2011 Laureates

Mike Quillen

Mike Quillen got off to a bit of a rough start in life. Within two days after his birth, he had lost over half his original body weight. On the third day of his life, Quillen underwent surgery to connect two lengths of his digestive tract. "Obviously," he says, "it worked."

When you've survived major surgery - with the medical technology of 1948 - in only your third day alive - lack of toughness is not going to be one of your big problems in life.

As a youth, Quillen found a niche on the football field in Gate City, Virginia. When he was a sophomore, he broke his neck while playing football. "It wasn't as big a deal to me as it was to everybody else," he says. The next year he was back on the field, trying to earn a starting spot on the Gate City High School football team. Neither of his parents, who had divorced when he was five, approved of his decision to play again after recovering from his neck injury, but they didn't stop him.

In the first game of his junior year, Quillen suffered a broken nose. "Now having had kids and grandkids, I have no idea how my parents got through all that," he says. But his coach, Harry Fry, knew the stuff Quillen was made of. When the young halfback came off the field with his nose askew, Fry asked him, "Can you see?" When Quillen said yes, Fry replied, "Well get your butt back in there!" To this day, Quillen remembers Fry's leadership, and the fact that Fry led Gate City his senior year to the first undefeated and untied season in the school's history, giving up only six points all year. "Of all the things I've been, even chair of Alpha, being named co-captain of that team by my teammates is one of the things I'm proudest of."

At that same time, Quillen took his first job at his grandfather's cemetery in Weber City. "It's what got me into engineering and mining," he says, "I really liked being around the machinery they used to dig and mow." The job also taught him more about discipline and patience. He trimmed around hundreds of headstones on his hands and knees. Upon graduation, Quillen's neck injury kept him from being able to join the Marine Corps. Medically ineligible to follow his father's footsteps into the military, Quillen instead set out for Blacksburg to study engineering at Virginia Tech. The physical that kept him out of the USMC actually made it easier for Quillen to attend Virginia Tech, opening up a disability scholarship. "I didn't want to take it," he remembers, "but they said if I didn't it would go back into the general fund." In 1970, he graduated with a civil engineering degree, got married, and took a job with the Southern Railway. The degree would stay with him his entire life. The rest would end sooner than expected.

"Back in those days, if you got a job with the railroad, it was gold," he says. "I mean, you had 40 years and a gold watch guaranteed." But about three months into that job, Quillen got a call from a former professor who offered him $300 a month to be a teaching assistant at Tech and work on a masters' degree. Getting that degree took only nine months and then Quillen was on the road again – literally. He took a job with the highway department, working out of Richmond.

In 1974, Quillen's father Jack got into the mining business. He and his partner, Bill Humphreys, whose daughter Debbie would later marry Mike, and Fred Smith, an electrical contractor, invited Mike back to work in Wise County as the foreman on a surface mine during the daylight hours and do engineering at night for QSHE Enterprises. "I thought that I could live forever in Scott County on the $1,000 a month salary they offered," he remembers. 

After less than a year, Jack Quillen sold out of QSHE and Mike went to work full time for Humphreys as chief engineer. In 1976, Quillen went to work for Jim Brown at Paramont. That company had just been sold to Barbour Oil out of New York. "I started with just the surface mines, but they said they wanted to get into underground mining. I had never been in an underground mine or a preparation plant, but they said, ‘go build one and learn.

At about that time, Brown decided he didn't like working for a public company out of New York, so he quit. That left Quillen, still shy of thirty years old, telling the executives in the 212 area code that he'd like to run their Southwest Virginia operations. "For some unknown reason," he says, "they said yes. It makes no sense whatsoever that they'd let a 29-year-old run a company with 600 employees."

Then the initiation into public companies began. Barbour was the target of a hostile take-over and all the subsidiaries were sold off. The home office went with another subsidiary, so Quillen ended up answering to a law firm in Pennsylvania. That meant that during the violent strikes of the 1970s, Quillen didn't have a lot of back-up. In fact, at one point, he ended up disarming a bomb at one of the mines.

"The ATF and the Virginia State Police were there," he remembers, "but they didn't know what to do with it. So I said, ‘I think I can disarm it.' Well, they all jumped into their vehicles and backed down the road out of harm's way."

When Quillen's mother Jean saw the picture of her son with the bomb, she didn't buy the caption that said he was a blasting expert, Quillen says. "She told me I was an idiot. But it worked out."

"It was a tough time," Quillen says, adding, "Fortunately no one got killed in all the confrontations we had. We got through it."

The volatility of the 1970s subsided and the firm was bought by W.R. Grace in 1981. "Mr. Grace was a unique individual to work for," remembers Quillen. "He made Howard Hughes look almost normal." From 1986 to 1994, he worked for a variety of mining companies, including Pittston twice. By 1999, Quillen was running all of Pittston's union-free operations, having run international sales as well.

He then went to work for American Metals and Coal, running their North American and Australian operations, which required semi-monthly trips down under. By this time he had also lived through three helicopter crashes. "Every day is a gift to me," he says.

Another opportunity was just around the corner. Pittston (then Brinks) coal operations had been for sale for three years. "I met with them at Tri-Cities Airport and made a deal to buy the Virginia operations. I walked out into the parking lot at Tri-City Aviation and thought, ‘Where am I going to get the money to do this?'"

Quillen went to a private equity company, First Reserve. "When I first showed up, I told them, ‘I don't have a business plan. I have faith in the people." As you might expect, he didn't initially get the money. But First Reserve did call back, and Alpha Natural Resources was ready to be capitalized.

The company started in a three-room office in Gate City with four employees in October 2002. The Pittston acquisition closed on Friday, December 13. Alpha had already been negotiating to buy Coastal Coal, and the sale closed on January 31, 2003. AMCI then brought their assets in for equity. In just over three months, Alpha went from four employees to a little over 2,700.

The trend toward growth continued. The Nicewonder properties were brought in, then Alpha merged with Foundation Coal Co., to become the fourth largest coal producer in America. It was at that time Quillen gave up the corner office as CEO and began "enjoying" life as chairman of the board.

The direction of the company has stayed the same with him as chair as it did with him as CEO with the motto "Running Right". Alpha continues to grow. The merger with Massey is almost complete. When that deal closes, Alpha will be the third largest coal company in America and the third largest metallurgical coal producer in the world, with 14,000 employees. Alpha will move into its new world headquarters in Bristol, Virginia by Thanksgiving 2011.

Being chair gives Quillen more time to spend with his family. He has three grown children - sons Chris and Matt and daughter Hunter. Mike married Debbie two years ago with Debbie bringing three children - Jennifer, Michael, and Courtney- from a previous marriage into the family. The family now includes 12 grandchildren with whom to play. "When you have 12 grandchildren from two to 16 years old," says Quillen, "there are a lot of events to attend."

Quillen also enjoys anything VA Tech with the family including tailgates and bowl games and was recently appointed to the VA Tech Board of Visitors. He also serves on the Martin Marrietta Materials Board of Directors.

Quillen now has more time for golf. And if professional accomplishment has its privileges, then it's on the golf course that Quillen chooses to enjoy them. "In the last year," he says, "I have spent time with Tiger Woods, and played with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, as well as Virginia Tech's football coach Frank Beamer and former president George W. Bush.

And after years of deflecting laud and honor to those around him, Quillen is finally accepting some credit for what he has accomplished over the last three-plus decades. Virginia Business magazine recently named Quillen one of the 25 best businessmen in Virginia over the last 25 years. This in addition to being named a Junior Achievement Business Hall of Laureate tonight.