Justice joined his dad's business in the 1970s, and helped expand its reach into agriculture, golf courses and timber, according to Justice's personal biography. He took over the company after his father's death in 1993. The company's mining interests ventured into Kentucky in 2007 and Tennessee the next year. Justice said his 80 companies employ about 5,000 people.
Federal records say Justice controls nearly 120 coal mines, most of them in central Appalachia, though only 21 are listed as actively mining coal. Another 18 are temporarily idled.
In 2009, he sold the company's West Virginia coal operations to Russian steel firm Mechel for a reported $436 million and another $240 million in Mechel shares. That same year Justice closed on a $20 million deal to buy the historic Greenbrier Resort, which has hosted U.S. presidents and royalty.
After the purchase of the Greenbrier, Justice was hailed as "a great humanitarian" who "wants to help everyone" by then-West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.
Paul Bryant, principal at Greenbrier East High School in Justice's hometown of Lewisburg, said the Greenbrier purchase saved the town of about 3,800 people. Justice is the head coach of the girls and boys basketball teams at the school.
"He saved 1,600 jobs and people's lives and their families and their futures," Bryant said. "I mean, if the Greenbrier Hotel would've gone under, I really kind of see this place as a ghost town."
The Greenbrier has had some legal troubles since Justice took over, with federal suits filed by Delta Airlines in 2011 and a landscaping company in 2010. Both plaintiffs claimed the resort didn't make good on contracts. Both suits have been resolved.
Justice "is absolutely a charitable, friendly person," said Paul Snyder, an Ashland, Ky., attorney who is representing two Kentucky men who claim Justice excluded them from a land deal. "But he's so much bigger than life, that in business he will act somewhat like (Donald) Trump, which is not good. He sees business as just a ... get-out-of-my-way situation."
The claim brought by Snyder is one of a handful that say Justice companies violated a contract over the acquisition of mine lands. Snyder's clients allege that Justice went around them to buy a huge coal mining company, Sequoia, after they brought the potential sale to his attention while looking for partners.
In another dispute over mining lands, a group of Kentucky landowners are seeking millions in federal court from a Justice subsidiary. They claim they've lost millions in royalties because the company was awarded mining rights but hasn't mined the land in two years.
Justice said settling debts isn't as easy as writing a check when his mines are trying to remain open and producing coal.
"The alternative would be, 'OK let's pay everybody what we owe them and shut everything down.' If you're a vendor selling widgets and you get paid but you don't sell any more widgets, that's not any good," he said.
Herbie Deskins, a former eastern Kentucky legislator from Pike County and attorney who is suing Justice on behalf of a drilling company, said business owners are in a bind because Justice mines are still operating when others are shutting down. He said his client, South East Drilling Supplies, would like to continue working for Justice but they want a $25,000 debt paid.
"People still want to do business with him because he's still in business," Deskins said.
Mark Doss, a vice president at Doss Fuelco in Baxter, Ky., said in February the Justice companies had settled their debts with the fuel supplier, which didn't sue. He declined to say how much was owed.
"It only took two years," he said.
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