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Earl Holding: Maverick entrepreneur has made a fortune through hard work and patience

Published April 20, 2013 8:41 pm

From the archive • This story was published by the Salt Lake Tribune in February of 2000.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Robert Earl Holding became a Western legend by parlaying a small stake in a Wyoming truck stop into a family empire. Holding remains a doggedly private person. Yet the 73-year-old Salt Lake City native, in a rare interview, granted The Tribune a guarded glimpse into his life.

He talks about a truck stop in southwestern Wyoming with enduring amazement.

He talks about turning around the money-losing business within the first year and about building it into one of the largest service stations in the country.

Nearly five decades later, sitting in a paneled conference room at his company's headquarters, he talks about that time as if it were yesterday.

Make no mistake, though. Earl Holding does not live in the past. At 73, he is in the midst of two of the most ambitious projects of his career, spending an estimated $185 million to build a world-class hotel in Salt Lake City and more than $100 million to transform Ogden Valley's Snowbasin into a premier ski resort.

But that truck stop — the famed Little America west of Green River, Wyo. — was the start. Holding and his wife, Carol, pumping gas and waiting on tables in their early 20s, parlayed a small stake in that business into one of the country's great fortunes.

Few people know how much the Holding family is worth. But Earl Holding is often referred to as a billionaire, and the label may be valid.

The Holding family's businesses include hotels, ski resorts, refineries, gas stations and ranches. They own the storied Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho. And the family is believed to be the largest landowner in Montana.

Yet Holding himself is an enigma — not a recluse, but a fiercely private man. Even the downtown Salt Lake City headquarters of Sinclair Oil Corp., the parent company of the family's businesses and one of Utah's largest companies, bears no sign.

Not surprisingly, misperceptions abound. But interviews with Holding and more than two dozen people portray a maverick, a true product of the West who built an empire in a singular style. He amassed his fortune in the same way pioneers built vast ranches — through hard work and patience, one piece at a time.

"All I want is the land next to mine," reads a plaque an employee once gave Holding. The sentiment largely describes Holding's peculiar business career — one in which possession often matters more than profit.

Unlike most people of his wealth, Holding's success is nearly devoid of the complex dealmaking that characterizes today's business world. He doesn't buy and sell businesses. He just buys them.

His genius is in basics — in recognizing bargains, in running businesses. He is renowned for his obsession with detail, from noticing a missing ingredient in the pepper salad dressing to checking the concrete mix for a hotel's foundation. And he is the toughest of negotiators.

"If you deal with him long enough, you'll be broke," says Ed Higbie of Western Real Estate in Cody, Wyo.

Despite his wealth, Holding stands apart from Salt Lake City's power structure. He sits on none of the prominent boards that indicate membership in the city's elite. In that sense, his former position on the board of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee was out of character.

"I'm really not a joiner," Holding told The Salt Lake Tribune in a rare interview.

But the 2002 Winter Games was the fulcrum he needed to turn his money-losing ski hill into a first-class ski resort. And after joining the organizing board at Gov. Mike Leavitt's request, Holding became its most controversial member because of the benefits bestowed on Snowbasin as an Olympic venue.

Holding was an Olympic supporter whose jets ferried members of the International Olympic Committee during the bid. He attended his first board meeting after Salt Lake City won the bid in 1995 and has not been linked to the bribery scandal.

He resigned when Leavitt pushed to remove trustees with apparent conflicts of interest. The request, with its suggestion of improbity, offended Holding.

"I don't know of anything that I have ever done, in any way, shape or form, that I need to be ashamed of with the Olympics," he says.

Holding is direct, plain-spoken, serious — all business. Not given to small talk, he often doesn't understand a joke. His manner strikes some people as aloof, others as shy.

But R.G. Little, a former Sinclair Oil executive, says Holding's demeanor is that of the skilled poker player he was in his youth.

Carol Holding ended Earl's days at the card table, contending it wasn't fair for him to take people's money. Today, Holding's poker chips are his businesses, though he displays little interest in what those chips can buy.

The Holdings own a beautiful house in the Federal Heights section of Salt Lake City — one of several throughout the West. Their company owns two jets, one bought from the Sultan of Brunei. Several of their ranches, such as the Twin Creek Ranch at the base of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming or the Sunlight Ranch east of Yellowstone National Park, are prized properties.

Yet Holding almost disdains the life- styles of the very rich. His life centers on his family and his businesses. And, by all accounts, he and Carol have a great love affair.

"She is with him every moment of the day," says Neal Stowe, the project manager for Sinclair Oil's new hotel.

Carol Holding was her husband's business partner from the start.

"I either became part of his business or lived alone," she says.

Carol Holding, who ran a marathon at age 50, has a natural grace that puts people at ease, that smoothes some of her husband's rough edges. The two celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in June. And she is Earl Holding's most trusted adviser, one of the few who can move him off an idea.

"Oh, Earl, just do this," she will say.

Earl Holding was a young civil engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, about to leave for Iran to build water projects, when asked to take over Little America.

Almon, Hyrum and Stephen Covey — brothers who had expanded the truck stop in the late 1940s — knew Holding as a young Mormon boy who did yard work at their apartment buildings in downtown Salt Lake City. (Stephen Covey was the grandfather of Stephen R. Covey, the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.)

Carol Holding worked alongside her husband running the truck stop.

"I still have the first dollar bill that anyone gave me as a tip," she says.

Holding turned around the business, in which he was given a small stake, partly by stopping skimming by suppliers.

"We counted everything," Holding says.

He also planted hundreds of trees, a touch that would become a trademark. He added pumps and expanded the hotel. And he started using the service station's tankers to sell wholesale fuel.

"They were long days, and I lived every hour of them," he says.

In 1965, Holding, who had bought out the Coveys, built a second Little America in Cheyenne, Wyo. — the first of several bets he would make over the next 12 years.

He invited Cheyenne's business elite to the grand opening. One of the guests told Holding to park his car. Holding did. Later that evening, he overheard a woman admiring the jewelry in the gift shop.

"Don't buy that," her husband said. "This guy is going to go out of business, and you'll be able to buy it for 40 cents on the dollar."

Instead, Holding was just beginning to hit his stride.

In 1967, at age 41, he made his next big move, borrowing heavily to buy a closed refinery in Casper, Wyo.

The previous year, he had bought the Little America in Salt Lake City — then no more than a motel — from the Covey family. He built a Little America in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1972. And he bought the Westgate Hotel in San Diego four years later.

Then came the investment that would propel Holding into the ranks of the super-rich — his purchase of a refinery in central Wyoming and other assets formerly part of Sinclair Oil.

Holding didn't buy the famed oil company, once the seventh largest in the world. Sinclair was bought by the Atlantic Richfield Co. As part of the acquisition, Arco sold some of Sinclair's assets to Pasco Inc. In 1976, Holding bought most of those assets, again borrowing heavily.

"When we did Casper, it was a stretch," Holding says. "When we did Sinclair, it was a very big stretch."

The bet paid off.

Getting gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and other petroleum products to the Intermountain West is difficult and costly. That enables refineries in the region — and Holding owns the largest — to charge more for their products.

The refinery is wildly profitable.

Sinclair Oil, the parent company, employs more than 6,500 people. The company's sheer size seems to frustrate Holding. His happiest days, he says, were when he was close to the people working in his hotels and refineries.

"I'm not close to anything anymore," he says.

Yet Holding still remembers the names of Sinclair convenience-store managers. He talks to workers when visiting refineries. The company's corporate culture remains paternal. Many employees — including some executives — call him "Mr. Holding." And Holding is generally respected by them.

"He's an honest fellow to me, and when he tells you something, that's the way it is," says Rich Torrens, a Holding ranch worker.

Others view Holding differently. Former employees contend he pays below-market wages. And some describe him as "tight" or "greedy."

"Ever since I've known the guy, that's all he's done is take — he's never given," says Donald Martin, a retired foreman who worked at the Sinclair Oil refinery for 33 years.

Holding also can be a demanding boss.

"Earl very seldom has anything good to say," says Doug Pearce, the former manager of two Holding ranches in Wyoming. " 'You did all right, but you could have done better,' is about the best you will get out of Earl."

Still, Holding is capable of acts of kindness.

When the wife of Roy Wells, a Sinclair employee of 30 years, needed a stem-cell transplant for breast cancer in 1998, Holding called him to offer help. The procedure, not covered by standard insurance, cost $110,000. The people at the Denver hospital would not talk to Wells.

Holding told Wells to have the hospital call him. After that, Wells says, "it was a totally different story."

Later, Holding asked Wells not to tell anybody about his help or to disclose the amount.

"Let's put it this way: If it hadn't been for him helping, it'd have been hell," Wells says.

Unlike some of Utah's wealthiest — Jon Huntsman is an example — Holding is not known for his philanthropy. He may give anonymously. Nobody knows.

But Sen. Orrin Hatch, who knows Holding well, sees their similarly threadbare childhoods as integral to the adults they became.

"I would never say he does not give to charity. If nothing else, I know they are paying tithing [to the LDS Church], that's for sure," Hatch says. "When you come up the hard way, and I know about this, you tend to hang onto everything you have, and you don't lose that feeling even when you've become a success. Earl invests in Earl."

Holding has not forgotten his parents lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash. He doesn't invest in stocks — a rarity for a man of his wealth. And he hates to borrow money.

From his ranches to his hotels, Holding is considered a skilled operator. And he has high expectations. People won't see cigarette butts on the grass or room-service trays in the hallways at his hotels, says Jim Hire, a hotel consultant who has done work for Holding.

"That stuff is picked up and picked up right now," Hire says.

Seemingly no aspect of his businesses is deemed insignificant. And everything must run through him. That penchant for micromanagement is seen as both a strength and a weakness. "He likes to get into everything," says Little, the former Sinclair Oil executive.

Sinclair Oil is a collection of businesses run, in some ways, like a collection of businesses. And former business associates question whether Holding, by temperament and style, could run a large, traditional corporation.

He doesn't think in terms of return on investment, opportunity costs or the time value of money. He understands those benchmarks, but they mean little to him.

Holding contends he cannot remember an investment that didn't work out — a claim few businesspeople can or would make. Yet some of his operations, such as Sinclair Oil's refineries in Casper, Wyo., and Tulsa, Okla., probably lose money or break even.

No matter. He owns them.

The approach meshes well with Holding's greatest strength — his gift for spotting bargains.

In the business world, Holding is considered a bottom feeder. The Casper and Tulsa refineries were closed when bought by Holding. The Westgate Hotel was in foreclosure. So, too, were the company's headquarters and many of his ranches.

Holding started buying ranches in the mid-1980s near the peak of an agricultural crisis. He's still buying land.

"And it's got to be less than market price," says Jake Korell of Landmark of Billings in Montana.

Holding downplays his reputation for buying distressed properties. But he acknowledges, "It's a lot easier to make them work when you haven't paid so much for them."

The exceptions to Holding's frugal ways are his hotels and ranches. He displays a pride of ownership almost quaint in today's business world. More than most businesspeople, Holding is defined by what he owns.

By the time the 24-story hotel, tentatively named the Grand America Hotel, opens late next year, nearly every detail — from the granite for the exterior to the door knobs — will have been approved by Holding.

He went to the Vermont quarry to select the 50,000-pound blocks of granite, the whitest he could find, before they were shipped to Spain to be cut and polished.

Almost no one expects the hotel initially to earn much of a return on Holding's investment. But Sinclair Oil is building the hotel with cash. And Holding is a patient investor.

The same holds for Snowbasin. Developing the resort will take decades, perhaps more than this singular Westerner has left.

Still, the Grand America Hotel and Snowbasin clearly will be centerpieces of the Holding legacy, monuments to a shrewd poker player's life spent buying and building businesses.

Call it sweat equity on a grand scale.

Tribune reporter Christopher Smith and researcher Rebecca Hodges contributed to this story.