|By George Hohmann, Charleston Daily Mail,
W.Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 20, 2009 -- CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Football legend Sam Huff still hopes to play a role in marketing The Greenbrier Resort but is frustrated because Jim Justice -- the resort's new owner -- hasn't returned his calls.
"I've called him about five times," Huff said. "I can talk to presidents of the United States and Gov. Joe Manchin and Bill Marriott, but I have never talked to Jim Justice. He has not returned my calls."
CSX Corp., the long-time owner of The Greenbrier, put the resort in bankruptcy in March and forged a sales agreement with Marriott International. Shortly after the bankruptcy filing, Huff said he wanted to own a piece of the resort and that he was trying to organize "the rich guys in the Greenbrier Sporting Club, including Jerry West" to buy it because they own land and homes nearby. Huff said he hoped his longtime employer, Marriott International Inc., would manage it.
But Justice surprised everyone two weeks ago. In the same week he sold much of his family's coal operations to a Russian steel company for $436 million, Justice announced that he had purchased the stock of The Greenbrier's holding company from CSX for $20.1 million.
Since then, Justice has methodically eliminated potential objections to his ownership.
First he won over CSX with his cash purchase offer.
He stalled homeowners' organizing efforts when he purchased 80 percent of the Greenbrier Sporting Club's stock.
Then he won over The Greenbrier's unions by offering them a sweeter labor contract than they had agreed to with Marriott.
Creditors other than CSX are owed just over $2 million. Justice soothed their fears by promising that if the bankruptcy case were dropped, they would all be paid in full.
That left Marriott. The company initially objected, pointing out that it had a sales agreement with CSX. But on Friday Justice and Marriott Executive Vice President Richard "Rick" Hoffman agreed to negotiate a marketing plan that would give The Greenbrier access to Marriott's worldwide reservation system and pay Marriott a fee for every guest it sends to the resort. Marriott dropped its objection to Justice's deal with CSX.
On Tuesday U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennekens dismissed the bankruptcy case after Justice testified that the move would benefit creditors, workers and the White Sulphur Springs community.
Huff has followed the story closely. After a legendary college and professional football career, the Farmington native worked 27 years for Marriott, booking sports teams and broadcast crews in Marriott properties on weekends -- when the hotel chain needed business most.
"I sold 650,000 room nights for them," Huff said during a March interview. "I know what I can do. I can put people in rooms. I know how. If I could do it for Marriott, I could do it for The Greenbrier."
Huff said Tuesday that organizing the Greenbrier Sporting Club's homeowners was a logical step. He spoke to Jerry West about it briefly two weeks ago and to others, "but it just didn't work out."
"What's next? I don't know what's next," Huff said. "You've got to be able to talk to the head coach to find out what you can do or how you can fit in. I'd like to be associated with them as a special person or adviser. If Marriott is going to be involved with it, and they are, well, I know everybody in the corporation. But I don't know anybody in his (Justice's) corporation."
"I think it's the best of both worlds that these two giants can get together with their lawyers and talk things out," Huff said. "I think they need each other."
He pointed out that Marriott prefers to manage hotels rather than own them.
Marriott has an international reservation system. The Greenbrier is currently a stand-alone, independent resort. "A lot of planes fly over but very few stop," Huff said. "Trains stop but very few people are getting off. This guy (Justice) talks about not being a hotel manager. There's a problem. You've got to market the place, create the want.
"He (Justice) has not returned my calls so what am I going to say? I don't know him and he doesn't know me.
"In some way I would like to be affiliated with it (the resort) because I think I could help them," Huff said. He noted that he has a photo of himself with Bill Marriott when Marriott gave him the "Vice President of the Year" award. Bill Marriott is chairman and chief executive officer of Marriott International.
"I still have contact with Bill Marriott and his children and employees at Marriott because they're wonderful people," Huff said. However, Huff said he hasn't talked to Marriott recently. "I talk to him on occasion, when I think I should. They (the entities involved in the bankruptcy case) were all sworn not to talk about it."
Huff was not surprised that Marriott International dropped its opposition to Justice's purchase. "Bill Marriott is not one of those type people to go to court to fight a case," Huff said. "They're not fighters. They are great family people."
Although his idea of having the sporting club homeowners buy the resort and having Marriott manage it did not happen, "This deal might work out," Huff said. "You've got to have a Plan A and a Plan B. This is Plan B. This guy owns it. You've got to deal with him. He's got the money, the time. He's in the driver's seat.
"This guy's a sharp guy," Huff said. "He's no dummy. He's educated in West Virginia. He is a West Virginian. I probably understand him a lot better than he understands me. That doesn't mean we couldn't work together. I'm a marketing guy. He's not. He's a coal guy. My dad was a coal miner. I understand what I can do as a specialist, putting people in hotel rooms."
In Huff's opinion, three things have to happen for The Greenbrier to succeed:
--It has to win back customers who have gone elsewhere. "Once you lose a customer and they go to another resort and get taken care of, it's very hard to change people's habits," Huff said. "How do you change peoples' habits? He (Justice) doesn't know how. He's never run a hotel."
--"The casino is not secondary -- it's another thing that can help bring different people to The Greenbrier. It's very important. But that's an entirely different business than the hotel business. You've got to deal with casino people." Huff admits he doesn't know much about casinos.
--The Greenbrier's management has to change. "If he (Justice) intends to keep the same people there in management as they've had, he's in trouble," Huff said. "You've got to make people welcome. You've got to sell The Greenbrier, what it's all about, the history. You've got to get people, groups, weddings, presidents coming in, celebrities, golf tournaments. I can get a golf tournament in there and network TV just like I got TV to cover the Charles Town Races."
Huff invested $75,000 to have ESPN broadcast the West Virginia Breeders Classic horse race from Charles Town more than 20 years ago.
Huff said he stays busy doing color commentary during Washington Redskins football games. He has his own broadcasting company and still works with Charles Town Races. "I'm not ever going to be retired," he said. "I've got to be involved. I have a lot of experience. I've been taught by (Tom) Landry, (Vince) Lombardi, the very best. And I can't get Jim Justice to return my phone call. What does that tell you? I don't know.
"I can help him if he wants help," Huff said. "If he doesn't, my life will go on. What's he got to lose? If he can deal with the Russians he can surely deal with me."
Contact writer George Hohmann at email@example.com or 304-348-4836.
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