Unloading The Greenbrier’s Baggage
When The Greenbrier Resort owners declared bankruptcy in 2009, local businessman Jim Justice stepped in to restore America's Resort to its former glory.
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In March, The Greenbrier, West Virginia’s most fabled resort, declared bankruptcy. After losing $35 million in 2008 alone, its owners, CSX Corporation, determined that The Greenbrier was baggage that they could no longer carry. Then, just at the moment that West Virginia risked losing this national treasure, local businessman Jim Justice stepped in to carry the load. Meet the man and his family whose mission is not just restoring “America’s Resort” to its former glory, but also saving a community.
When Jim Justice told his wife Cathy that he was going to buy The Greenbrier, her first response was, “Have you lost your mind?” Her next question was, “Can you really save it?”
During the The Greenbrier’s 231-year history, American presidents, European royalty, and countless barons of industry have all flocked to the resort known for its unparalleled amenities and service. It even has a massive underground bunker that was created as an emergency shelter in case of a nuclear attack for the U.S. Congress. Owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway and its successor CSX Corporation for nearly 100 years, The Greenbrier became a 6,500-acre resort with 700 rooms, four golf courses and 40,000-square-foot spa that prided itself as “America’s Resort”—one that had long enjoyed a five-star rating. However, in 2000 it lost that fifth star and despite pouring in $50 million in renovations, CSX just couldn’t seem to return the resort to its glory days. With rooms at 30 percent occupancy, nearly 700 employees were laid off, morale was poor, and the neighboring towns of White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg were feeling the economic blow.
“The Greenbrier was hemorrhaging like crazy, and a lot of people were hurting. My family and I live here. We knew The Greenbrier was going down the tubes. We knew the people who were struggling,” says Jim. “And I just knew that I had an obligation to stop the hemorrhaging and to save the community.”
Ask anyone in Jim and Cathy’s hometown of Lewisburg and they’ll tell you that the Justices are the most sincere, humble, and genuine people you’ll ever meet. There’s not an ounce of pretension. They live in a modest home on a modest street. Jim has coached youth basketball for 25 years and is currently the coach of the Greenbrier East High School girl’s basketball team. He is the president of Beckley’s Little League. He is the tournament director of the Mountain State Coal Classic Basketball Tournament that has provided over $300,000 in scholarships and over $325,000 in direct support to participating schools.
He works hard and gives much back to the community, so it is not surprising that this all-American family jumped at the idea of saving The Greenbrier. “We all have the same passion. We love this community,” he says. “There are not many times that you are blessed with the opportunity to do common good that is bigger than yourself. Good gracious, there were so many people in the community who were in dire straights. To have the opportunity to save the community, it’s a great feeling.”
And the price tag gave him a good feeling as well. At $20.1 million, it is quite possibly the bargain of the century. When Jim told his son Jay, Jay’s mouth dropped open and he said, “Good God, $20.1 million? Give me a break! $20.1 million?” He still shakes his head every time he enters the lobby and thinks, “Wow—$20.1 million.”
“Jay’s the miser in our family,” laughs Cathy. “He is always looking for a deal.” Jay supported his father’s decision. “I understood the value of the deal. I thought it was a great investment.” And the deal seemingly came out of nowhere. One minute, by all accounts Marriott International Inc. was set to purchase The Greenbrier from CSX, but before anyone had time to blink, Jim bought all the shares of The Greenbrier’s holding company from CSX and took the company out of bankruptcy. The family celebrated over lunch at a local Wendy’s. And by the time the announcement was made on May 7, the question that was on everyone’s lips was, “Who is Jim Justice?”
In 1977, Jim started Bluestone Farms, now operating as Justice Family Farms, LLC, and grew it into the largest cash grain operation on the East Coast with over 50,000 acres of corn, wheat, and soybeans in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His company also owns commercial grain storage facilities, a John Deere farm equipment dealership, timber interests, cotton warehouses, land companies, a Christmas tree farm and two commercial turf farms. After the death of his father, he became president and CEO of Bluestone Industries, Inc. and Bluestone Coal Corporation, turning it into one of the largest independent coal companies in the United States. He has also developed Stoney Brook Plantation, a 15,000 acre hunting and fishing preserve in Monroe County that is currently being used as one of the amenities of the Greenbrier Sporting Club.