2001 Marketing Graduate
Co-Owner of Black Gold Coal Crafts
To most, coal is an energy source. But it has a multitude of functions, including the ability to be made into remarkable works of art like the statues, figurines and décor manufactured by Black Gold Coal Crafts.
Situated in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields in Raleigh, West Virginia, Black Gold Coal Crafts was originally established in the 1970s and produced small trinkets and souvenirs from the natural resource of coal. But the company was reinvigorated when it was purchased in July 2015 by West Virginia University College of Business and Economics graduate Jeremy Fairchild and his business partners, brother Justin Fairchild and Brian Bowman.
“It was one of those things that intrigued me, making things out of coal, but in my mind, Black Gold Coal Crafts could be so much more,” said Jeremy Fairchild, a 2001 marketing alumnus. “I thought we could draw in more interest with a broader product line; we have West Virginians, the citizens who have a deep coal heritage and people who love the state who would be interested in purchasing handcrafted products made of coal.”
For the Fairchild family, this adventure and their association with the coal industry dates back to 1965, when the entrepreneur’s grandparents founded Fairchild International, which manufactured underground mining equipment. The company worked closely with the original owners of Black Gold Coal Crafts. When customers would stop by the manufacturing facility for equipment inspections, they would depart with a small souvenir made of coal crafted by Black Gold.
Fairchild’s grandmother sold the original family business to General Electric in 2012, and not long after, Black Gold was also up for sale. Fairchild and his partners saw the opportunity to preserve that heritage, capitalize on their entrepreneurial dreams and take the business to the next level.
“We started with the outline of the State of West Virginia for a wall décor piece, and it grew from there. We talked about it and decided to obtain the license from the NCAA to be able to use the Flying WV on our coal products,” he said. “I attribute our success from that point on to that product because that’s what enables us to really gain exposure and get a buzz going on about our business,” he said.
While each of the three owners is involved in the business, each took on an area of expertise within it. Because of his B&E education and business background, Fairchild heads the sales and marketing aspects of the business. But he still gets his hands dirty with the craftsmanship of the coal artwork.
“When you hold a chunk of coal in your hand, it is a very brittle material. You can very easily crush it and break it up. So, what we do is we take crushed coal and mix it with resin, which is a glue that helps to pull it all together. Then, it’s poured into a mold, which gives us our basic products. From there, it’s all hand worked to get rid of any imperfections. At the end, we seal it up with a durable clear coating that gives the products a nice shine,” he said.
While other similar products are out there, Black Gold’s artisanship has a certain edge you can’t find elsewhere.
“Over the years, the items people are looking to spend their money on has changed a little bit. You have to have the ability to come up with products that resonate with people, whether it’s for their heritage or other purposes. We do a lot of sales across the country to former West Virginians who have moved for jobs and to WVU alumni who may not be natives but see our products and feel that by purchasing them, it kind of gives them a little piece of West Virginia.”
As an entrepreneur, Fairchild recognizes that people look at the world differently. He describes himself as a person who looks at things and tries to take an out-of-the-box approach of how those things can be more appealing. The business plans to continue that way of thinking.
“We have a lot of expansion ideas in the works. One is to develop new products with new designs that would be appealing to the masses, to people outside of West Virginia,” he said. “Our recent machinery investment will allow us to do more customized pieces.”
Teaching Associate Professor of Business Administration
Owner of Laurel Caverns
What does it take to be a great professor? Knowledge and passion. What does it take to be a great entrepreneur? Knowledge and passion. And Dr. David Cale embodies both of those qualities and more.
As a teaching assciate professor at the West Virginia University College of Business and Economics, he strives to engrain the value of business ethics into the minds of all business students. And as the owner of Laurel Caverns in Farmington, Pennsylvania, Cale — a Ph.D. in the philosophy of physics — is a geological expert in respect to the three-mile, natural calcareous, sandstone cave and knowing every nook, cranny and passageway.
“I started the project discovering new passages when I was 15 years old,” Cale said. “That is perhaps the most rewarding thing, to see a new part of the world that no human being has ever seen before.”
Cale’s grandfather, Norman Cale, purchased the property in 1925. It was a beautiful undeveloped mountain, but there was the small issue of people accessing the cave and lawsuits arising. Cale’s father was a minister in southern West Virginia, so at the age of 16, Cale left home for Pennsylvania to help his grandfather develop what is today Laurel Caverns. And after two years of digging passages, stringing lights and cleaning up the cave, Cale gave the first tour on July 1, 1964.
“I wanted it to be a place where people could appreciate the cave in its own intrinsic nature, and that is what we have done ever since,” Cale said.
Not long after that first tour, Cale’s grandfather sold the caverns to two attorneys who allowed him to stay on as manager since he knew the cave from his participation in its development. When he learned they visualized developing the acreage over the cave into lots because of the beautiful view from atop the mountain, he convinced them the development would have a disastrous effect on the picturesque cave and they agreed to drop their plan and sell him the property.
He then negotiated an arrangement with Don Shoemaker, a conservationist and owner of the Mount Summit Inn Resort, to purchase the property for operation as a preserved park. Shoemaker graciously agreed to finance Cale’s share in the buyout. In 1986, Shoemaker offered Cale the opportunity to purchase his interest and become the sole owner, which he did.
“All along, it was never a business. It was always an act of conservation and preservation, trying to maintain the 435 acres in its original state for the people. The things you could normally make money on, I didn’t do — lot developments and such,” he said. “I kept everything as natural as I could. I stayed away from a lot of the commercial stuff. When people come and go from [the caverns] now, they think they’ve been to a state park.”
But Laurel Caverns, the largest cave in Pennsylvania, is more than just a breathtaking labyrinth. It is a learning experience with several microbusinesses within. When you drive the windy road and come up on the Norman Cale Visitors Center, you know you’ve made it. When you walk inside, you’ll see a gift shop and an entrance to the world’s largest simulated cave that includes a miniature golf course.
“Students with physical disabilities in wheelchairs had inclusion for the first time in the early 1990s with the adaptation for school buses. When classes would come for tours of the cave, the natural cave was just too difficult for them to get through,” he explained. “So, I thought it would be interesting to create a simulated cave that is wheelchair accessible for these kids.”
In commitment to its preservation mission, Laurel Caverns is open from May through October, but closed from November through April for bat hibernation season. And with 32 employees, they are able to provide and accommodate traditional guided cave tours, educational field trips, spelunking and rappelling.
“We’re in the people business. Is it a cave? Yes, but the root of the business is people. We’re dealing with people from all over the world, and our staff has to be able to handle that, to make them feel welcome,” Cale said. “It’s not just about telling them about the cave; the tour has to be about them and their relationship to the cave.”