2022 Virginia Business Person of the Year: Jim McGlothlin
United Co. chairman trusts his gut
Jim McGlothlin had never really thought much about paintings. He was more of a music guy, a fan of Elvis, whom he saw in concert six months before the King’s 1977 death.
But the art of the deal — in this case, winning a valuable artwork at an auction — was a familiar feeling.
“That’s what I do — make deals,” reflects the 82-year-old Bristol, Virginia-based businessman who built a fortune from a gamble on coal mines during the 20th century and then pivoted to hospitality as the coal business began to recede.
Along the way, he and his wife, Frances Gibson McGlothlin, became major American art collectors and philanthropists. And in his ninth decade, McGlothlin is arguably the person most responsible for Virginia’s legalization of commercial casinos, as well as a partner in the $400 million Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Bristol, which opened in a temporary space this summer as the state’s first casino.
In recognition of his lifelong achievements in business, his significant philanthropic support for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and his impact on statewide economic development, Virginia Business has named Jim McGlothlin its 2022 Person of the Year.
The son of two Southwest Virginia natives, McGlothlin grew up in Buchanan County, in “a little place called Oakwood, which is about 15 miles from Grundy,” he says with a mountain lilt that conveys his origins. “We were in a little mining community, and I had two brothers, my mom and dad. School was wonderful. We played ball and [had] Boy Scouts, church activities. It’s just a wonderful place to grow up.”
His father was an accountant for a coal company and a graduate of Emory & Henry College, while McGlothlin’s mother was a Radford alumna who taught school before becoming a mother.
McGlothlin was a football and basketball player at the former Garden High School and was a strong student, especially in math. Early in his teens, he set his sights on attending William & Mary and becoming a lawyer.
A cousin returned from military service during World War II, and then went to William & Mary’s law school. “He came to our house to visit for a weekend,” McGlothlin recalls. “He told all kinds of stories about law school and his fascination with it. From that day on — I remember it like yesterday — I wanted to be a lawyer. That was the dream.”
And like many goals McGlothlin has set for himself, that dream came true.
Striking a deal
Clyde Stacy, who has been McGlothlin’s friendly competitor and occasional business partner for much of the two men’s careers, was in eighth grade when he met McGlothlin, who was then a high school senior.
“I will tell you this story — he probably won’t like it — but when I met him in eighth grade, the reason I noticed him [was] one guy grabbed something of Jim’s, and they were going at it, wrestling around,” Stacy recalls. “Jim grabs [the other guy’s] tennis shoes and ties them together and tells him, ‘You give that back, or I’m going to throw these on top of the gymnasium.’ Jim threw the shoes on top of the building, which was probably 40 feet high. I don’t know how [the guy] ever got them back. It was really funny.”
Stacy says his friendship with McGlothlin started in earnest after the two were young adults and businessmen, and continues today.
“Most people know Jim as a very serious businessperson, and that’s the way he comes across most of the time, but he’s fun to be around,” Stacy says.
At William & Mary, McGlothlin majored in psychology, while also working as a waiter at King’s Arms Tavern, one of Colonial Williamsburg’s restaurants still open today. “Then, when school started in the fall, I drove [a] school bus in the morning and the afternoon,” he recalls. “I also belonged to a fraternity, and that was probably very distracting [to] getting all my work done. I was a very mediocre student in undergraduate school. By the way, I got rejected for law school at William & Mary.”
When that happened — a consequence of below-average grades and a low LSAT score — McGlothlin went to see W&M Law School Dean Dudley Woodbridge, “and he just flatly told me, ‘There’s no hope you could get through law school. I’d love to have you, but I can’t.’”
But McGlothlin found a back door into law school — changing his major to jurisprudence, “which is really the first year of law school, at least at William & Mary,” he explains. “I marched over the next day and went to his office, and I said, ‘I just have changed my major to jurisprudence.’ He said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
Eventually, the two came to an agreement: If McGlothlin made the dean’s list both semesters, Woodbridge said, he could enter law school upon graduation. “I made the grades,” recalls McGlothlin, “and the rest was history.”
Birth of a coal company
As a young attorney in Grundy during the 1960s, McGlothlin joined forces with two of his cousins, starting the law firm of Street, Street & McGlothlin, a general practice in which McGlothlin mainly handled litigation, both criminal and civil cases. He also trained to become a pilot, and the firm purchased a small plane to make travel easier to courts around the commonwealth.
In 1970, at age 30, McGlothlin “lucked in” to the coal business, purchasing a Buchanan County coal company at auction. “I walked across to the courthouse to do something,” he says. “Then this young lawyer about my age was selling a piece of property on auction. It was a coal company. As I walked by, there’s 15 or 20 people there, [but] nobody was bidding.”
The other lawyer asked McGlothlin to start the bidding at $25,000, and he considered it a moment.
“This is a no-brainer,” he recalls thinking. “I had $25,000. Fifteen minutes later, I owned the coal company.”
Now he had to tell his law partners, who were happy to jump onboard. Later, at a poker game, McGlothlin’s father and three of his accounting clients — all coal mine operators — expressed interest in investing in the new enterprise.
“We agreed to put up $1,000 each. There were seven of us, and we’d go to the bank, borrow the $25,000 from the bank and pay for the company, and $7,000 would be the working capital,” says McGlothlin, and that’s how United Coal Co. started. “I took a leave of absence for six months from the law firm [and] here we are 52 years later. I never went back.”
In the early 1970s, United acquired dozens of smaller coal companies and mines in Appalachia. Its main competitor was Richmond-based Massey Coal. But by the mid-’70s, coal was just one division of United Co., which expanded into buying, reselling and distributing mining equipment and owning and running steel mills following the $40 million purchase of Birmingham Steel Co. in Alabama in 1980.
It was a boom time, although not every decision struck gold.
In 1981, United drilled a gas well in Scott County, leading to a massive fire, “which you could see blowing 400, 500 feet there,” McGlothlin says. “We hired a guy to come out of Austin, Texas, to put it out, which he did in about five or six minutes after he got there.”
An ensuing conversation led McGlothlin to strike a deal for United to drill 25 oil wells in Texas. “That turned out really successful,” says McGlothin. Ultimately, United bought the 25 wells from a partner in Texas who was retiring, “and that’s how the oil and gas thing was born,” McGlothlin says.
In the 1980s, United acquired a large Canadian oil and gas company, vastly expanding its portfolio. Then came sand and gravel holdings and even a gold mine in Tanzania.
“As I got older and older and the company got bigger, I wanted something that was big enough to make some real difference,” McGlothlin says. “In other words, I didn’t want something to sell a million dollars’ worth of product a year, because if you make 50% on it, you [only] make $500,000.”
By the 1990s, the coal industry was starting to decline, and McGlothlin sold off some of United’s holdings, including the Dal-Tex mine in West Virginia, which represented about half of United’s coal business.
“We decided the times weren’t so good in the business, and [Massey] came along,” so McGlothlin and his partners sold United to Massey in 1997. But in 2004, McGlothlin and a small group of investors reacquired the company. “Our opportunity came along to buy [back] all of those properties that Massey had,” he says.
Five years later, United divested its coal mine holdings to Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, whose mining and steel company, Metinvest Group, bought United Coal Co. for an undisclosed price, although news reports from that time pegged the deal at between $800 million and $1.4 billion. Metinvest still owns United Coal, which is now based in Johnson City, Tennessee.
McGlothlin remains chairman and sole owner of the remaining business, The United Co., which today has diversified into a hospitality and wealth management company, with other activities including real estate development and coal, oil and gas exploration services. Its holdings include golf courses, RV parks and a stake in the Bristol casino.
Roll of the dice
The Bristol casino came up in a similar way to McGlothlin’s other big deals. In 2018, Stacy bought the shuttered Bristol Mall, which McGlothlin also had considered buying but couldn’t think of anything to put there. “He said, ‘I’m going to put in a casino,’” McGlothlin says. “I said, ‘You do know that it’s not legal to have a casino?’”
But Stacy suggested that the two work together on legalizing casinos in the commonwealth, and McGlothlin called an old friend, Alan Diamonstein, the late Newport News lawyer and delegate. He briefed Stacy and McGlothlin on state Sen. Louise Lucas’ quixotic 18-year effort to legalize casinos. “There’s almost no chance, 15% at the most,” McGlothlin recalls Diamonstein saying.
But after talking to Lucas — who, like McGlothlin, wanted a casino to help improve the economy and job opportunities in her hometown, Portsmouth — McGlothlin, Stacy and some of United Co.’s executives began formulating a plan to garner legislative support. Bristol and its surrounding localities needed a new major employer and an industry to replace the coal jobs that had virtually disappeared.
“It just made so much sense, because first of all, [Southwest Virginia] was really in need of something,” McGlothlin says. “We called it ‘the moonshot,’ and it had to be big. It couldn’t just be another place to employ 40 people [because] we were going downhill — anybody could testify our debt was just escalating. The political people were difficult, but as time went on, they began to see this could have a big effect on investment in tourism.”
A political coalition — bringing together everyone from liberal Democrats like Lucas to conservative Republicans like former
Sen. Bill Carrico from Marion — began to form in late 2018. Two years later, the General Assembly passed a law allowing local voters in five economically challenged cities — Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond — to approve commercial casinos in their localities via referendum. In 2020, referendums passed in all of the cities except Richmond, where voters rejected a casino in 2021. Four casinos are now under construction or close to starting, and there’s a legislative battle underway between Richmond and Petersburg over the opportunity to build a fifth.
“It did take a lot of work, a lot more work than we thought,” Stacy says. “There were so many people who had oppositions to anything other than what had always been done.”
Lucas, in particular, has nothing but praise for McGlothlin — whose politics trend considerably to the right of hers. “Everything he does, he does with other people in mind. I just absolutely fell in love with the man.”
United Co. CEO Martin Kent, who joined the company as its president in 2014, was an integral player in building the political coalition for casino legalization. Formerly chief of staff to Gov. Bob McDonnell, Kent considers McGlothlin an important business mentor.
“Jim is very intuitive,” he says, “and Jim can sit down and listen to the financials verbally and can calculate a statement in his head quicker than most people can do in Excel. We rely on the calculator, but Jim has an innate ability. But at the end of the day, Jim is the relationship guy. He’s very intuitive as it comes to meeting with people. That’s just his nature.”
As the prospect of legal casinos became more likely, McGlothlin worked to find a corporate partner for Bristol’s resort casino. At first, he held discussions with Caesars Entertainment Inc., but a friend introduced him to a representative of Hard Rock, and within 24 hours, a deal was signed.
More than 25,000 people from 49 states visited the Bristol Hard Rock casino during its first two months, and casino President Allie Evangelista has hired about 600 people. Ultimately, the casino — expected to open in its permanent space on the Bristol Mall property in 2024 — is anticipated to employ 1,200 to 1,500 people by summer 2024.
Evangelista, a Brazilian native who has worked in the U.S. gaming business for decades, moved to Bristol in January.
“I knew Hard Rock was a company I wanted to work for,” she says, “but I wanted to make sure it was the right project. And so, I had an opportunity to meet with Jim and Clyde, and we went for dinner. It was one of those feelings where you know it’s the right move. You see their passion and what they went through to get this approved in the state, and I felt like I can be this person to make this dream successful.”
Outside of business, Jim and Fran McGlothlin have their own charitable foundation, which makes donations to higher education, the arts and health care institutions. They’re also involved with The United Company Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm. Focused more on the Bristol community, the foundation runs a soup kitchen and a food-box program and provides grants to local nonprofits.
One of McGlothlin’s dearest charitable endeavors is the Mountain Mission School, an institute founded in 1921 in Grundy to house and educate children in need, who receive college scholarships funded by The United Company Foundation.
“I really didn’t know much about it till I got out of law school, and I went up there,” McGlothlin says. “Well, they asked me to come up and think about coaching or helping with starting a basketball team. If you go there and see these kids, you immediately fall in love with them. That was in ’66, I think. I’ve had a love affair with Mountain Mission for all those long years.”
In 2018, The Olde Farm golf course, a course designed by Bobby Weed and founded by McGlothlin, hosted a celebrity tournament featuring golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, as well as NFL stars Peyton Manning and Dan Marino. It raised $56.6 million for the school, the largest single-day charitable gift in PGA Tour history.
Fran McGlothlin, too, has become deeply involved with Mountain Mission, which just dedicated a girls’ residence hall in her name.
“I thought it was a really good thing,” she says, “but I wanted to change the direction of the school. I thought that the board [was] thinking too small. Even though our company was providing the [college] scholarships, I learned it was mostly local colleges. I said, ‘I think we should think bigger than this. If they can get into U.Va. or William & Mary or Stanford, let’s give them a chance to do that.’”
Her work with the school has been part of her acclimation to life in Southwest Virginia, where she felt a bit like a fish out of water at first.
A Leesburg native, Fran McGlothlin graduated from William & Mary in the 1960s. She and Jim met in 1991 at a small dinner party in Williamsburg, when he was on W&M’s board of visitors and she was the wife of the college’s then-president.
“Well, I was trying to be a good dinner partner and talking to people on both sides,” she says. “When I spoke to him, I said — and I’m told you’re never supposed to ask this question at a dinner party, but I was just trying to find a hook — ‘What do you do?’ He said, ‘A little of this and a little of that.’ We just started talking and became friends first, and then eventually got married.” They wed in 1996.
Jim recalls that first meeting fondly, remembering her as a “very attractive, intelligent lady who it was exciting to carry on a conversation with.” As they got to know each other — and the high-end art world — the two spent time in Naples, Florida, where they now live much of the year in a waterfront condo.
“Jim’s world was a whole different world from mine,” Fran says. “I think in a way, that’s how we got into collecting art, because I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to be with this guy, we’ve got to find something in common that we can both do — because I don’t know anything about coal mines and I don’t play golf.”
In her wine cellar — a deal she made with Jim, in which he agreed she could spend the same amount of money on wine that he spends on golfing — Fran displays bottles of wine they served at their wedding reception, with custom labels featuring their first art purchase, “Listening Boy,” by Robert Henri.
Ultimately, the McGlothlins would give the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts nearly 90 pieces of artwork worth more than $250 million — largely 19th- and early 20th-century American paintings, including works by John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Andrew Wyeth and the museum’s first Norman Rockwell painting. In 2005, the couple promised to bequeath their art collection to the museum and donated $30 million to the VMFA’s 2010 expansion, which included a wing named for the McGlothlins. In 2015, the McGlothlins donated 73 American artworks worth approximately $200 million to the VMFA, and in 2022, they gave 15 more pieces to the museum.
Artists from the Metropolitan Museum of Art painted copies of the donated works, some of which now hang in the McGlothlins’ high-ceilinged, Italianate home on the edge of Olde Farm golf course.
In a hallway near the kitchen, there’s a small, sepia-toned photo of Fran and Jim McGlothlin cuddling on a sofa, taken by the legendary portraitist Annie Leibovitz. For her 60th birthday, Fran asked for the portrait by Leibovitz, who has taken iconic photos of subjects ranging from Queen Elizabeth II to John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
These days, the couple travels to see their children across the United States, and Jim golfs regularly at Olde Farm and in Florida and occasionally in Scotland, but he no longer pilots planes, after experiencing a few health issues.
In 2015, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer — his doctors spotted it early during a CAT scan and took immediate action, removing the tumor.
“I took chemo for six months,” McGlothlin says. “I couldn’t eat anything, couldn’t drink anything. That bottle of water would taste like tin. I just couldn’t get it down. I lost 65 pounds.”
Two months after finishing chemotherapy, McGlothlin suffered a stroke while at a restaurant with Fran, his daughter and her husband. Fortunately, they’d flown there in a helicopter, which was able to deliver him to a hospital in less than 20 minutes, and McGlothlin fully recovered — enough to fly with Fran in 2018 to a few baseball games around the country in a farewell to piloting.
In January, McGlothlin stepped down as United’s CEO, ceding the position to Kent, though McGlothlin remains the company’s chairman. They still talk daily, but Kent says that McGlothlin wanted to pass on some of the day-to-day operations and responsibilities.
The McGlothlins took their children and grandchildren to Bermuda this past summer, and while he acknowledges his love of making deals, McGlothlin says, “I’m more about family in my life than I am about business. … That’s important.”
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