my life. So much so that I can say I’ve never been happier. Enjoy the journey and it was wonderful to hear from someone like you. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like climbing those mountains!

Jerry Stapleton

March 4th, 2013
4:34 pm

You were an inspiration when I first met you in 1996. Even more so now. Not many folks remember that you were a banker at one time, too. Keep moving forward and never look back. JRS

Charlotte

March 5th, 2013
1:33 pm

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Charlotte

March 5th, 2013
1:49 pm

I worked with Hugh in the successful times, Hugh was a great man to work with in the building of New Homes. I wish you happiness, good health and success!

ziza

March 6th, 2013
10:09 am

Dear Mr. Morton, What an inspiring story! Thank you so much for sharing your story. I hope all the best for your health and your business.