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 Post subject: Billionaire visits area in coal takeover bid
PostPosted: Sun Oct 11, 2009 10:36 am 

Joined: Tue Jun 03, 2008 7:12 pm
Posts: 85
Location: Harrisburg, PA (or in the coal fields)
Billionaire visits area in coal takeover bid
Published: September 20, 2009

In March 1978, a billionaire considered one of the wealthiest men in the world had difficulty getting a room at a Schuylkill County motel.

Nelson Bunker Hunt, a Texas oil oilman, had come to Pennsylvania to pursue a possible takeover of the anthracite industry. At the same time, he was also buying up the world's silver supplies, but when you're worth at least $6 billion ($20 billion in today's buying power) you obviously have enough money to negotiate simultaneous deals.

He is often quoted as having said, "A billion dollars isn't what it used to be." That certainly seemed to be the case when he attempted to register at the Dusselfink on Route 61, now Days Inn.

Hunt had flown into the Zerbey Airport, where his local contact, Dick (Richard F.) Higgins, a leading real estate broker in the area, picked him up. The rest of his entourage, including a bodyguard and business agent, rode in a different vehicle.

Because the oil tycoon wasn't carrying the requested identification, he was denied a room. It took the intervention of Barry Schwartz, son of the motel's owner, to reverse the clerk's refusal.

I never met Hunt but the story of his stay in Schuylkill County has personal significance for me.

My second husband, the late Jack Geier, was a friend and later a business associate of Dick Higgins. He also knew several of the region's larger coal operators and facilitated Hunt's meetings with them.

One of the principals who recalls conferring with the Texas billionaire is my next-door neighbor in Pottsville, Jim (James J.) Curran Jr. An attorney who, in 1978, was also an officer of Reading Anthracite Inc., he remembers Hunt as "a nice guy - quiet, well-spoken and laid back."

The two men shared a common experience. Jim graduated from the Hill School, Pottstown, in 1958. Hunt, although not listed as an alumnus, attended the private preparatory academy in the early 1940s. With or without a diploma, Hunt, joined by a younger brother, Herbert, donated more than a million dollars to the school, making the final payment even though both were in a cash crunch caused by extensive silver investments. The generous gift allegedly prompted the Hill headmaster to say about Bunker (no one seems to have called him "Nelson," his given name), "He may be up to his ears in silver, but he has a heart of gold."

Hunt also had a string of champion race horses. At the Reading Anthracite meeting, he invited Jim's father, the late James J. Curran Sr., to sit in his box at the upcoming Kentucky Derby, but the former Schuylkill County president judge declined.

Bob (Robert J.) Kerris, Elysburg, painted a word picture of Hunt similar to what my next door neighbor had to say about the Texas tycoon.

A co-owner with Edward W. Helfrick, Mount Carmel, of Kerris and Helfrick Inc. and Glen Burn Colliery, both in Northumberland County, Bob told me he found Hunt "portly, pleasant, down to earth and wearing a white shirt open at the neck" when they met in 1978. He added that, based on the few questions Hunt asked, he didn't appear to have too much knowledge of the anthracite industry. He left most of the inquiries to the business broker who accompanied him.

While negotiations were going on, Hunt received a call that he took in a back room of the Kerris and Helfrick offices. Minutes later, the office manager asked Bob, "Who's that character with you? I overheard him on the phone telling somebody to transfer $15 million from one account to another."

The participants at the Northumberland County meeting included my husband. Bob said they shared a private laugh when Jack showed him a newspaper picture of Hunt he had folded in his wallet for verification of the billionaire's identity. He also recalled that at lunch at a Shamokin sandwich shop, the Amity House, Hunt "enjoyed the food very much" and "ate every bite of his hamburger."

His assessment of Hunt's appetite didn't surprise me. The Texan is relatively tall, just an inch or so short of 6 feet, but he has often weighed in at 300 pounds. His idea of dieting, according to published reports, is to forego the ice cream on his apple pie. One of Dick Higgins' memories of Hunt has to do with food or, to be more accurate, a food bill. The billionaire was so slow at picking up the tab at the Swiss Chalet, a pricey restaurant outside Orwigsburg he liked because of its steaks, that the local realtor ended up paying the bill for their dinners.

There are huge gaps in what I know about Hunt in the coal region, including his negotiations with anthracite operators in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties.

Time has erased even my memories of what was told to me at the time. I can't recall specifics of my husband's descriptions of the billionaire tycoon, and my house is so crammed with books, magazines, newspaper clippings and photographs that I can't find my diary from 1978, where I certainly would have recorded details of the time Jack spent with Hunt.

What I do know is that there were no deals made at any of the meetings with area coal executives, and perhaps that was all for the best. To have ceded local control of anthracite production to an entrepreneur like Hunt, a man with no ties to the industry and the area, could have ended in a fiasco like his attempt to corner the world's silver market.

He and Herbert not only lost billions in the disaster, they also plunged the global market for the metal into disarray and triggered panic on Wall Street. Eventually the brothers were forced into bankruptcy proceedings.

Bunker never fully recovered financially from his silver shenanigans, but weep not for the Texas oilman. He may live relatively modestly in a Dallas suburb but, according to a recent article in the Dallas Morning News, he still has enough money to maintain a stable of 100 or so thoroughbred horses.

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