50 Most Powerful People - John Morgan
Attorney, Businessman, Philanthropist
When John Morgan was a sophomore at the University of Florida in 1976, his younger brother, Tim, was paralyzed while making a rescue dive as a lifeguard at Walt Disney World. When the elder Morgan enrolled in law school four years later, his brother’s battle led him to one legal specialty: personal injury.
For 31 years, John Morgan has fought and advertised his way to the top of the legal world nationwide from his headquarters in downtown Orlando. Powered by his “For the People” brand and a steady barrage of television, internet and radio commercials, he has aggressively attacked big companies while standing up for the little guy. Bad doctors, careless pharmaceutical firms and stingy insurance companies are his enemies. He fights with a 3,000-worker army, including 488 lawyers in 60 offices from Miami to Boston to Los Angeles.
Along the way, Morgan has amassed a fortune—some estimate $500 million or more—and has become an adviser and fundraiser for Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and candidate Hillary Clinton. He’s also been a contributor and friend to Florida Republican governors like Charlie Crist and top Tallahassee GOP legislators.
Morgan has remained focused on helping Tim, who is paralyzed from the chest down, uses a wheelchair and has fought cancer. Morgan says his brother was part of the inspiration to push for medical marijuana legalization for use with serious conditions and to curtail addictive opioid use.
In 2013, Morgan launched the ballot initiative to amend the Florida Constitution to allow marijuana for medical purposes. The next year, it fell just short of approval, opposed by major Republican donors, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and state sheriffs. Morgan and his United for Care campaign tightened up Amendment 2’s language, and it won passage in 2016 with a resounding 71 percent of the vote. But a dispute with the state over whether the amendment language actually allowed marijuana smoking tied the issue up in court. Finally in January, in a move brokered by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican, new Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped the state’s opposition and persuaded the GOP-controlled Legislature to repeal a law that had banned smokable medical marijuana.
Those seismic events—bankrolled with nearly $15 million of Morgan’s own money—showed his relentless fight in the face of political adversity. And that successful crusade, in addition to his philanthropic and business ventures and prominent political connections, have earned Morgan the top spot on Orlando magazine’s 50 Most Powerful People list for 2019.
“What I set out to do, I’ve done—to have medical marijuana approved in all forms for people who are sick in Florida,” Morgan says. “People come up to me and thank me and cry. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve done with my money in my life.”
On a recent visit with the magazine to the Surterra Wellness medical marijuana dispensary near downtown Orlando, Morgan was greeted like a rock star and thanked by patients.
“I think it was great,” said a 69-year-old man suffering from chronic arthritis and back pain. “It was beneficial to everyone. Someone finally put their money where their mouth is.”
Even Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who has topped our list five of the six previous years, marvels at Morgan’s skill in making medical marijuana a reality.
“John knows how to maneuver and get a deal done,” a smiling Dyer says.
With wife Ultima and candidate Joe Biden during a fundraiser at the Morgans' home (COURTESY OF JOHN AND ULTIMA MORGAN)
John Bryan Morgan, 63, is a friendly, charming, curious man, fascinated by business and its vast possibilities to serve consumers and make money. His office is a shrine to his family, his business and politicians he’s befriended, captured in photos around his desk. He has a penchant for blue suits, cigars and bourbon, and he is careful to back up what he says. Morgan’s law firm website lists dozens of multimillion-dollar verdicts as proof of success. And he loves a good fight, requiring each of his lawyers to try at least three cases a year.
Morgan was born in Kentucky to a poor Catholic family that moved to Central Florida in 1971, when he was in 9th grade. At Winter Park High School, he worked on the side selling plants and doing magic tricks at Disney. Because both his parents were alcoholics, Morgan at times was a surrogate parent to his three younger brothers and a sister. His father, Ramon, was a traveling charity fundraiser and often was between jobs, putting stress on the family. While he was dying of cancer in the early 1990s, Ramon used marijuana to control anxiety and increase his appetite.
In college, the entrepreneurial Morgan hawked truckloads of plants from Apopka to students at the beginning of semesters at several Southern schools. He graduated in 1978 and took off 18 months to sell Yellow Pages ads statewide.
“I was the best Yellow Pages salesman in the history of AT&T,” he boasts, referring to the company then known as Southern Bell. “The year I worked there, I made $65,000 and was 21 years old.”
He also gained insights into advertising and salesmanship.
Morgan graduated from law school in May 1982 and married fellow student Ultima Degnan the same month. He joined an Orlando law firm, then started his own firm and changed partners twice. Morgan would become one of the first lawyers to advertise in phone books and television commercials, although he recalls The Florida Bar wasn’t happy about it.
“They were pissed about anything with advertising,” Morgan says. “It’s been a fight. The Bar had a committee on advertising and recommended against it. But I gave a speech and argued about the First Amendment and free speech. It was one of the best speeches in my life.”
From 1988 to 2005, Morgan Colling & Gilbert operated until he bought out his partners and renamed the firm Morgan & Morgan, with Ultima as his partner. In recent years, his three attorney sons—Matt, Mike and Dan—have all joined the firm. Daughter Katie owns a structured-settlement firm. Last year, Morgan & Morgan received more than 2 million phone calls, signing up 500 new cases daily. It also collected and banked $1.5 billion in settlements and verdicts, and spent $130 million nationwide on advertising, Morgan says.
His early MC&G television ads featured a somewhat timid, monotone, baby-faced, dark-haired attorney. He warned about the “national crisis” of nursing home abuse, listed six offices around Central Florida and ended with his signature “For the People.”
Over the years, Morgan has lectured viewers about talking to a lawyer before an insurance company when there’s a car accident and emphasized that the same bad doctors are responsible for most medical malpractice. His 30-year-anniversary commercial last year recounted the “billions and billions and billions” recovered for tens of thousands of clients. (His website states over $5 billion collected.)
“There were just two of us in the beginning,” a graying Morgan says in a 2018 ad. “And now there are thousands … The journey for justice has been our life’s work. Protecting the powerless was our mission in the beginning and remains at our core today.”
While building his law firm of the future, Morgan satisfies his entrepreneurial urges with various side ventures and partnerships. They include a chain of WonderWorks indoor amusement attractions, crime museums, racehorses, a sports management firm, Marriott hotels, real estate projects, a bank and two investment funds. Today, three dozen Florida corporations list Morgan as a principal, including ClassAction.com; Abogados.com (the Spanish word for attorney is abogado); and Litify, a software management system for law firms. Morgan and venture partners just sold 25 percent of Litify to a global investment fund for $50 million.
And now there is Coral Reefer, the Jimmy Buffett-branded medical marijuana that supplies Surterra Wellness dispensaries around the state. Morgan, a longtime friend of Buffett, is a partner in that venture and busy courting investors. He’s a partner in a new 240-acre Oregon hemp farm to produce cannabidiol (CBD) oil, as well as in WeedMaps, an app used to locate dispensaries.
Morgan predicts recreational marijuana will be passed in Florida within the next few years, like several other states. And he stands to profit handsomely from the industry—and from the amendment he got approved. Morgan also says he will soon help launch a $200 million hedge fund to invest in marijuana-related projects.
“I believe it is THE 21st century business,” Morgan proclaims. “And I believe that its benefits are miraculous and I think there are more to be discovered.”
One goal has now become within reach. “I want to be a billionaire. And for the first time, I think I have a shot.”
Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer, longtime top GOP fundraiser and former U.S. ambassador to Italy, fought Morgan’s medical marijuana initiative in 2014 and 2016. He and his wife, Betty, marijuana opponents since the 1970s, formed the Drug Free America Foundation 25 years ago. He calls Morgan “misinformed” on marijuana.
Sembler says he’s not surprised that Morgan is investing in marijuana-related businesses. “I think it was a bunch of b.s. about helping his brother,” he says. “… Something told me very early on that he [Morgan] was getting into the commercial side of that.”
Morgan’s next crusade is well under way: a proposed 2020 state constitutional amendment to raise the hourly minimum wage to $10 in 2021 and to $15 by 2026. The law firm has contributed nearly $1.5 million to the effort.
“I’m halfway through the signature process,” he says. “I finish what I start.”
Morgan says Republicans also should embrace his proposal because it will reduce government subsidies to the poor for welfare, food stamps and child care—and give dignity to workers.
“Right now, you have a [welfare] system where it pays not to work,” Morgan says. “Think about all the government assistance that goes away with a fair wage.”
Earlier this year after being called out by Orlando Weekly, Morgan raised the law firm’s minimum hourly wage to $15 —and raised other hourly salaries higher—moves he says will cost him millions.
Ask Morgan anything about business, family or his wife’s cooking and he’s happy to chat. He’s particularly eager to talk about politics.
For years, he’s held political fundraisers and dinners at his home for candidates such as the Clintons, Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After abandoning a possible run for governor in late 2017, Morgan announced his disgust with the left-turning Democratic Party and promised to become an independent.
“I’m a liberal but definitely not a socialist,” he says. “I’m a capitalist.”
Then, longtime friend and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden came calling. Morgan and his wife, a Republican, promptly held a fundraiser for 400 people at their home in May, raising $1.7 million. Morgan says although he plans to remain an independent, he is supporting Biden “because he is ready day one, has immense character and cares about people. I am ready for some sanity and security.”
There are two areas that will get you vague answers from Morgan—his net worth and charitable giving. Of course, since Morgan & Morgan is a one-of-a-kind-firm, it’s difficult to value—just like some of his newer investments.
Citing the Bible, Morgan says charity should not be bragged about. His giving dates back to 1986, when he founded Boys Town Central Florida. With Ultima serving as his philanthropy chief, the couple and law firm have donated to many charities locally and overseas. A handful of gifts have become public: $1 million to the UF law school; $1 million to the homeless aid nonprofit Community Resource Network; $2 million to help build the Second Harvest Food Bank’s central warehouse; and $1 million toward a new Harbor House domestic violence shelter. And when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, Morgan lent his private jet to shuttle doctors and medical equipment to the island.
In a 2015 interview with Orlando magazine, Morgan said he wanted the “last quarter [of his life] to be way more philanthropic than successful.” But it looks like success may overshadow that for a while.
Meanwhile, he lives in a 12,300-square-foot home in Heathrow Woods and a beachfront place in Ponce Inlet. Sometimes he’s out of the office for weeks vacationing at his New Hampshire lakefront summer home or winter Hawaiian condo. He’s building what he terms “the MacDaddy of homes”—a 5,200-square-foot, oceanfront residence in Lahaina, Maui. There, he says, “I can work on my computer and watch the whales.”
Son Matt says he can’t imagine his father fully detaching from the law firm. “This is his baby,” the younger Morgan says. “He’s making sure every attorney is as tenacious as he is. There will never be a day where he doesn’t know everything about the office.”
Perhaps Morgan’s greatest success is the close-knit family he has built around him. It’s also another reason why he likes going to the office.
“Where else can you go to work and see your family?”