Bennett K. Hatfield
Class of 1979, BS
“Successful companies are built on the strength of their people, not their assets,” said Ben Hatfield in reference to lessons he learned from two mentors — the late James H. “Buck” Harless, a visionary pioneer of the timber and coal industries in southern West Virginia; and E. Morgan Massey, founding member and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Richmond-based A.T. Massey Coal Company.
Hatfield is recognized with growing International Coal Group from a “small shell of bankrupt companies into a $3.4 billion corporation” and “successfully reorganizing Patriot Coal Corporation out of Chapter 11, saving over 4,000 jobs, and preserving medical care for thousands of retirees,” said Greg Adel, Professor and Department Head of Mining and Minerals Engineering at Virginia Tech and Mike Karmis, the Stonie Barker Professor and Director of Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, in their nomination of Hatfield.
“I’ve done okay in the coal business, but my real claim to fame is that I was a caddy for Buck Harless,” reflected Hatfield humbly on his formative experiences of the early 1970s. Growing up as a coal miner’s kid, Hatfield had to earn his own spending money by delivering newspapers and caddying at Tug Valley Country Club. It was on the golf course that he met Harless and other successful business leaders in the region. “Buck was really good to me. He shared real life advice and demonstrated how business people positively impact their community,” Hatfield explained.
A third-generation coal miner and the youngest of six children, Hatfield was raised in the coal-mining town of Sprigg, West Virginia, located on the Kentucky border in Mingo County. During the week, his father supported the family by working in the mines of Island Creek Coal Company. But on weekends, he served the community as a minister at Freewill Baptist church and the Hatfield children could be found wearing their “Sunday-best” on the family pew at church.
Hatfield’s parents stressed the importance of hard work and getting an education, but money was very tight. The only way the Hatfield kids could afford college was to work part-time jobs and pursue scholarships or loans.
Post high school, Hatfield went the affordable route and signed up for classes at the University of Kentucky’s Prestonburg Community College. He and his twin brother Dennis had the good fortune of meeting local coal mine managers at the church their father pastored. Their connections with managers at A. T. Massey Coal Company in Kentucky helped them obtain part-time coal mining jobs to pay for college.
As Hatfield demonstrated proficiency in his coursework at community college, he also experienced a growing interest in the field of mining engineering. He set the lofty goal of attending Virginia Tech, but realized financial help would be necessary to cover out-of-state tuition, room, and board. Hatfield’s manager put in a call to O.B. Bucklen, vice president of engineering for A.T. Massey, who had been charged by E. Morgan Massey with identifying up-and-coming students for the Massey management intern program.
Bucklen connected him to Dick Lucas, then the department head of mining engineering at Virginia Tech. Lucas expedited applications for Hatfield and his brother Dennis to receive Massey scholarships and welcomed them into the mining engineering program. As a Massey scholar, Hatfield enjoyed the dual benefits of paid tuition and secure employment during summers and holiday breaks.
When it came to college life, Hatfield acknowledged he was pretty intense. “I approached school like it was a full-time job because my financial security depended on it,” said Hatfield of his mature-beyond-his-young-years college existence. “As soon as each quarter ended, I headed home to work in Massey mines to earn enough money to get me through the next quarter.”
In May 1979, despite multiple job offers, Hatfield cast his lot with A. T. Massey Coal, accepting a job as project engineer at its Kentucky Wolf Creek Collieries operation. “It seemed a natural progression to accept Massey’s offer,” said the loyal Hatfield. “They had helped fund my education, the offer was very attractive, and I wanted to work in the area where I grew up. A major factor in my decision was Morgan Massey’s management philosophy. He believed in empowering managers and training them to manage in a decentralized fashion. He believed companies couldn’t grow successfully unless they built a bench of strong leaders that understand the company’s culture, adhere to its guiding principles, recruit new talent, and advance young managers through the ranks.”
Over the next 23 years, Hatfield served in various engineering, operations, and corporate management capacities in Kentucky, Colorado, West Virginia, and Virginia. In June 1998, he was promoted to executive vice president and COO for (now publicly-traded) Massey Energy Company.
In December of 2001, Hatfield resigned from Massey Energy and accepted the executive vice president position at El Paso Corporation’s Coastal Coal subsidiary. His key assignment was to help strengthen operating performance and prepare the coal holdings for an organized sale process. He successfully completed the task in 14 months.
Hatfield then accepted a position with Arch Coal in March 2003 as its president of eastern operations. At Arch, he was responsible for nearly 30 million annual tons of coal production located in mine complexes extending across Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.
In early 2005, veteran Wall Street investor Wilbur Ross Jr. approached Hatfield with a challenging assignment. Ross has just begun assembling a new coal mining company from the remains of two companies that had recently emerged from bankruptcy. He wanted Hatfield to become president and CEO of International Coal Group.
The plan seemed simple enough; hire a management team, invest prudent capital to upgrade bankruptcy-neglected equipment, launch green-field mine developments to replace mines nearing depletion, establish stable financial performance, and take the company public with an initial public offering. As it turned out, sharp deterioration in coal markets, a major mine accident, and a host of other issues made the challenge much tougher than expected.
During his tenure at ICG, Hatfield earned great respect for Ross. “He had incredible patience – plus a remarkable ability to sift through complex problems and find a common-sense answer,” said Hatfield. In June 2011, under Hatfield’s leadership, the collection of once insolvent companies was sold to Arch Coal for $3.4 billion.
With work completed at International, Hatfield briefly considered retirement, but quickly concluded he enjoyed the mining business and was not ready. In September 2011, he joined Patriot Coal Corporation as executive vice president and COO when the coal industry was entering the most dramatic down-cycle in three decades. Within nine months after joining Patriot, Hatfield was faced with the unenviable task of taking the company through Chapter 11 reorganization. He was promoted to president and CEO in October 2012.
Over the balance of 2012 and 2013, Hatfield strategically reorganized the company, shutting in high-cost production, rejecting value-damaging contracts, negotiating a new five-year concessionary wage agreement with the United Mine Workers of America, and eliminating $1.7 billion in liabilities. As a result, 4,000 hard-working employees kept their jobs and medical insurance for 10,000 retirees was preserved.
“It was tough. We had to make quick decisions because the company was burning through borrowed cash at an unsustainable rate. Aside from the normal costs of running the business, Patriot was spending nearly $7 million a month on bankruptcy-related fees for lawyers, committees, and consultants. But in the end, the company was successfully reorganized because we were blessed with good assets, great people, patient vendors, and loyal customers,” said Hatfield with great pride.
Under Hatfield’s current leadership, Patriot is one of the largest holders of Eastern U.S. coal reserves, operates 11 state-of-the-art mine complexes in three U.S. coal basins, and benefits from broad transportation optionality.
Hatfield serves on the board of directors for both West Virginia Coal Association and the National Mining Association, an advisory board member of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research; and a member of the Central Appalachian Section of the Society of Mining Engineers, The Old Timers Club, Careers In Coal, and the King Coal Club.
Outside of his busy travel schedule, Hatfield remains involved in the Virginia Tech mining community, attending the annual department awards banquet to present the outstanding senior with the Old Timers Club Award. He continues to support funding for student scholarships and department operations.
In his downtime, Hatfield visits his two daughters. The eldest, Ashley Kay, has completed undergraduate degrees at West Virginia University and Virginia Commonwealth University, recently married, and resides in Richmond, Virginia. The youngest, Lauren Nicole, received her undergraduate degree from Washington & Lee University in 2014 and is now enrolled in the master’s program at George Mason University studying archeology and has an internship at The Smithsonian.
Hatfield’s two older brothers remain fixtures in the coal industry as well. Dennis and Steve currently work for competitors, Rhino Energy and Arch Coal, Inc., “making for interesting Sunday dinners.”
“It would be great if I could cite some remarkable secret to my success but, as best I can tell, the key is to surround yourself with smart people and heed their advice when it’s offered,” said the Academy of Engineering Excellence inductee.
Class of: 1979
Year Inducted into Academy: 2015