Chris Cline

Chris Cline.

Charleston – Like the aptly named company he formed, Chris Cline had foresight.

A billionaire coal tycoon and West Virginia native, Cline died Thursday, along with his daughter Kameron and five others, in a helicopter crash en route from the Bahamas to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Experts in the coal industry say Cline, who was a day short of 61 when he died, demonstrated prescience when he formed Foresight Energy in 2006 and turned his focus from low-sulfur coal in Appalachia to high-sulfur coal in Illinois in the face of the Clean Air Act's regulation of sulfur dioxide emissions.

At the time, many operators had turned to low-sulfur coal in Appalachia, hoping to avoid those regulations. But Cline sold his coal to power plants that used technology that could meet them.

"When everybody else was getting out of town and leaving the Midwest, Chris was coming in and had the vision to see that there was an opportunity in the business," said Paul Vining, a former CEO of the Cline Group and former member of the board of directors for Foresight Energy Group.

"I had a lot of faith in him."

Most industry leaders, Vining said, "have never actually had to be on the front line with the coal miners.

"He was a hands-on individual, more so than any other CEO that I've ever seen in the public arena, and I've worked for large companies and small companies, public and private," Vining said. "There's a lot of people at very high levels in companies that typically either forget what that was like, or they delegate it.

"They don't get their hands dirty. They let someone else make all those decisions."

Other industry leaders also referenced Cline's years working as a coal miner.

A Marshall University drop-out, Cline started working for his father's local coal mines at 22, according to a company history of Foresight Energy. He and his father bought out a partner's share in those mines, according to a Forbes profile of Cline.

He eventually built a net worth of $1.8 billion, also according to Forbes.

Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association and chairman of the West Virginia Business and Industry Council, said Cline grew into "one of the modernday icons of the business."

"He's built a very dynamic and diverse mining empire," he said. "He's one of the favorite sons of the southern West Virginia coalfields."

He said he never worked with Cline directly but had known him for more than 30 years.

"He just sort of had a feel for the business and a feel for which operations made sense to invest in and which ones didn't," Hamilton said. "A lot of that was probably working so close with his father and family at such a young age.

"It's a very tragic occurrence of course and the entire mining industry is saddened and shocked by Chris' death," Hamilton said.

He referenced Cline's sports philanthropy, calling him a "very caring and giving individual," and recalled seeing Cline at Marshall and West Virginia University sporting events.

"On the one end, he was a very prominent entrepreneur and successful businessperson," Hamilton said. "On the other hand, he was just a down-to-earth, very much regular person."

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, added, "He always admitted that the folks in West Virginia were greatly responsible for the success that he enjoyed."

Raney also agreed that Cline had prescience. He said Cline was adept at thinking ahead, calling him a "visionary."

Raney said people had even moved from Illinois to West Virginia to mine the low-sulfur coal. But he noted that in Illinois, Cline could use longwall mining equipment to mine the thicker coal seams.

"They're much easier to access," Raney said. "So he took advantage of that. Other companies did as well, but he was very, very successful with it."

More recently, Cline was working on coal mining projects in Canada. Forbes reported, in the 2017 profile of Cline, that opposition from environmentalists "in economically depressed Nova Scotia is restrained."

Taylor Kuykendall, coal reporter for S&P Global Market Intelligence, noted that Midwest coal operators, like those in Appalachia, have been struggling to compete with natural gas, have been hurt by coal-fired power plant retirements, and are fearful of domestic regulation.

"If I was in Illinois and I saw Chris Cline leave, I'd think, 'Are we the next Appalachia?'" he said, adding the market is tough for just about any thermal coal producer in the United States right now.

Murray Energy had taken an 80 percent share of Foresight Energy in 2017.

"If you see the guy who's kind of thought of as one of the smarter guys in the room for leaving Appalachia and coming to the Illinois basin, and now you see him leave the Illinois basin, there are kind of some conclusions one might jump to."

Kuykendall, a former reporter for The Register-Herald, added that Cline was also known for efficiency and productivity.

"He found ways to reduce the price of coal mining," he said, adding that the price of coal itself is more difficult to control.

"I think a lot of people in the coal industry wish he would have wrote a book about it, exactly what he was doing to make those things work," he said.

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones