Seeing an opportunity to share specialized customer bases as well as best practices, Keeneland and The Greenbrier, an old-school luxury resort in the West Virginia mountains, have created a strategic alliance that ventures into new ground for both operations.
When the partnership was unveiled in mid-June, both parties had immediate ideas about how to begin activating the alliance. From Keeneland’s side, top buyers and sellers at its Thoroughbred sales could be rewarded with stays at The Greenbrier. Greenbrier officials, meanwhile, plan to offer customers day trips by jet – and later overnight by steam train – to Keeneland for racing and sales.
The Greenbrier is one of the nation’s oldest resorts and attracts wealthy clientele, especially from the Washington,?D.C., to Boston corridor. It’s a customer base with the resources to inject cash into the Thoroughbred industry.
Each partner views the other as having achieved a special marriage of the traditional and the modern while maintaining top customer service – and possessing that certain something you can’t necessarily put your finger on: class. Both institutions hope to attract new clientele and revenue from their alliance.
“Thoroughbred racing has an aura. It has style. It has class. It’s romantic,” said Jim Justice, who became owner of The Greenbrier in May 2009. “It’s just such a good blend,” he said of the alliance. “Who knows where it will take us.”
Located in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va. – named for its visitor-attracting geographic feature – The Greenbrier’s locale first became a vacation destination some 230 years ago. It attained wider fame as an upscale resort in the early to mid-1800s, Greenbrier officials say, as a result of regular visits by one of the greatest celebrities of that age: Lexingtonian Henry Clay. The Greenbrier happens to be about halfway between Lexington and Washington, D.C.
Clay, who visited twice yearly for decades during his political career, was known as “the lion of White Sulfur Springs,” said Robert Conti, Ph.D., staff historian at The Greenbrier. The resort had seen visits by five sitting presidents, Conti said, but Clay “was more famous than all five put together.”
The new partnership sprang rapidly from idea to done deal, said Nick Nicholson, president and CEO of Keeneland. Greenbrier owner/Chairman Justice first proposed exploring a collaboration as the spring racing session wrapped up in late April. With a smile, Nicholson explains that when he, facing a busy schedule, suggested perhaps he could manage to visit Greenbrier in June or July, Justice told him “May would be better!”
The latter half of May it was. The alliance was unveiled June 16.
An ‘all-in’ businessman
Justice, who made a fortune in the coal business, is known to move fast. His purchase of The Greenbrier, just miles away from his longtime home, is an example. The resort, owned and operated for more than 100 years by CSX, had fallen on hard times and entered bankruptcy. Justice bought the resort’s stock for only $20.1 million, going from initial contact with CSX officials to a done deal in roughly three weeks.
The property was a plum the Marriott hotel chain was planning to make the flagship of a new line of resort operations, according to Jeff Kmiec, vice president and marketing director for Greenbrier.
Justice hired Kmiec from The Sawgrass in northeast Florida soon after he acquired The Greenbrier. And, yes, that happened quickly, Kmiec admits.
“In my world, you have to move fast,” Justice said. “People think I shoot from the hip,” but he said that’s not true.
“I have a good analytical mind,” he said, explaining that he can quickly assess potential deals. However, he added, some of his decisions, strategies and plans just seem to appear fully formed in his mind: “I see things.”
No outside consultants provided input on the Greenbrier-Keeneland agreement, Justice said, and there were no studies. “The study is going on constantly between my staff and Nick Nicholson’s staff.”
Kmiec describes his boss as “an all-in guy” who believes only full commitment focuses performance.
Justice’s father founded Bluestone Industries and Bluestone Coal Corp. in the 1970s. Justice, now 59, took over when his father passed away in 1993.
According to his official biography, Justice focused Bluestone on a massive growth program through the late 1990s, acquiring coal reserves and boosting production. In 2003, he founded James C. Justice Cos. Inc. to further expand coal reserves and mining operations. Justice Cos. moved into Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia in 2007-08 with acquisitions of Sequoia Energy in Middlesboro, Premium Coal Co. and S&H Mining in east Tennessee and A&G Coal in Wise County, Va.
Justice negotiated the sale of Bluestone Industries Inc. and affiliated companies, which comprised all of the family’s active West Virginia coal mines, to Mechel OAO, a Russian-based global mining and metals company. That deal was worth a reported $440 million in early 2009.
The Justice’s Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia coal operations and the West Virginia, Virginia, North and South Carolina agricultural operations continue today under the parent James C. Justice Cos. Inc.
Non-coal operations include Justice Family Farms, with 50,000-plus production acres in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina in 2008, commercial grain storages, a farm equipment dealership, timber, cotton warehouses and land companies.
He also developed Stoney Brook Plantation, a 15,000-acre hunting and fishing preserve in Monroe County, W.Va., that is now an amenity of the Greenbrier Sporting Club.
His father played football at Purdue and became a golfer. The 6-foot-7 Justice opted for golf over basketball, won state amateur championships and became close friends with the legendary Sam Snead, who was resident pro at The Greenbrier.
“I played with (Snead) probably 400 times,” he said.
Justice earned a bachelor’s and an MBA while studying marketing at Marshall University and captaining its golf team. A shoulder injury largely ended his own sports participation in 1976, but he’s been a youth sports sponsor for decades and today coaches the local girls high school basketball team.
The amiable Justice plunged into ownership of The Greenbrier with typical gusto. He struck a deal with its unions to end labor strife and poured more than $100 million into improved operations and facilities. A 100,000-s.f. underground casino opened early this month, followed three weeks later by a PGA tournament at Greenbrier’s “Old White” course, which just received a $25 million facelift.
With four golf courses and extensive grounds, Greenbrier has a landscaping expertise that Keeneland plans to tap. Nicholson said Keeneland would like to upgrade its own extensive grounds, especially the main entry area used for tailgating on its biggest race days, and perhaps improve its tree-care practices.