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Obituary: Robert H. Quenon led Peabody Energy; chaired board of St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank

Robert H. Quenon
Provided | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

Robert H. Quenon wanted to become a coal mining manager like his father and his father’s three brothers.

“I was counseled by them that if management was my objective, I should get as much practical experience as possible by working underground and learning the fundamentals of how coal is mined and how coal miners think and behave,” Mr. Quenon told a college audience as he neared retirement.

So, that’s what he did. He started in West Virginia’s Federal No. 1 mine. Eventually, he was leading Peabody Holding Company, the nation’s largest coal company and the largest private coal company in the world.

Mr. Quenon, a longtime resident of Ladue, died Tuesday (Nov. 19, 2013) of interstitial lung disease at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. He was 85.

A memorial service will be Dec. 6, at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Ladue.

He had far exceeded his goal of being a mining manager, but Mr. Quenon remained “an absolutely down-to-earth guy,” said John Peters MacCarthy, formerly vice chair of Centerre Bancorporation. “Bob was a dear friend and wonderful guy.”

Top coal miner

Mr. Quenon had worked for coal companies for more than a decade and “I was minding my own business running Riverton Coal, living in Charleston (W.Va.) and enjoying life,” he told students, when a life- and career-altering phone call came.

It was from another one of the world’s largest oil company, Standard Oil, now known as Exxon.

They were getting into the coal business and wanted the man who knew the business from the (under)ground up. He went to work for a division of Exxon in 1967, and established the Monterey Coal Co. with mines in Illinois, Wyoming and West Virginia.

A year later, a mine explosion at Consol No. 9 near Farmington, W.Va., killed 78 miners. The disaster put the coal industry on notice and became the impetus for Congress to enact several new safety laws to protect miners.

“The presence of such a hazardous work environment aroused public anger and concern, in an age when a man could be put into outer space and safely returned to earth,” Mr. Quenon noted.

He was now manager, but he knew a thing or two about working underground. As he helped Exxon build its new business, his role came to include presenting the coal industry’s positions to members of Congress.

His work did not go unnoticed. In 1977, he received another unexpected call, this time from Peabody Coal Co. (now Peabody Energy. He joined the company and became president and chief executive officer in 1978; five years later he was named CEO of Peabody Holding Company, the coal corporation’s parent. Peabody was the final stop of his corporate career.

Mr. Quenon led Peabody during rapidly changing times.  He faced anti-trust litigation, changing environmental regulations and energy demands, as well as new technologies, like nuclear energy, that impacted the coal industry. He declared Peabody prepared for any energy or market shifts.

A company profile noted that during Mr. Quenon’s tenure he had to overcome poor labor relationships, low employee morale, financial losses, and outdated plants and equipment. In an interview with the company’s magazine, Pulse, Mr. Quenon said he was able to lead past many challenges because the company "had a very good management team (that) understood coal, and made things happen."

He oversaw a reorganization of Peabody that included selling off some properties to finance more modern facilities and equipment. He was able to capitalize on the 1970s OPEC oil crisis by renegotiating longer terms contracts with customers who feared rising prices. He modestly attributed the strategy to “luck.”

Strikes were among the greatest challenges he faced. In his 2001 speech to students, he shared his perspective on labor relations.

“Labor and management are partners and you don't keep a partner in the dark about what's happening” he said.

Mr. Quenon retired as Peabody Holding Company chair in 1991, after serving in that position for a year after the company was bought by Hanson PLC, a British conglomerate. 

He quickly became a coal industry consultant. At the behest of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Labor, he shared his knowledge of labor relations, technology and business practices with other countries, including India, China, Siberia, Ukraine, Poland and Australia.

Coal miner’s son

Robert Hagerty Quenon was born in 1928, in Clarksburg, W.Va., the heart of coal country, and grew up in nearby Fairmont. He was the second oldest of Ernest Leonard Quenon and Josephine Hagerty Quenon’s six children.

After graduating from high school, he enlisted in Army and served in Korea during the U.S. occupation. When he returned from Korea, he entered what was then the School of Mines at West Virginia University on the G.I. Bill, graduating with a degree in mining engineering. He spent his college summers “interning” in the mines.

His first job out of college was as a mine superintendent for Consolidation Coal Co., he later worked as manager of deep mines for Pittston Co., then general manager of Riverton Coal Co. before joining a division of Exxon and subsequently, Peabody Coal.

In what he called “a sabbatical,” when he toyed with the idea of a career change, he entered law school in Washington, D.C. He received his law degree from George Washington University in 1964 – but the coal miner’s son did not change careers.

The mayor’s husband

While attending West Virginia University, he met Jean Elizabeth Bowling. She earned a degree in zoology and was later accepted to medical school, which she declined in favor of marriage to Mr. Quenon. Jean Quenon was elected mayor of Ladue in 1995 and served four terms.

“Dad said he got more respect as the husband of the mayor than for his career,” laughed his son, Evan.

Mr. Quenon received plenty of respect for his generosity of spirit, time and charity.

Most notably, from 1993 to 1995, he served as chair of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

His corporate board service also included Ameren Corp., Boatmen’s Bancorporation and Laclede Steel Co. He was on the advisory boards of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and St. Louis University.

He served as president of the board of commissioners of the St. Louis Art Museum and received the Museum’s 1989 Beaux Arts Council Award.

He received the AIME (American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers) Erskine Ramsay Medal in 1985, and in 1991 he earned the National Coal Association’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. He is in the West Virginia Coal Mining Hall of Fame.  He received an honorary PhD from his alma mater, West Virginia University in 1988, and was named a Distinguished Engineer of Mines by the university in 2001.

In 1993, the University of Missouri at Rolla (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology) established the Robert H. Quenon Chair in mining engineering, the first endowed chair at the school.

Mr. Quenon relished hunting, fishing, golfing and downhill skiing, which he only gave up last year. They were activities he shared with family and friends in St. Louis, Houston, Saratoga, Wyo., and West Virginia.

He was preceded in death by his parents and a sister, Eileen Quenon Maull.

In addition to his wife of 60 years, Jean, Mr. Quenon is survived by his children, Robert Evan Quenon of Austin, Texas, Ann Quenon Peters (Alec) of Kenwood, Calif., Richard Bowling Quenon of Boulder, Colo.; his siblings, Leonard Quenon of Ann Arbor, Mich,, Max Quenon (Arlene) of Eagle, Colo., Carolyn Quenon Oppizzi of Sea Cliff, N.Y., and Brother Paul Quenon of Trappist, Ky.; a sister-in-law, Sara Staats of Huntington, W.Va. He is also survived by six grandchildren Sarah Keirn Quenon, Laura Q. Ozuna, Evan Ross Peters II, Robert Augustus Peters, Elizabeth Quenon Peters and Anya Richardson Quenon.

A memorial service will be at 3 p.m. on Dec. 6, at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, 110 North Warson Road, in Ladue.

Memorial contributions may be made to the St. Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, St. Louis, MO 63110, or to the Robert H. Quenon Chair in Mining Engineering, Attn: Judy Russell, Mining Dept., 230 McNutt, 1400 N. Bishop, Rolla, MO 65409.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.