The young man paused and stared through the infinite Stygian darkness. It was 1952. School was out for the summer. Time to go to work. He adjusted the small miner’s lamp on the front of his hardhat, focusing the beam of light ahead of him. Inhaling a deep breath, he leaned forward and disappeared into the vast inky blackness of the coal mines.
He was 14 years old.
Garry Neil Drummond was born June 8, 1938 in Sipsey, Alabama, one of seven children. Three years earlier, his father, H.E. Drummond, had started a small mule-and-wagon coal mining operation. The business prospered and within a few years would become a highly successful mining industry titan called the Drummond Company.
As a young teen, Garry began working summers in his dad’s business. Years later, he spoke of the timeless, invaluable lessons learned from his father. “I saw the stresses and strains of a small company, undercapitalized, competing in a small business,” Garry once said. “The one thing that stands out, even today, was learning perseverance.”
The lesson of perseverance would come with a price tag. In 1956, Garry’s senior year of high school, his father died of heart failure. Garry’s two older brothers, who had been working for their dad full time, assumed business operations.
After high school, Garry enrolled at Auburn University. Adjusting to college life, at a time when the loss of his father was an open wound, was a task he found insurmountable. Frustrated, Garry quit college in the middle of the semester.
That decision would haunt him for years to come. “This is,” Garry later admitted, “the only thing in my life that I can remember quitting when it was important.
“Until this day it bothers me that I quit something. As I look back on my history as a father, a business person and engineer, and as chief executive of the company, the one thing that stands out in my mind is the major difference in winning and losing… has been not quitting. You know the expression, it’s always darkest before the dawn. A lot of times the company saw the dawn because we didn’t quit.”
Garry returned home to work in the family business. Because his sole experience had been summer work, he began as “the low man on the totem pole,” as he called it, a coal cleaner and drill operator.
He didn’t remain there. Two years later, with an associate degree in engineering from Walker College, Garry headed to the University of Alabama. During his last summer there, he studied differential equations. The night before the exam, Garry was up all night at the hospital awaiting the birth of his third son. The next day he walked into class and gave a cigar to his professor, who then handed him the exam.
With a civil engineering degree under his belt, the job offers began pouring in, but Garry chose to rejoin his brothers in business in 1961. “I loved the coal business and knew something about it,” he explained. “We had a small company…it was something to be built.”
The following year, a new business operation which required a $300,000 investment began experiencing financial difficulties. The company considered defaulting on payment of a commitment for purchasing equipment and abandoning the operation. Ultimately it was decided to bite the bullet and proceed with the operation, a decision that Garry never regretted. “As I look back at the history of Drummond Company today, it is just as important in my mind now as it was back in 1962 that default was the wrong thing to do,” he said. “Our company would not be the company that it is today, and maybe no company at all, if we had not made the right decision at that moment.”
In the next several decades, the young miner from Sipsey proved himself to be a valuable asset. In 1970 he facilitated the company’s first sales agreement with Japan. Three years later he was named CEO of the Drummond Company. In 1976, the company signed a $2 million contract with Alabama Power for Plant Miller. A decade later, Drummond acquired its first Colombian coal concession, which eventually became Pribbenow Mine.
Garry Drummond’s list of personal accolades is equally impressive. He was awarded the University of Alabama Outstanding Alumnus from 1987 to 1989. In 1997 he was inducted into the Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame, and in the Alabama Business Hall of Fame in 2003.
Another lesson he learned well was gratitude. He never took the company’s success, or his own, for granted. “Coal has been good for the Drummond family,” Garry once said. “We have lived the American Dream. We have lived the entrepreneurial dream.”
Drummond Company CEO Mike Tracy first met Garry in 1975 and was impressed by his intensity and vast knowledge. “He was an executive who knew every detail that was going on in every aspect of the business,” Tracy said. “Garry taught me so many lessons in business, particularly on the value of integrity and honesty. He taught me a lot in general about the coal industry. Garry was probably the most honest person I have ever known. He would deal with any problem straight on.”
On July 13, 2016, Garry Neil Drummond passed away at his home in Birmingham. He is remembered as an honest, warm-hearted man with a wide smile who loved children, and as a visionary who believed anything was possible. 78