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Michael J. Quillen

Michael J. Quillen

Civil Engineering
Class of 1970, BS; Class of 1971, MS

For more than 40 years, the alarm clock in Mike Quillen’s bedroom would announce 4:45 a.m., an irrational waking hour to most. His long work days, regularly exceeding 10 to 12 hours, were complimented by maybe taking a single week of vacation time in any given year, even when he was accruing the right to take as much as a month off. The man who started earning money as a gravedigger at the age of 13, and who was able to attend the civil engineering program at Virginia Tech with the help of a partial scholarship, has never lost his work ethic, even in retirement.

His robust professional reputation was built through his lengthy career with the mining industry, often working in the deep pits side by side with the operators. His successes led to numerous accolades from his fellow miners to most recently being named the 2011 Virginia Business Person of the Year.

The latter award was due in part to his founding of Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources (ANR) in 2002 after spending 28 years in mining related positions. Quillen knew just about all of the key players from his various executive vantage points, as his titles had ranged from chief operating officer of the Eastern Coal Group of W.R. Grace and M.A. Hanna, to executive vice president of sales and marketing and president of Pittston Coal Sales for the Pittston Coal Co., to executive vice president of operations of American Metals and Coal International.

Impressively, he was only 31 when he was named president of Paramont Coal Company of Wise, Virginia. So by the time he founded ANR at 52, Quillen’s acumen led the company to its ranking as one of the nation’s largest coal suppliers and the number six coal supplier worldwide within ten years.

To achieve ANR’s sterling international status, Quillen first acquired the Virginia coal operations of Pittston Coal Company, followed by the Coastal Coal Company and the coal production and marketing operations of American Metals and Coal International. Next ANR added Mears Enterprises, Inc. In 2004, Moravian Run Reclamations Co., Inc., became part of ANR, as did several entities of the Cooney Bros. Coal Company. In 2005, ANR acquired the Nicewonder Coal Group, followed a year later by certain coal mining operations in eastern Kentucky from Progress Fuels Corp. In 2008, ANR assumed ownership of some of Arch Coal Inc.’s mining assets and, in 2009, it completed a merger with Foundation Coal Holdings Inc. In 2011, Massey Energy Company folded into ANR.

In spring of 2012, Quillen formally retired as chairman of ANR, a company traded on the N.Y. Stock Exchange, but still based in southwest Virginia – Quillen’s home for 63 years. He fills his days differently now, with only some of his time devoted to ANR where he maintains an office, or to the four coal mines in which he has ownership interest in Australia. But he has also been busy with his gubernatorial appointment as chair of the Virginia Port Authority Board of Commissioners (he stepped down from this position in late 2012), his service as Rector of Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors, and his new hobby of land baron. He acquired 160 acres of land near Abingdon, Virginia, that he is considering placing in a conservation easement with the Nature Conservancy.

“I am adjusting to getting up at 7:00 a.m. real well,” Quillen quipped. “I have walked almost every inch of the 160 acres, finding the time very peaceful,” except maybe when he stumbled upon a snapping turtle or a coyote, admitted one of the state’s leading philanthropists. For the past 30 years, Quillen has donated money to a multitude of organizations, and continually picks out two or three a year where he can make a substantial impact.

One of his retirement jobs is the co-chairman of an $8 million capital campaign for the historic Barter Theatre in Abingdon. And he was instrumental in Virginia Tech’s most recent development effort that earned the university status in higher education’s billion-dollar endowment club.

His family funded an auditorium in the Signature Engineering Building that will open in 2014. Eventually, he hopes to create a family foundation, involving his wife, Debbie, and his children, in the administration of the Quillen family’s generosity.

Quillen’s zest for life started as soon as he entered this world. Shortly after he was born in 1948, he developed intestinal problems, and within days weighed only 32 ounces, the equivalent of a quart of milk. He defied the doctor’s limited expectations of his life, and today continues to look at every day “as a gift.” His early flirtation with death may help account for the emphasis he has placed on the safety of miners throughout his career and even after his retirement.

For example, in 2004, he led ANR in its opening of the “Running Right” program, where every employee is trained as a safety leader. The process also allows his employees to file anonymous statements about safety issues within the company. “Most accidents are behavior based,” Quillen said, and when an employee wants to do a good job, he/she “will often cut corners” to improve productivity. “They want to do good, but in the end the short cut may not be the right thing to do.” The unnamed cards help management define the safety problems.

And before he left ANR in 2012, Quillen was instrumental in the creation of the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health Inc., a non-profit organization with a mission to improve mine health and safety through funding projects by qualified academic institutions, not-for-profit entities, and individuals associated with those entities. Alpha is contributing a total of $48 million to the foundation.

When the 2010 mine explosion occurred at the Upper Big Branch, an operation owned then by Massey Energy Co., Quillen sent five of Alpha’s rescue teams to the scene within an hour of his learning about the disaster that would claim 29 lives. With litigation pounding at the doors of the Massey Company after this accident, Quillen led ANR in its acquisition of Massey Energy Company, and subsequently instilled the company’s safety-first philosophy.

In retirement, Quillen is counseling ANR in the development of its new safety leadership academy in West Virginia. To remain up-to-date with the industry, the Abingdon, Virginia, resident maintains his first-class mine foreman certification, taking an eight-hour course every two years.

He adds that he also does it “out of respect” for the people who work in the industry. “It used to be that miners had to be big and shovel fast. Now everything is very technical,” and different, expanded safety mechanisms are required, Quillen explained. As a current example, a huge machine, called a continuous miner that uses its giant steel bits to claw coal from slabs and grind it up, is operated by a single miner using remote control.

Quillen also continues in the mining business with his personal interest in the Australia mines and does consulting for his prior partners at American Metals and Coal International. He remains active at the other end of the mining process also – exportation. Virginia is the home of the Port of Hampton Roads, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, among the world’s foremost coal-shipping facilities. With Quillen’s resume, it’s no wonder he was appointed a commissioner of the Virginia Port Authority in 2003, and was the only person retained on the board by current Governor Bob McDonnell. The state’s faith in Quillen’s abilities quickly led to his appointment as the board’s chairman.

“Our goal is for Virginia ports to continue to grow, be recognized, and generate economic opportunities for the Commonwealth,” Quillen said. In doing so, Quillen admits this position was “currently almost a full-time job in itself.”

Combine the Port Authority demands with the huge issues he faces as the rector of Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors and one wonders when he has time to walk his 160 acres. Quillen admitted he is “very engaged, very dedicated” regarding all aspects of the university, as are the other board members. As rector, he has spent many hours visiting with Virginia Tech personnel, from deans to faculty, to staff, to students.

“Higher education has significant financial circumstances to address and needs to make a transition. State assistance is not going to come back as we have known it in the past. Virginia Tech does not have the huge endowment of a University of Virginia or a Stanford. We need to step back and look at the model. Fortunately my previous position with the board was the chair of the finance committee. We could improve our finances if we were able to take more out-of-state students … but we remain dedicated to our land grant obligation.

“College boards need continuity. I am in my third year and I am learning every day,” Quillen, who is allegedly retired, said.

Among Quillen’s contributions to Virginia Tech, he is a past member of the College of Engineering Advisory Board and the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Advisory Board. He is a member of Ut Prosim and the Committee of 100. His family has also aided in the construction of the Inn at Virginia Tech and in funding the Quillen Academic Counseling Center in Lane Stadium for student athletes. The College of Engineering awarded him its Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2006.

Class of: 1970, 1971
Year Inducted into Academy: 2013