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Joe Usibelli Jr.

Joe Usibelli Jr. grew up around his family coal mine--literally, in the thick of it. The family home of the 54-year-old president of Usibelli Coal Mine Inc. sat in the middle of the mine camp.

This year, Usibelli marks his 25th year as president of the company, located near Healy. He represents the third generation of his family to run the state's only working coal mine. His Italian-born grandfather, Emil, started the company. His father, Joe Usibelli Sr., took over at 25 after Emil died in a mine accident.

But Joe Jr. always felt that he had a choice of professions growing up. He and his wife, Marilyn, are giving their 9-year-old daughter, Lexi, the same freedom.

"I had my choice. Even as late as the start of college I had my choice what I wanted to do," Usibelli said in a November interview. "We've always had our choice. You chose to stay."

Making the right choice about a profession is also one of the lessons Usibelli brought to the classroom when he participated in elementary and junior high visits through Junior Achievement. The Alaska nonprofit brings community volunteers into the classroom to educate students about workforce readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy.

That combination of business acumen and dedication to Junior Achievement's programs won Usibelli a spot in the Alaska Business Hall of Fame.

Nominated by their peers, Usibelli and three other business leaders will be inducted Jan. 24 at the Dena'ina Civic & Convention Center. Junior Achievement of Alaska Inc. and Alaska Business Monthly sponsor the annual event.

Deep Roots

Usibelli's roots start in Italy. His great-grandparents, grandfather and grandmother's family immigrated to the United States just after the turn of the 20th century, during a period when Italians streamed to the U.S.

They came through Ellis Island and moved to Washington state, working mines in the Renton and Cle Elum areas.

Emil Usibelli came to Alaska in 1935, working the Evans Jones Mine in Sutton for about a year before moving to the Healy coal mine then operated by Austin "Cap" Lathrop. An injury ended that job.

However, Emil, described by his grandson as a hard worker--started a business cutting timbers for mine supports in the Suntrana mine. During World War II, he got a government contract to mine 10,000 tons of coal per year to increase military supplies beginning in 1943. The contract included a license to mine on property in the Healy area. That's where the Usibelli Coal Mine began.

Usibelli will celebrate 70 years of operation during 2013 and now produces 2 million tons per year.

Emil Usibelli built the company from that first contract, starting the first surface coal mining technique in Alaska, his grandson says.

"I think there were probably some pretty skinny years there," Usibelli says.

Emil Usibelli died in a mine accident in 1964, just hours before the Good Friday Earthquake. His son, Joe, a grad student at the time, took over operations that year.


Joe Usibelli Sr. built the mine from there.

From that 10,000-ton contract, the Usibelli mine has grown to become the only operating coal mine in Alaska, a significant producer on the state's energy scene. Production averages more than 2 million tons of subbituminous coal per year.

Usibelli coal is transported to six Interior Alaska electrical power plants: Fort Wainwright; Eielson Air Force Base; Clear Air Force Station; Golden Valley Electric Association; Aurora Energy, a wholesale supplier of electricity and provider of district heat in Fairbanks; and the University of Alaska Fairbanks power plant.

The company has also exported coal to South Korea since 1985 and to Chile since 2004 through the Seward Coal Terminal. Over the years, Usibelli has also provided test shipments to Russia, Taiwan, China and Japan.

The Usibelli Foundation funds numerous scholarships and provides grants to more than a hundred organizations annually.

Usibelli also operates a number of business enterprises, among them a Napa Valley vineyard, an investment company and a real estate development company. Others focus on natural resources: Usibelli Energy LLC, which focuses on exploration and development for coal bed methane and natural gas; Aurora Energy; and Aurora Energy Services, which operates the Seward Coal Terminal Facility.

The Usibelli family's loyalty to the business is clear, but some of the company's employees have also kept the coal mine in their families. Usibelli Coal employs 144 people, according to company information provided by Bill Brophy, a Usibelli vice president who handles customer relations.

Of those men and women, more than a quarter are second-, third- or fourth-generation employees. The average has more than nine years of service. Twenty-nine have logged more than 20 years of continuous employment. Several recent retirees started working at the mine straight out of high school and retired as managers after more than 35 years.

'Every Day is an Education'

Joe Jr. has served as company president since 1987. His father serves as board chair.

Usibelli graduated in 1981 from the University of Alaska Fairbanks with a civil engineering degree. He moved up through the Usibelli corporate structure, holding various positions from assistant superintendent to vice president of operations before becoming president. He still loves the job.

"Well, it's familiar, growing up with it. It's challenging. It's multi-disciplined," Usibelli says. "Even today, I conduct business in an office but I can go out in the field and see things happening, see dirt being moved, coal being moved, and heavy equipment busy at work. Certain days of the week I can go and see a blast go off with explosives."

His induction in the Business Hall of Fame is the latest in a long line of awards including the William A. Egan Outstanding Alaskan Award in 2012 and the George Nehrbas Award from the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce in 2009.

He served eight years on the UA Board of Regents as well as on the boards of numerous statewide organizations and businesses.

In fact, Usibelli's involvement in Junior Achievement started with his time on the board there, first the local board in Fairbanks, then the statewide board.

Usibelli says he tried to educate students on workplace surprises. He encouraged them to weigh prospective jobs based on sometimes hidden costs, such as an office job's expensive wardrobe or pricey tools for a trade.

Of course, some of his instruction focused on the basics, such as the theory of supply and demand--knowledge Usibelli says he didn't get exposed to until high school or even college.

His experience with Junior Achievement tracks with his personal philosophy about learning.

"Education can come in many forms," Usibelli says. "Every day is an education."

Zaz Hollander is a journalist living in Palmer.
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL SECTION: Junior Achievement--2013 Alaska Hall Of Fame Laureate Inductee
Comment:Joe Usibelli Jr.(SPECIAL SECTION: Junior Achievement--2013 Alaska Hall Of Fame Laureate Inductee)
Author:Hollander, Zaz
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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Next Article:Junior achievement's influence: helping fill Alaska's skills gap.

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