Richard Budge, who has died at the age of 69, was the entrepreneur dubbed “King Coal” after he bought the bulk of the UK’s coal mines when the industry was privatised.
His death from prostate cancer comes less than a year after Britain’s last deep pit, once owned by his RJB Mining, closed. Only a few surface mines remain of a once mighty industry. Budge himself was declared bankrupt in 2013 after pouring money into a series of lossmaking energy ventures, leaving millions of pounds in debts.
Budge took a big gamble when acquiring 17 of the country’s last 19 deep mines in 1994 as British Coal was privatised. There was the bitter legacy of the year-long mining strike, rigid work practices and growing imports to contend with, plus his own lack of experience. “Some people thought of it as selling M&S to the corner shop,” says Nigel Yaxley, former marketing director of RJB. “But he soon showed he was committed to the industry.”
Doncaster-based RJB paid £815m for 17 deep mines, 30 surface mines, more than 400m tonnes of reserves and nearly 50,000 acres of land. It also acquired 10,000 employees. There were three-year deals to supply power companies but in the late 1990s the price of coal fell sharply and with high fixed costs, RJB found it hard to adapt. Budge’s pleas for government subsidies fell on deaf ears.
His taste for high living — he liked classic cars and enjoyed staying at London’s finest hotels — was at odds with the egalitarian image of the union-dominated coal mines. But he paid relatively well and built a good relationship with men at the coal face.
“I had a lot of respect for him. He was very good at talking to working men. He would go underground and discuss things with them,” says Patrick Carragher, who represented managers in the British Association of Colliery Management. “He had coal running through his veins.”
Indeed, Budge was forced out as the company’s chief executive in 2001, with a near £1m payoff, because of his reluctance to prioritise shareholders over staff. “He was more committed to the workers and the industry than to the financial community,” says Mr Yaxley.
Budge also supported mining charities and sponsored the
Grimethorpe Colliery band even after the pit closed. He is survived by his wife Ros, two sons and five grandchildren.
Budge was undone by efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. Ministers piled taxes on coal and subsidised renewable energy. UK Coal, RJB’s successor, has now been wound up after mounting losses, with just a property arm left.
He had bought the Hatfield colliery near Doncaster with the aim of building the UK’s first clean coal power station nearby. The business went bust in 2003 after failing to secure government funding. Yet Budge reopened Hatfield in 2007 with a second plan, which would have captured the carbon dioxide produced from burning coal and buried it.
Despite securing Russian investment and €183m (£153m) of funding from the European Commission, the government backed away from the technology. The project was put into administration in 2010.
Tony Lodge, of the Centre for Policy Studies, worked on energy policy with Budge. He said that “he had a vision but on clean coal he was probably 20 years ahead of his time”.
Born in Lincolnshire on April 19 1947, Budge went to Boston Grammar School and then Manchester University to study fine arts. He started work with his brother’s company, AF Budge, which built motorway junctions and did some surface mining.
As a racing driver he competed in several high-powered Chevron historic sports cars and was crowned Thundersports Gold Cup winner at Oulton Park in 1983.
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