The Ordinary Life Of An Extraordinary Billionaire

West Virginia magnate Jim Justice doesn't act the part of a billionaire mogul. He recently acquired one of America's most iconic pieces of real estate, the Greenbrier luxury resort in West Virginia. But on any evening, you'll find him coaching a local high school girls' basketball team and dining at Applebee's. Host Michel Martin speaks with writer Neely Tucker, who profiled Justice in this week's Washington Post Magazine , in a cover story titled, "The Richest Regular Guy."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, we take a glimpse inside the pages of The Washington Post Magazine, where we go just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. This week The Post introduced us to a story out of West Virginia and a man named Jim Justice. He's got a hand in the agriculture, timber and coal industries - not unusual for that part of the country. But now he is the sole owner of the iconic Greenbrier Resort, a famous playground for the well-to-do, once designated as a safe haven for Congress if the country was ever under attack.

The Washington Post's Neely Tucker tells us more about Jim Justice's effort to restore the Greenbrier to glory. It's this week's cover story, called "The Richest Regular Guy." And Neely Tucker's with us now from the offices at The Post. Neely, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. NEELY TUCKER (Reporter): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, why - I said restore to its former glory, but it wasn't really not glorious, but it was in significant financial trouble.

Mr. TUCKER: It was. The Greenbrier has been around for a really long time in its current incarnation, about, you know, a little more than a century, if you go back close to - well, a little bit more than 200 years. What had happened was the hotel lost its fifth star in about 2000. And then had, because the economy and some other factors, was really going downhill. It was in trouble. The place looked great, but financially it was in a lot of trouble by the mid-2000s or late 2000s. It was losing $1 million a week. That's a lot of money.

MARTIN: Well, explain, though, about why. I mean a lot of people might be saying, well, so what about this fancy resort, I can't go there, what the heck do I care? But could you explain kind of why the Greenbrier is important, particularly in West Virginia?

Mr. TUCKER: Well, one, I think the - one, it's the most iconic institution in West Virginia. Anybody in West Virginia knows Greenbrier. It's (unintelligible) most famous place. And number two is a short thing. You can probably can probably go here(ph). They have off-season they have rates around 150. They run packages. It's a point of Mr. Justice's, that he wants people who live around there to be able to go there.

But that said, the standard rack rate starts at about 300 bucks a night. Meals there. It's pretty hard - if you're not ordering pizza, it's pretty hard to get out of there for dinner for two for less than $100.

MARTIN: But it's a very luxurious environment and then there's the history and so forth. What - how significant is it that here is a West Virginian who owns this property and it has to be said that one of the things that you point out in the story is that he actually beat out the Marriott hotel chain to gain the Greenbrier. Why does that matter?

Mr. TUCKER: It matters a lot to him on a point of a pride issue. He wants to show that people in West Virginia, which in his estimation has been the brunt of some pretty tough jokes - and I wouldn't tell him that he's wrong on that -that people of West Virginia can own and staff a hotel that is as luxurious as any place you'd come across in Paris or Hong Kong, that West Virginians just really know how to do this.

Before - the hotel has been there for a really long time - but it's been run by the CSX Corporation. So in his mind there was a little bit of an asterisk there, that yeah, it was in West Virginia, but it's being run by these folks from somewhere else. And now it's a purely West Virginian institution.

MARTIN: Well, one of the interesting things that you talk about him is the fact that he is tremendously wealthy. He would have to be to buy a luxury resort. But he - you met him at Applebee's, the chain. He - it's one of his spots, which he - it was one of his favorite spots. He kind of likes to relax by coaching girls basketball. But he's actually pretty much of a - he really is like a regular guy. You know, one of those tabloids has this feature called Normal or Not Normal - you know, and he's clearly really, really normal.

Do you really - does he really think that, I mean can he bridge both those worlds, is I guess the question. Is he still the guy who likes to eat at Applebee's and run this five-star resort that welcomes people from all over the world and this really, you know, signature location?

Mr. TUCKER: Well, Jim is, I think, is, as near as I can tell - I worked on this story off and on for about six months - and he is an astonishingly, almost frighteningly regular guy for somebody who has, you know, a couple of billion dollars at his disposal. As we put in the story, he bought his house where he still lives in Lewisburg, for $205,000. It's not the nicest house on the block. He's the guy who owns 71 square miles of land and lives on 0.67th of an acre. There's not even a swimming pool.

He and his wife don't go over to the Greenbrier, you know, and hang out all the time. You mentioned the Applebee's incident. This was after a girls basketball game where he's been coaching that for a number of years. And, you know, they could just drive over to the Greenbrier, it's 15 minutes, and he could go out on, you know, God, I guess, one of the penthouse suites there and order up room service, right? And instead he drives down Route 219, he goes to Applebee's like everybody else after the game.

MARTIN: Well, so I guess we wish him the best. So Neely, tell the truth. Did you plan a nice weekend getaway for you and the missus at the Greenbrier? Saving your pennies for that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCKER: Well, my - our wedding anniversary is coming up and my wife has expressed to me that it sure would be nice to see this place that I got to go see.

MARTIN: Well, I won't - I'll keep it secret.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Neely Tucker is a writer for The Washington Post Magazine. He wrote this week's cover story, "The Richest Regular Guy." If you want to read the piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll link to it on our website, just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs page and then on TELL ME MORE. Neely joined us from the studios at The Washington Post. Neely, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. TUCKER: Thanks for having me, Michel.

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