WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. – On the morning of July 2, the day he was to host 1,500 guests for a black-tie gala to celebrate the opening of The Greenbrier’s Casino Club, Jim Justice did what he loves perhaps more than managing his varied business interests: running his Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team through summer drills. Forty-five minutes into practice, Shaquille O’Neal, in town for the casino opening, walked into the gym.
“The first thing (O’Neal) said to me was, ‘Man, you’re making them run a lot,’ ” Justice recalled, laughing.
Jim Justice has kept a lot of people running at top speed since he swiped the bankrupt Greenbrier out from under J.W. Marriott’s nose in May 2009.
Over the past 14 months he has: overseen the whirlwind design and construction of the 100,000-square-foot, underground Casino Club, which cost more than $80 million; secured a PGA Tour event, which will be played July 29-Aug. 1 on The Old White Course; backed construction of a $1 million amphitheater on the state fairgrounds in nearby Lewisburg, where three concerts will be held during tournament week; and persuaded Delta Air Lines to begin daily nonstop service to Greenbrier Valley Airport from New York and Atlanta.
When it comes to recapturing the magic of The Greenbrier, one of the grand old dames of the luxury resort industry, Jim Justice is all in.
“Some guys lay out their money and look at it and say, ‘I’ll put 20 percent of my money into this, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll still have 80 percent left,’ ” says Carleton Varney, The Greenbrier’s designer and curator. “(Justice) said to me, ‘Carleton, I am putting 100 percent of myself into this.’ ”
Justice also is allaying any doubts about his plans and the resort’s future.
Shortly after acquiring The Greenbrier, Justice acknowledged he couldn’t be price-competitive against other luxury resorts, particularly given the union contracts with which he’s saddled. In an industry largely driven by meeting planners, it was fair to question the long-term prospects of a resort that inevitably would be more expensive.
When Justice announced last year that he wanted to build a Monte Carlo-style casino, one writer sniffed that Justice had never been to Monte Carlo. The implication was that this industrial giant, who had made hundreds of millions of dollars running coal and farming businesses over the past 35 years, was in over his 6-foot-7-inch head in his first foray into the luxury hospitality business. The fact that Justice built the Casino Club so quickly, and that it far exceeded expectations, suggests that he had the doubters fooled.
Varney, president of Dorothy Draper & Co., is the man largely responsible for bringing Justice’s vision to life. He is the direct design descendant of Dorothy Draper, who, following World War II, gave The Greenbrier its singular look, a distinctive fusion of bold stripes, floral designs and, always, bright colors. Since 1969, Varney has been running the New York-based company that bears Draper’s name and tending to The Greenbrier.
He and Justice, who grew up near The Greenbrier, share an appreciation for the resort’s history that perhaps eluded others. They see the five-diamond property as something utterly unique in America.
“The previous management was changing the manner and decorum of the property by making it look like just another Ritz-Carlton or a Four Seasons,” Varney says, the disdain evident in his voice.
In Justice – the hulking, ruffled West Virginian – Varney, the urbane New York designer, has found an unlikely kindred spirit. “He’s such a dream person,” Varney says. Justice honored Varney by naming one of the casino restaurants the Cafe Carleton.
Justice recalled a conversation the two men had about CSX Corp., the railroad company that used to own the resort and put it in bankruptcy court in early 2009.
“Carleton looked at me and said, ‘They don’t understand The Greenbrier, and they don’t like it either,’ ” Justice said. “And Carleton really, truly does understand it, and he likes it.”
Varney’s goal is to recapture a quality that seems quaint, even antiquated in this era: glamour. That was epitomized by the opening of the Casino Club, an event with more black ties and plunging necklines than an inaugural ball.
Tuxedos won’t necessarily be the norm, but The Greenbrier is enforcing a strict dress code, including sport coats after 7 p.m.
“I’ve been asked this question,” Justice says. “If somebody shows up at the front door wearing a tank top and flip-flops and holding a briefcase with a half-million dollars in it and they want to come into your casino, what are you going to do? I said, ‘I’m going to tell them I hope they have a good tennis game.’ ”
For all of his wealth, Justice’s biggest asset might be something he doesn’t have: a bureaucracy to hamstring him.
Under Justice, there are no studies, no extensive cost-benefit analyses.
He has an entrepreneur’s contempt for committees and protracted decision-making. If he didn’t, the Casino Club likely would still be a construction project rather than a reality, and he probably would be begging the Tour for a Nationwide Tour event rather than preparing to host a FedEx Cup tournament.
“You know the definition of a committee?” Justice says. “It’s a group of individuals who individually can’t do anything, but collectively they can decide that nothing can be done.”
Varney says Justice has genuine affection for his employees, “but he is a taskmaster. It’s not kissy-kissy. You have to produce or you quickly go bye-bye.” Tim McNeely, The Greenbrier Classic’s tournament director, describes Justice as “very hands-on with what most might consider mundane decisions.” He makes decisions “quickly, almost in seconds,” Varney says. But once Justice green-lighted Varney’s plans for the Casino Club, “He didn’t really ever interfere,” the designer says. “I guarantee you that what he saw (in the design proposal) is what we did.”
The Greenbrier Classic will serve as a national showcase for the 6,750-acre resort and the new casino. Smokey Robinson will perform at the pairings party, and a $147 grounds badge will include access to the three concerts at the state fairgrounds.
McNeely said the tournament has secured about $12 million in sponsorships, and Justice predicts the event “will shatter, even double” the record for charitable giving by a first-year PGA Tour event. That would put the figure in the $3 million neighborhood.
Tournament attendees will be immersed in The Greenbrier experience. Varney, who is busy freshening up the décor throughout the hotel, also was assigned to decorate the hospitality suites as if they were part of the hotel. And when Varney recently suggested that Old White would benefit from a splash of color, Justice commissioned the planting of 80,000 flowering annuals.
“(Justice) wanted the course to be happy, he wanted it to be pretty,” Varney says.
There’s more. Varney already is at work designing train cars for The Greenbrier Express, which will whisk guests on a 5-hour, 15-minute journey from Washington’s Union Station, through the Allegheny Mountains to the rail depot opposite the resort’s front gate, where guests will be picked up in horse-drawn carriages and delivered to the hotel’s front portico. The service, envisioned less as a mere train than The Greenbrier on wheels, will start operating in late 2011.
“It will be more beautiful than the Orient Express,” Varney says.
The Casino Club and the Tour event aren’t the culmination of Justice’s restoration plan at The Greenbrier. They’re just the beginning.
“There aren’t any eight-hour days going on around here, and there aren’t any five-day weeks,” Justice says.
“You just don’t get it done like that.”