John “Thunder” Thornton was born and grew up in Maryville, Tennessee. He earned the bachelor’s degree in business management from Tennessee Wesleyan College in 1975. He began his business career selling knockoffs of oriental carpets. In 1984 he founded American Rug Craftsman, the nation’s largest producer of decorative floor mats. The company continually posted $100 million in annual sales and was twice chosen from a supplier pool of eight thousand as Walmart’s Vendor of the Year, as well as J. C. Penney’s Supplier of the Year. He was named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 1992, and his company made the list of Inc. magazine’s fastest growing companies in America before he sold the business to Mohawk Industries in 1993 for $34 million.
After selling his business, he bought a second home in the Teton Pines development in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He became a land developer with his 1997 purchase at auction of the 1,300-acre Crescent H Ranch with one-and-one-half miles of unspoiled Snake River waterfront for $52 million. He continued to operate the guesthouse and created a low-density development. In 2009 W. Allan Jones Jr. of Cleveland, Tennessee—for whom the Allan Jones Aquatic Center is named—purchased the Crescent H Ranch. Thornton continued his development business from Thunder Enterprises headquarters in Chattanooga.
He has served on the UT Board of Trustees, as chair of the UT Athletics Facilities Capital Campaign, as chair of the UT Development Council, and as cochair of the women’s athletics Development Campaign. He has also served on boards at UT Chattanooga and is an active civic leader in Chattanooga. The Thornton Athletics Student Life Center is named for him.