HQ&A: Governor Jim Justice

A conversation with the billionaire businessman turned political novice about running a state, coaching basketball, reducing debt, the drug epidemic, Donald Trump, tomatoes and more.

By Jack Houvouras

Just eight years ago, only a handful of West Virginians had ever heard of Jim Justice, the billionaire businessman who made his fortune in coal, agriculture and literally dozens of other companies.

But all of that changed in March 2009, when Justice bought The Greenbrier resort out of bankruptcy. The big businessman, who stands 6 feet 7 inches tall, outmaneuvered Marriott Hotel Services Inc. to land the famed resort. Justice’s notoriety soared as the media learned more about the now-65-year-old West Virginia native.

Raised in Beckley, West Virginia, Justice earned both his B.A. and M.B.A. from Marshall University, where he was captain of the golf team. After graduation, he entered the family business — coal. But Justice was determined to make his own mark, and soon after joining the company he initiated a foray into the agriculture business. He was extremely successful acquiring wheat, corn and soybean farms in four different states. Today, Justice Farms is the largest grain producer on the east coast. Upon the death of his father in 1993, Justice took control of the coal side of the business, and under his leadership there was a tremendous expansion of the company. Today, the Justice family employs some 3,500 people at 102 different companies including cotton gins, Christmas tree farms, turf grass operations, golf courses, timber enhancement and land projects.

Justice quickly turned things around at The Greenbrier. He opened an upscale steakhouse that he named Prime 44 West after his good friend and NBA legend Jerry West, built an $85 million underground casino and brokered a six-year deal that would bring the first-ever PGA TOUR golf tournament to West Virginia. When he took over The Greenbrier, the resort was averaging an occupancy rate of 30 percent. Today, it’s averaging 85 percent.

In 2015, Justice surprised a lot of people when he declared his candidacy for governor. A longtime Republican businessman, he changed his registration to Democrat and sought public office for the first time. He won the primary and went on to easily defeat former Senate president and Republican nominee Bill Cole in the general election. On January 16, Justice was sworn in as West Virginia’s 36th governor.

More than just a highly successful businessman, those who know Justice best describe him as a devoted family man. He and his wife Cathy have two children, Jay and Jill, who are both involved in the family businesses. Justice is also known for being profoundly generous with both his time and money. As just one example, he dresses up as Santa Claus every year and gives away more than $1 million in toys to children in need.

Justice has coached high school basketball for the last 30-plus years, recording more than 1,000 wins. HQ Publisher & Editor Jack Houvouras caught up with Justice at his office in the State Capitol on a cool Saturday morning in early March — the big man with a big heart works 365 days a year. Their conversation covered such topics as basketball, coal, last year’s floods, the state’s drug epidemic, Donald Trump and, believe it or not, tomatoes. But the main focus was how the political novice planned to navigate his way around Charleston and move West Virginia forward.

You own close to 100 different businesses, including The Greenbrier, where you put on a major PGA TOUR event every year, and you coach high school basketball. What made you decide to run for governor?

Oh, Jack, it’s pretty simple. I’ve never had an ambition to have a gigantic pile of gold and just sit around and count my money. I have a sincere love for the game of business, and I like to win. But at the same time, I really love people, and I genuinely love West Virginia. Sadly, I think our state often gets the short end of the stick. After years and years of seeing West Virginia ranked dead last in so many categories, it started to erode me. I thought I could really help and didn’t want to just turn my back on this great state because I’ve got other things to do that may be more fun or because I didn’t need the hassle. In my world, I believe the good Lord looks at you and says, “I’ve blessed you, Jim, beyond belief, and I’m not happy with you if you’re not willing to take on this next challenge to help a lot of people.” That’s basically it.

In November, you had your 1,000th career victory as a basketball coach. What are the things you love most about coaching?

I love the game of basketball because it cycles so quickly. It’ll take you to the lowest lows and then take you back to the highest highs. The key is to just hang in there, because that’s what life is about. If we just hang in there, and keep giving it our best, a lot of things that we think are the end of the world will turn around. In addition, I really love the kids and the positive impact you can have on their lives. I receive calls nearly every day from my former players. A young man named Seth Brown who played for me this year came by to tell me that he had been invited to an All-American camp. It’s also kids calling to tell me they made a “B” in chemistry, that they just got engaged or that they’re having their first baby. It starts out as coaching, but it ends up being a lifetime spent with kids and watching them grow up. As for 1,000 wins, that only says that I’ve been at it a long time, and I’m getting pretty old.

Last year, West Virginia was hit with one of the deadliest and most damaging floods in the state’s history. It affected thousands of people, including you in the form of extensive damage to The Greenbrier’s four golf courses and other parts of the resort. In the wake of that disaster, what did you learn about yourself and the people of West Virginia?

It was the worst thing that I have ever been through in my life with the possible exception of losing my dad. There was a sadness that just surrounded everyone. The one thing that quickly took a back burner was The Greenbrier and the golf tournament. You can fix The Greenbrier and have a golf tournament next year. That didn’t compare to the people who lost loved ones. The image I can’t get out of my mind is the people standing near their homes with all their sacred possessions — family photo albums, musical instruments — covered in mud. Many of their things were piled up in the streets, and the National Guard, bless their heart for doing such a marvelous job, would come along and throw them in the back of a dump truck. To think that we looked for six weeks for Mykala Phillips, a beautiful little 14-year-old girl, who we finally found a mile downstream from where she was swept away. In the face of all that tragedy, you saw West Virginians at their very, very best. The people of this state are loving and appreciative people. A lot of them could have been standing there feeling sorry for themselves, but our people never did that. Instead, they were grateful for the help they received and, in turn, offered to help their neighbors. I saw a woman whose home had been completely washed away, and she was at the house next door trying to help her neighbor clean up. It just goes on and on. It was a tragedy beyond belief, but we, as West Virginians, will recover. The Good Book tells us that we’ve got to love our neighbors, and I can tell you that West Virginians certainly do. In my mind that’s the neatest thing about this state.

During your campaign for governor, what were the voters’ greatest concerns?

Hopelessness. The voters felt deep down that our state was in last place nationally, or dadgum near it. Our people have to have hope. When you’re hopeless, you turn to desperate things. Drug abuse is a gigantic problem within our state. We don’t have any jobs. Our families are fragmented. Our kids and grandkids are spread all over the country — they’re in Atlanta, Denver, Columbus, Charlotte. They’ve been forced to leave West Virginia to find a job. I think most West Virginians know they are good, hardworking and smart. The problem is there are just too many people on the outside who don’t truly know what our state represents. They have an array of negative impressions and misconceptions about our state. We don’t want things given to us. We don’t want the federal government to ride in on a white horse and pass out money. We just want a fair shake and an opportunity. And, if given that, we will deliver. Period. Just think about what our miners have done. Coal has fueled this country in wartime throughout centuries, and look at all the West Virginians who have served in our military. When West Virginians are called upon, they respond with greatness. Our people need to be reminded of that because we have too much despair and hopelessness. That’s why I ran, and that’s what I want to change.

You’ve only been in office for 54 days; but in that time, what have you noticed are the most significant differences between running a business in the private sector and running state government in the public sector?

Nothing. Not a thing. That’s the myth that everybody falls prey to. They think in business they can tell people what to do and they will go do it. But in government they think you’ve got to work within the constraints of public guidelines and everything is different. Well, let me tell you, that’s not the case. In business, there are many wickets that you’ve got to go through, and it’s a constant maze. Today, you don’t tell people what to do. You motivate them and keep them happy and keep them moving in the right direction. You lead. And in government there are all kinds of wickets and a maze that you’ve got to work your way through. The bottom line is you’ve just got to find your way through the maze of wickets. There may be different rules and guidelines, but the challenges are the same. I’m a guy that believes we must get everyone together to charge up the hill. I don’t give a hoot in the world who gets the credit. I just want us to be able to conquer the hill. I promise you I will run the government exactly the same way I coach the basketball teams and exactly the same way I run my business.

Projections show that the budget deficit for West Virginia is more than $500 million, and it could be as high as $900 million next year. How do you approach a problem of this magnitude?

First of all, it’s not going to do us any good to take an aspirin for cancer. Aspirin may be able to get us through the day, but if we don’t address the problem we’re going to die. We have to get the debt under control, but we need to make it as painless as possible. The last three years we’ve known about this debt problem and all we did was kick the can down the road and take aspirin for cancer. We didn’t do anything and just hoped that things were going to get better. Meanwhile, the hole we’re in is still there and getting even bigger. A lot of our people in West Virginia don’t realize how bad things really are. To be perfectly fair, I didn’t either until I became governor and took a look under the sheets. When you’re staring at a debt of this magnitude, you have to make some tough choices, including modest tax increases. That’s why I have introduced a 4.5 cent tax on gasoline and an increase in our highway tolls for non-West Virginians. Those two measures alone will generate enough funds to repair all the roads and bridges within our state. And that infrastructure work will create 48,000 new jobs. I’ve proposed raising the sales tax from 6 percent to 6.25 percent. I’m asking the wealthiest West Virginians to pay a little more, and I’m asking businesses to step up and pay a .00075-percent commercial activity tax. I’m also considering some taxes on tobacco, beer and soda. I can promise you that I will face this challenge head on and provide real solutions and creative ideas that will take us out of this hole. After that, I want to take us to a period of unbelievable growth.

West Virginians have heard from a bevy of governors who have promised to improve the economic development efforts and bring new jobs to West Virginia, but they have had little success. What makes you different?

We’ve never had a governor who could pick up the phone and call anybody in the land who would take his call. I’ve got a lot of contacts. I’ve got a lot of experience. I’ve run 102 different businesses, and a lot of them have been in tourism and agriculture, oil and gas, timber and coal…you name it. And I’m a marketing guy. I can bring more to the table than maybe any governor ever has. I’ve studied the numbers and come up with a solid starting point — my roads plan. By increasing the gas tax by 4.5 cents, increasing the DMV annual license renewal fee from $30 to $50 and increasing the tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike by $2 (West Virginians can drive for free by purchasing an $8 E-ZPass®), we can create a real pot of money to build roads. All of those funds would be dedicated to building our roads, creating tens of thousands of jobs. What’s more, in the long run we would make our state accessible for tourism, manufacturing companies and more. That would be the key that would turn our state on. Then, you factor in all my contacts, experience and knowledge, and I think I can start bringing more companies to West Virginia — furniture manufacturing, industrial manufacturing, oil refineries, agriculture. I want tourism to explode throughout all of our state. The key to turning things around in West Virginia is my roads plan that would put 48,000 people to work right away.

You say you want to be the state’s no. 1 salesman. How do you sell entrepreneurs and CEOs on why they should do business in West Virginia?

If you step back and think about it, we have all the ingredients in West Virginia. We have four incredible ingredients. One, our location. We’re within 600 miles of two-thirds of the population of the United States. Two, our climate. We have four of the most beautiful, distinct seasons anywhere, but none of our seasons are too severe. Three, we abound in natural resources — coal, natural gas, timber, water. And four, our workforce. Fifteen years ago, when Charlotte’s population was exploding, they were hiring thousands of workers. There were applicants standing in line a hundred deep for these jobs, and the managers doing the hiring would walk the lines looking for workers from West Virginia. Why? Because they knew about our people’s work ethic and craftsmanship. So, I’m going to go out into the world and market these four trump cards that we possess. But equally important to selling entrepreneurs and CEOs is to knock down the wall of negative perception about West Virginia. That’s what I can do. I can knock down the wall and get companies to give us a fair shake.

What industries do you think are most poised for growth in West Virginia?

This may sound old school, but I think we will have a rebirth in the coal industry. I think that our tourism sector has unbelievable upside potential. I think that the discovery of the Marcellus Shale will lead to a boom in the natural gas industry. I think real live manufacturing jobs will sprout from the cheapest natural gas in the world. I think another sleeping giant is the agriculture within West Virginia. While we can’t compete with Great Plains states, we can develop specialty crops that can be marketed in the Northeast. I’ve said this many times, but have you ever compared a tomato from the grocery store to one grown in your grandma’s garden? There’s no comparison. Well, there is a reason for that and it’s our soil, our climate and our water. It’s the same reason that Vidalia onions are grown in Vidalia, Georgia, and Idaho potatoes are grown where they’re grown. We need to develop our Idaho potato or our Vidalia onion.

West Virginia tomatoes?

Almost Heaven tomatoes.

That’s even better.

Whatever it may be. But back to your questions about which industries are poised for growth in West Virginia, first and foremost would be tourism. Right behind tourism would be our natural resources — coal, natural gas, timber. Another idea I’m working on involves the environment. Many folks aren’t aware that 77 percent of this state is forestry. What trees do is suck up carbon dioxide and release oxygen. That’s what all plants do. Well, our trees are cleaning up a lot of the nation’s pollution, and we need to get something for that. I’d like to see West Virginia receive a federal environmental subsidy for helping clean up carbon emissions. This subsidy would offset a percentage of the wages of any manufacturing that would be done with our hardwood. This would lead to the manufacturing of furniture, flooring and cabinetry in West Virginia.

You mentioned coal earlier. President Trump says he is going to put the coal miners back to work, but do you think it’s realistic to expect the coal industry to be as big a part of our economy as it was in the 1980s and 1990s?

No, I really don’t. I think that may be a big stretch unless we perfect clean coal technology. Now, as the world continues to grow, our metallurgical coal will have tremendous upside potential.

What are your impressions of fellow billionaire Donald Trump?

I am very close friends with the Trump family, and I admire many of the things that Donald is doing. He and I are similar in many different ways. I sometimes wonder if he’s stealing my ideas. [Laughs] He likes to think big; he wants to curb the drug epidemic; he wants to put America first and I want to put West Virginia first; he wants to unite our parties. I’ve said many times I don’t care if you’re a Democrat, Republican or Independent; he wants to renegotiate our trade deals and I want to renegotiate our severance tax and move it into a tiered basis to help our companies when things are bad. Donald came right out and said, “I don’t want to cut Social Security,” which is contrary to a Republican president. I don’t want to cut our veterans’ benefits. I’ve said over and over, you can’t hurt our people. You can’t hurt our seniors, and you can’t hurt our veterans. For crying out loud, he wants to grow his way out of this mess and so do I. Now, on the other side, I’m a very humble person, and Donald is much more flamboyant. Donald can get out there and say some pretty egotistical things. We’re just different in that. Don Jr., Eric and I are close friends. They both love to hunt and fish. I just sent an invitation to both of them to come and go spring turkey hunting with me in April. You know, Donald had to give up a lot to run for president and all I can do is hope and pray and give him my support in every way.

West Virginia is the only state in the country that has not increased in population since World War II. What can we do as a state to stem the tide of residents moving away?

Isn’t it sad that so many times we say the same thing? “We’re the only one.” “We’re in last place.” I could talk for three days about this — and you don’t need me to do that — but we’ve got to let the world know how good we are. Our people are faith based. They’re craftsmen. They’re good and ethical and they know the difference between right and wrong. We’ve got to move education to the center of of what we’re doing. We’ve got to create an education mecca within our state. We’ve absolutely got to complete our road systems to where people can get here. In all honesty, it’s tough to get to West Virginia in a lot of places. Even if the outside world wanted to come, they’d have a hard time getting here. But the biggest thing we can do is market ourselves and change the rest of the world’s perceptions about West Virginia.

We’ve got to have jobs for our young people, too.

That’s exactly right. The no. 1 thing unequivocally is jobs and hope. You can write this down until the cows come home, but I promise you to the Lord above that I will deliver on that. And, it won’t take forever. If we can get some of these people that are standing in the way of progress to get out of the way, I promise you that I will bring job opportunities beyond belief to this state.

You’ve made some bold statements about transforming the state’s education system. Can you give some examples of what changes you would like to implement?

In education, we have proven how to be dead last, so why in the world should we continue to run the same plays over and over?

That’s a good coaching analogy.

What needs changed about education is this: We have half as many kids in our schools in West Virginia today as we had in 1980, yet we’ve got 10 times the number of Charleston bureaucrats. We’ve got 1,100 bureaucrats in agencies all over the place telling our educators what to do, yet we’ve got half as many kids. There’s something really wrong with that formula. Charleston has got to get out of the classroom, and we’ve got to let our teachers teach. We’ve got to reward and motivate our teachers, because they are frustrated and unappreciated. We’ve got to quit testing our kids all the time. What we’re doing ain’t working, and the very people who really know what’s going on are the people on the ground — the educators — and those are the people we listen to the least. And we absolutely need to get rid of this A through F grade system of our schools.

West Virginia is suffering from a drug addiction epidemic. Huntington in particular has an extremely high incidence of opiate-related overdoses. What is your plan to tackle this scourge on our state?

It goes back to my roads program. For a 4.5 cent tax on gasoline and for the raising of our highway tolls we will generate $2.4 billion for road work. I want to attach to that a 5-percent fee to the successful bidders that will result in $120 million to address our drug epidemic. I want that money used to fix and eradicate this drug scourge that is cannibalizing our people. We need money to combat this terrible problem, but we also need stricter laws for drug dealers, more social workers, more law enforcement people and more treatment facilities. We’ve covered a lot of topics in this interview, but nothing is more urgent than this. If we don’t fix this drug epidemic it will absolutely cannibalize us.

Being governor is a demanding job. How do you plan to effectively lead West Virginia and still maintain your numerous business interests and your coaching duties in Greenbrier County?

I’ve been blessed with two wonderful kids, Jay and Jill. Jay loves our businesses and is handling all our coal and agricultural holdings. Jill is a doctor, and she’s been really involved in our hospitality businesses. So really and truly I’ve left all that in their hands. I am so far removed from the businesses that it’s unbelievable. I don’t ever go on a vacation; I’ve never done it in my life. I have a lot of fun, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t go many places.  You know I just love my little bird dog, Lilly, and I love to hunt. I love to fish for trout. I love coaching basketball. And I love West Virginia. I’m blessed because I can do all of those things right here. I’m stuck on “on” all the time. I’ve got more time now than I’ve ever had in my life so I’ll probably drive people crazy with all the hours that I put in to be your governor.

Last thing, I’m going to ask you for three predictions: No. 1, who’s your odds-on favorite to win the Greenbrier Classic this year?

Oh, gosh. I’m going to say Phil Mickelson.

Two, will the folks at Mobil ever come to their senses and award The Greenbrier that elusive fifth star?

I don’t think so, and the reason is because we pulled out of that organization — it’s just too political. Honestly, we were chasing that Mobil tail when we should have been chasing our customers’ tail. So, that’s what we do today. We ask our guests to evaluate us every day, and we respond to them. It’s old school, but it works.

And three, at what age will Jim Justice retire?

[Smiles] When I die, Jack.

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