Chris Cline had a way of staying one step ahead in the volatile coal business.
According to a 2017 Forbes Magazine profile, when Cline was 22, his father, Paul, had heart surgery and was considering selling the family coal business in southern West Virginia to his partner for $50,000.
His father was going to take the deal, but Cline figured he could work harder and smarter than the partner, so Cline bought him out.
That was the beginning of Cline’s driven approach to business; work harder than the next guy and double down with each success, even when those decisions were contrary to conventional wisdom.
Cline’s business approach made him incredibly rich. When he died along with six others, including his daughter Kameron, in a helicopter crash on Thursday in the Bahamas, his personal wealth was estimated at nearly $2 billion. But that doesn’t come close to the amount of wealth he created for, and shared with, others during a lifetime in the coal business.
The colleagues and friends we talked with praised his ability to stay a step ahead of trends while finding innovative ways to utilize coal. For example, according to Forbes, he invested in Illinois high-sulfur coal and then improved its marketability by paying for power plant pollution control equipment out of his own pocket.
West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney said despite all of Cline’s success, he did not seek attention. “He was very quiet and didn’t want any recognition,” Raney said. “He’d get lost in a crowd, which is the way he wanted to do things.”
However, Cline did enjoy the benefits of great wealth. He had a mansion in Beckley that included a man-made lake. His 200-foot yacht was named “Mine Games.” He owned a private island in the Bahamas.
But those who knew Cline best said he remained humble and loyal to his home state.
West Virginia University and Marshall University received millions from him. Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick was a classmate of Cline’s in Huntington and the two reconnected when Hamrick returned as AD.
“He was driven,” Hamrick said on Talkline Friday, which would have been Cline’s 61st birthday. “He had a desire to show that somebody from West Virginia could be as successful as anybody out there.”
There are public records of Cline’s sizable donations–just recently the Cline Family Foundation pledged $10 million for a new YMCA indoor sports center in Beckley– but who knows how much more money he gave away to myriad causes, needs and individuals over the years?
Cline’s life was one of those much-valued West Virginia stories, an example of someone who worked extremely hard, found ways to be successful and then shared that success with others, all while maintaining his ties to his home state.