Massey Energy Co. Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship will retire as of Dec. 31, the company said in an e-mailed statement. Massey President Baxter F. Phillips Jr. will succeed him as CEO, the company said.
Blankenship, 60, has worked at Massey for 28 years and served as chairman and chief executive since Nov. 30, 2000, the Richmond, Virginia-based company said. Admiral Bobby Inman, 79, lead independent director on the Massey board, will become non- executive chairman.
Last month, Massey, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where 29 people died in April, said its board of directors ordered a review of strategic alternatives, a process that may lead to a sale. Blankenship emerged as the face of the company in public disagreements with U.S. regulators following the mine accident.
“We were certainly surprised to see the announcement that Don Blankenship was retiring given that Don’s name and Massey are closely synonymous,’ said Jeremy Sussman, an analyst at Brean Murray Carret & Co. in New York.
Massey climbed 17 cents, or 0.3 percent, to $50.42 today in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. The retirement announcement came out after the close of trading. The shares had fallen 35 percent before an Oct. 18 Wall Street Journal report that the company was considering a sale. The stock has surged 42 percent since on speculation that the company will be taken over.
Acquisition inquiries began earlier this year after the April 5 accident at the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, West Virginia. The mishap was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.
Blankenship, who began his career with the company as an office manager in 1982, has expressed reservations about the company’s potential sale. Last month, he said merger and acquisition options would be “fully vetted” when the board met at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Nov. 21.
“After almost three decades at Massey it is time for me to move on,” Blankenship said in the statement today. “Baxter and I have worked together for 28 years and he will provide the company great executive leadership.”
Massey, a company that’s been operating for 94 years, is the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia with 2.8 billion tons of reserves, 1.3 billion of which are metallurgical coal, used to produce steel.
In October, it reported a net loss of $41.4 million for the third quarter, citing lower productivity amid increased regulatory scrutiny following the Upper Big Branch accident.
Blankenship lives in Sprigg, West Virginia, on the grounds of Massey’s Rawl Sales & Processing Co., near the West Virginia border with Kentucky, a region where the Hatfields and McCoys fought their legendary feud. He went to high school in Matewan, West Virginia, a town that was the site of one of the bloodiest labor battles in U.S. history.
Last month he said the company would encourage Congress to force the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to allow more widespread use of scrubbers.
His battles haven’t been limited to regulators. The United Mine Workers Union and unions from seven states protested and called for his ouster at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in May and today hailed his retirement as a “step away from the negative image that has cast a pall” over the industry.
His peers regard him as one of the industry’s most talented leaders. The company’s revenue has tripled in the last 10 years to $2.69 billion last year. At the same time he’s become one of coal’s most outspoken supporter.
“Don thinks his convictions are morally correct and follows them,” Chris Cline, principal owner of Foresight Energy LLC, said in an interview earlier this year. “In some ways, people should admire it. They should also think, ‘Maybe there’s a way to not be a bull in a china shop.’”
Blankenship has a Twitter account to post messages railing against regulation and environmental activists.
“I’m a competitionist,” he wrote in an August 9 tweet. “You have to let the American worker go on the playing field with a chance to win.”
The company initially said Blankenship’s retirement would be effective as of Dec. 30. It issued a second statement saying the date was Dec. 31.
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