As the cool-down of China's domestic coal industry continues, coal mine owners made rich by the industry are now looking to new profitable careers.
"We are seeking ways out," said Zhao Cunfa, a former coal mine owner in the city of Shenmu in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, a center for the nation's vibrant mining industry.
"Coal prices currently are near their lowest point in the past few years," said Zhao.
Zhao, 55, a pioneer of the industry who began running private coal mines in 1992, said he used to fly to the provincial capital city of Xi'an for a single meal or spend extravagantly "without batting an eye."
In the 1980s, privately run coal mines started to sprout up across coal-rich regions, such as Shanxi, Hebei, Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi.
"As rich as a coal mine boss" has become a slang phrase in China. The group is considered one of the country's richest, perceived as possessing immense wealth, spending huge sums of money and living decadent lifestyles.
"China's mine owners have contributed to the economic growth, but also brought along problems like environmental degradation and resource waste," said Wang Chengxiang, author of a book about coal mine bosses.
As a result, the nation began to reshuffle the industry in early 2000, shutting down substandard mines and merging smaller ones into competitive mining conglomerates.
Many coal mine bosses, including Zhao, realized the necessity of diversifying their interests or reinventing themselves in new industries.
Zhao took an early step in 2008 to invest his vast wealth into building an electricity factory to recycle coal mine waste.
More coal barons joined the transformation this year amid dropping coal prices due to economic slowdown and overcapacity of the coal mining industry.
Some moved away from the mining industry entirely, redirecting their vision to industries like eco-agriculture, food processing, hotels and logistics, Wang added.
Yao Wangshun operated coal mines for more than 20 years, but has since shifted to the eco-agricultural industry.
Yao has imported breeding technology for Japanese black cattle and opened a large modern farm in Weinan, a city in the east of Shaanxi's Guanzhong Plain.
"I did not dare to use the local labor force when I was running high-risk coal mines, but now I am happy to offer job opportunities," Yao said.
Coal mine bosses are not well received by society because they are associated with speculation and lack of education, he said. "However, the eco industry is welcomed."
However, many others are sitting on large amounts of idle money, as the question of where to channel their coal mine profits has been an enduring headache, according to Ma Jianfei, assistant researcher of rural development at the Shaanxi Academy of Social Sciences.
As most of China's coal barons shot to wealth through mining, a less technologically intense field, the new move to tech industries may not be easy, according to Ma.
The government should provide more investment channels for coal mine owners, Ma said, adding that "barons can recruit more professional managers to introduce modern enterprise management systems."
As coal remains the dominant energy in China, the bosses will not quit completely. "Hopefully, some of them will grow into being real entrepreneurs amid China's industrial restructuring," Ma said.
Yang Yong, a 28-year-old coal mine boss, is planning to tap into the delivery service industry, which he says is "a trend in big cities, but I found there are potential markets in towns and villages."