Heading Underground with J. H. Fletcher’s Ben Hardman

If you work in coal, especially at one of the country’s many underground coal mines, the name Ben Hardman is likely a familiar one. In this issue’s executive Q&A, we talk to the VP about his industry history, the outlook for automation and his views on the coal industry.

Edited by Donna Schmidt

NAM: How did you get your start in mining? 

Hardman: I started [school] in physical therapy, but as I looked around one of the West Virginia University auditoriums full of straight-A students, I knew I’d better find something else to do, since they only admitted 16 per year and there were about 300 in the room. So, I jumped into engineering, which was a more logical fit since I loved mechanical drawing in junior high and high school as well as working with my hands fixing cars, lawn mowers and motorcycles. 

I wasn’t the easiest kid to raise, as trouble followed me (or I followed trouble), but this actually put me in a position that I had to work during school. CONSOL was hiring, and I’ve never looked back. As you know, the people in mining are the best in the world – hard-working, intelligent, fun-loving. This environment hooked me in and instilled a good work ethic, as I didn’t want to let anyone down.

CONSOL was my first mining job. I worked there for three summers and any time I had off school. They were great about always finding something for me to do. After graduating with my mining engineering degree in 1995, I took a full-time position with CONSOL as a project engineer. I moved to Fletcher within a year and have been here ever since.

What brought you into mining, and what has kept you moving in the industry?

The people and challenges are what drew me and has kept me in the industry. I enjoy resolving issues. So typically, if a problem arises – whether it’s mechanical, financial, service, sales, human resource related, etc. – I’m the guy at Fletcher that helps work through it. Nine times out of 10, it comes down to communication, and getting everyone in the room to understand the views and reasoning for all. 

Fletcher has become synonymous with coal over its history. What are your thoughts on how the industry is changing, and how the company’s role is changing with it?

When I started with Fletcher, 98% of our business was coal (either domestic or international). Fast forward 26 years to now, and coal is about 50% of our business. So, the change is real and it has affected all of us in the industry. We had no choice but to evolve into other minerals; while it has greatly stabilized our company, it also gave us an opportunity to learn and grow our backgrounds with all the other various mining methods we studied back in the college days like block caving and sublevel stoping. 

BEVs and the transition from diesel is a consistent hot topic, as is automation. Can you talk about these, in particular, as it relates to coal mining? 

I don’t have much to say on BEVs. We have a narrow vein bolter (the N3112-AB/E) that we had [displayed] at the last MINExpo, but it was designed for narrow stopes in deep reserves that typically struggle with ventilation. I believe this is the only place that makes sense. 

Customers in these situations are typically trying to reduce diesel particulates as well as heat. Coal mines already have all underground production equipment electric. The only benefit in coal that I know of would be supply haulage and, in some rare instances, coal haulers. Reward-benefit would be tough in my mind. 

Automation is different story. Automation is coming in coal, but it has just been tougher to facilitate with permissibility requirements in this environment. However, the lack of trained workers and the diminished desire for the younger generation to join the underground coal workforce will force the issue at some point. 

We have been involved in multiple projects in the past that utilized multiple heads and latched drilling to make a step in that direction, but the lack of flexibility has made this tough to be a uniformly accepted machine. Our next venture is under design right now with a single-boom machine for mid-seam application (7 to 9 feet).

What do you think the future holds for coal, and specifically for the underground coal operations you work with? 

Coal is here to stay – for both steam and metallurgical – but it will be more volatile than ever. This will put strain on any operation with high operating cost. 

The low-cost producers will survive and prosper as well as the producers that have a superior international sales team. 

With the industry need for trained operators and training in general, we have added a new department at JHF dedicated to this. We have seen double-digit growth in this side of our business and work with all mining houses, as well as for internal growth.

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges for the mining industry? 

Opportunities: The top managed companies (mining and equipment) will have opportunities to prosper at an escalated pace as more companies try to play the green card to satisfy their investors. We all care about the environment, but we also need the resources that mining provides. A perfect example is the stigma with electric vehicles. It’s a global battle to acquire and control these resources. How green is that decision?

Challenges: Survive the downturns we all have lived through in the past. The unfavorable views many in the public have about mining, coal in particular, will continue to make it tough to secure funding and employees. Recruitment and training will be huge going forward. 

Wrapping up, for fun: what is something your colleagues in the industry might not know about you? 

Most everyone in this industry works hard and plays hard. The stresses we experience from various avenues (legal, production, etc.) takes a toll on you. My family purchased a campground eight years ago during one of the downturns in the mining industry, and maintaining that property and the associated socialization has really helped me get my mind off things when needed. 

Everyone needs a way to get away from stress. Mine just may involve a sewer line. I can have a bad day and get to the campground and fix something simple and I’ll feel like I accomplished something. 

Editor’s note: the above interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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