During the last 20 to 25 years, the U.S. coal business maybe had two good years in the 1990s, a couple of good years shortly before the global financial crisis, and this decade is shaping up no differently. Despite the soft market and the negativity that seems to constantly pervade this segment, American coal miners have produced more than 1 billion tons per year, at the highest productivity levels, and much more safely than imaginable in the 1970s or 1980s.

Coal Age recently sponsored two fairly successful trade shows: Haulage & Loading, which caters to the surface mining business; and Longwall USA, which serves the underground coal sector. In general, surface and underground mine operators are not usually found in the same setting. Their approach to mining coal is completely different, but they do have some things in common: a strong commitment to safe operations, abiding by regulations and profitability.

Attendance at both events was as good if not better than previous years. If the conference is compared to one that took place 10 or 20 years ago, when there was a larger group of mines and vendors, then attendance was in fact way down. The most noticeable difference between the current conference and the one that took place two years ago is that our business is changing. Yet, this has not registered with a lot of people. They are so focused on who is not there they tend to overlook who is present. There were a number of new, young faces, and the people in our business tend to discount the younger crowd based on perception.

In three very similar scenarios, I listened to complaints from middle-aged marketers, who did not realize that the young people they were seeing had incredible purchasing power. On two separate occasions, at a luncheon and on the show floor, representatives from two competitive OEMs at the two different venues complimented Coal Age [Mining Media International] on an improved technical program and then complained about the lack of mine operators, only to find out that they were completely surrounded by mine operators. These men were 35 years or younger.

Even though the market we serve hasn’t changed a whole lot, a new generation is getting ready to take over. They probably do not immediately recognize that many of the brands they see are the result of several classic companies merged into one new name. They probably have a direct link to an owner or a CEO in today’s connected world. They are fewer in number, they may be a little less formal, and they are accomplishing more with less.