Referred to as West Virginia’s “big guy,” James C. Justice II stands 6’7” and 375 pounds. Quite an imposing figure, but he’s as gentle as a Southern breeze.
“My life is based on my conviction to the Good Lord, my family, employees, business, and kids. That’s exactly what I’m all about,” he explains.
He lives with his family in an ordinary house on an ordinary street in West Virginia. Ordinary turns extraordinary around Christmas.
“My kids were really young and had to go out-of-town overnight with my wife. When they were gone, I got some of my workers and we put a totally absurd amount of lights all over the house. I even got a camper that I put in the driveway and covered with lights. They got such a kick out of it that I continue it every year,” he recalls in his Allegheny drawl.
His Christmas spirit doesn’t end there. Every year, he dresses as Santa and arrives in Crumpler, W. Va., a low-income coal-mining town, via helicopter, donning a bag of toys. “I’ve been doing this for the past ten years. You can’t imagine how wonderful a day it is,” laughs Justice.
Business Holdings As Expansive as his Size
Since his father’s death in 1993, Justice has operated the family’s mining business. He spearheaded the acquisition of tens of thousands of acres of coal reserves and increased its production six-fold resulting in it becoming one of the nation’s largest independent coal companies.
Justice Family Farms LLC, incorporated in 1977, boasts the largest cash grain operation on the East Coast. With sites in four states, the company farms more than 50,000 acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans.
The diversity continues with Justice’s owning Christmas tree farms, John Deere equipment dealerships, cotton gins, commercial grain elevators, as well as a 15,000-acre hunting and fishing preserve in West Virginia. Forty-seven businesses in all. Then there are the private jets and helicopters.
Despite these trappings of success, Justice maintains a small town persona. One neighbor from his hometown of Beckley, W. Va. sums up his gentility, “Jim Justice is as common as an old shoe.” Now 58 years old, Justice recalls her comment wistfully.
Before May 7, 2009, he was best known in Greenbrier County for his holiday cheer and as the high school girls’ basketball coach. “760 wins and 159 losses,” he proudly recites his coaching record. He also runs the Beckley Little League.
He is now more than just, “Jim, the girls’ basketball coach.” To employees at The Greenbrier Resort, he is, “Mr. Justice, our Savior.”
That’s what Greg Scott, a Greenbrier doorman for 14 years, proclaims. “It is like the Lord has opened the windows of heaven for us. People were losing their homes, their insurance. He came in with a vision and we love him and we thank the good Lord for him,” Scott adds dramatically.
Jerry, a shuttle bus driver at the resort for the past 29 years, was uncertain about his future. “But Mr. Justice has given us hope,” he exudes; a mantra you hear from waiters, waitresses, housekeepers, even those in management.
Justice watched as his neighbors lost their livelihoods. He saw the pain in their faces as it became a challenge to put food on the table. “Daggone, I just had to do something,” he asserts. And he did.
A Historic Treasure Loses Its Luster
The 721-room Greenbrier Resort is one of West Virginia’s largest employers. In recent years, it lost its luster. Mobil, the famed hotel rating system, dropped it from a five-star property to four stars. Labor disputes ensued. Groups, as well as leisure guests, were hesitant to visit in fear of a walk out. In turn, the resort started to bleed money-$90 million over five years, including $35 million in 2008. Its owner, CSX Corp., filed for bankruptcy. The future was grim.
Marriott Corp. stepped in to buy the iconic, 231-year-old resort with what many believe were plans to turn it into a “cookie-cutter” property. A travesty, says Justice, as The Greenbrier is a true national treasure.
“Not to slight Marriott, but this is a brand unto itself. For it to become part of a chain would have been like sandblasting Mt. Rushmore,” he urges.
Maybe it’s the interior colors; the Dorothy Draper lime greens, cotton candy pinks, or the stateliness of the massive white, columns that greet you, or it can be the perfectly manicured 6,500 sprawling acres, blooming flowers all around, their scent intoxicating as is the freshness of the mountain air. This storied resort is a special place where Southern hospitality and elegance is at its best. A spa, four championship golf courses, sporting clays, an off-road driving school, falconry, and ten miles of fly fishing, are a few of the activities offered. Standing on the wooden floorboards of The Presidents’ Cottage that is now an impressive museum, looking out at The Greenbrier’s expansive grounds, it’s spine-tingling to think 26 presidents have stayed here. This is where Joseph and Rose Kennedy honeymooned and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace vacationed.
Justice bought the resort out of bankruptcy for $20.1 million. When he told his lawyers his plan, they said they never heard of someone buying a company out of bankruptcy. That didn’t stop him. He was able to buy all of the shares in the holding company of Greenbrier Hotel Corp. from CSX, then take it out of bankruptcy court. Justice met for the first time with CSX on April 29; by May 7, he owned The Greenbrier.
How did he celebrate? With a quick lunch at a local Wendy’s.
He didn’t have time to waste; he had work to do. His first order of business—bring back the 600 employees who had been furloughed. Lynn Swann, The Greenbrier’s director of public relations, had Colonial Hall, one of the resort’s biggest meeting spaces, set up for a mandatory staff meeting on that fateful day. About 1,200 employees gathered, most fearing the worst.
“When Jim Justice, a third generation West Virginian, was introduced as our new owner it was just unbelievable,” sobbed Swann with tears streaming down her face. “A colleague looked at me and asked if this were for real.”
The reaction of the employees caught Justice completely off guard. “There was such an explosion of happiness, of joy, of relief. Let me tell you this. That was a fabulous day to be Jim Justice,” he reminisced with a smile.
Union contracts that had been signed with the assumption that Marriott would be the new owner were reopened. Instead of the anticipated cut in benefits, he created a more generous health-care plan for his 1,450 employees. Another benefit, allowing employees to eat one meal a day at the resort, further endeared him.
“He has breathed life back into our community,” reveals Mike Kidd, president of the Greenbrier Convention and Visitors Bureau’s board of directors. “As occupancy fell off, the town began to suffer. Employees were let go. Since they weren’t earning paychecks, they stopped shopping. The shuttles from the resort stopped coming. How The Greenbrier does impacts the entire area. Thunder struck the day he bought the resort.”
A Man of Action
“Generations of West Virginians have given their lives to the Greenbrier. To have a man like Jim Justice buy this, America’s resort, who has the resources and uses them in the most productive manner so West Virginia will benefit, is big. It took someone with the passion and compassion Jim has to make this happen,” expresses West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin.
Justice is a man who makes things happen and fast. “I think Jim dreams something at night and the next day, it becomes reality,” comments Governor Manchin.
He snagged a PGA tournament, one of the sporting world’s biggest events, in a little more than two months time. A press conference was held on August 5 to announce details of what is being called, “The Greenbrier Classic” that will be held at the resort for six years starting in 2010. Justice has set the purse at $6 million.
Justice knows golf. Growing up, he was so talented at the sport that he was recruited to play at the University of Tennessee. But he wanted to be close to his future wife, Cathy Comer, who he has been married to for 33 years, and transferred to Marshall University where he captained the golf team and received a BS as well as an MBA. During high school, he won the state Junior Amateur twice. He has also been part of the State Amateur that was played at the resort he now owns. Ironically, his family didn’t have the means to stay overnight.
Just days before appearing at the press conference with the governor and famed golfer Tom Watson about The Greenbrier Classic, he was running a combine on one of his farms in South Carolina harvesting his corn. His roots are humble. His grandparents on his mom’s side never had indoor plumbing and his dad grew up in a coal camp. Although the family didn’t have much it did have strong values.
His impossible-to-please father, the biggest influence on his life, often advised his son, “If you can’t get it done in 24 hours a day, you’ll have to work nights.”
He heeds those words. A typical day for Justice starts at 6 a.m. He finishes his last business calls at about 1 a.m. That’s seven days a week, the only exception, trying to fit in a church service on Sunday morning.
Adding to his grueling schedule, Justice coaches the high school girls’ team, from December to March. For him, a labor of love. He also directs a weeklong basketball tournament in Beckley, W. Va. involving two dozen teams from middle school to college. He has scored with speakers like Larry Bird at a pre-tournament banquet he also arranges.
Basketball is a family affair. He reports proudly that his 24-year-old daughter Jill, a basketball standout, is in her second year of medical school at Virginia Tech. She attended Clemson University and Marshall University for her under grad studies on a full basketball scholarship. Twenty-eight-year-old son, Jay, a Virginia Tech graduate, helps him oversee his businesses. “Jay was born 40 years old, works all the time, and truly loves the business world,” reports Justice.
After spending time with Justice, you realize he is enjoying transforming what he calls, “America’s Resort” into “America’s Story.” This is his first foray into the hospitality industry but he is not intimidated. “How hard can it be to lose $30 to $40 million a year in the hotel business. This is what a lot of these hotel gurus are doing. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to make this the destination everyone wants to go to. This is our opportunity to introduce the world to our town which is a Norman Rockwell painting,” he emphasizes.
The Greenbrier’s rebirth includes gaming. Under the front entrance of the hotel, construction of an 82,000-square-foot casino is in full swing, set to open in April of 2010. Justice promises the casino will be “a truly spectacular facility, very elegant; and unlike anything anyone has seen before.” It will feature 400 slot machines and 40 gaming tables.
Approaching the casino there will be what Justice calls a decompression area, with shopping, a restaurant, coffee bar, and lounge. Meanwhile, a smaller temporary casino opened on October 1 to introduce the gaming concept to present guests.
Justice intends to spend $175 million on new amenities, including the casino, 1,500-seat theater, teen center, and new dining options. One of Justice’s hunting buddies, NBA legend Jerry West, whose silhouette is incorporated into the NBA logo, is honored in Prime 44 West, a new Greenbrier steakhouse.
The coach has a game plan. In it he asks his players, in this case, his employees, for something in return, their commitment to getting the fifth Mobil star back. To be sure they are as motivated as he, he promises every employee that once that happens, each will get a one-time bonus of 10 percent of their gross pay.
“Camaraderie among the staff has returned. Everyone is laughing, saying hello to each other,” explains Carol Hanna, The Greenbrier’s director of conference services, who has worked at the resort in various capacities for 22 years. The willingness to serve impresses. The doormen, front desk agents, waiters and waitresses, remember your name, a nice touch in a world of anonymity.
John Denver sang, “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong, West Virginia.” Jim Justice is home…and he wants the world to visit.