Robert Earl Holding: Utah billionaire shaped the face of Salt Lake City
All of his work associates, even his son-in-law, invariably referred to him as "Mr. Holding," most respectfully too.
Robert Earl Holding carried himself in a way that quietly demanded that respect. To some detractors, his bearing came off as aloof or arrogant. But to admirers, Holding earned the right to be treated with such magnanimity, having parlayed hard work and an incisive eye for a good deal into a personal fortune, which he used to change the face of Salt Lake City and to help bring the 2002 Winter Olympics to Utah.
The billionaire made the largest individual investment in the Games estimated at close to $300 million. He built The Grand America Hotel to ensure that downtown Salt Lake City had a five-star hotel. He transformed Snowbasin Resort above Ogden from a small ski area into a world-class resort with ornate day lodges and a downhill race course that compares favorably to anything in Europe.
But Holding also became a pariah to many for going around usual U.S. Forest Service procedures to acquire Snowbasin's base property through a congressional land exchange.
While it took him roughly four years to secure 11,757 acres around northern Utah to swap for 1,377 acres at the base, Holding was assailed by environmentalists as an example of the wealthy using the Olympics for their own aggrandizement even if he never realized any of those returns during his lifetime.
And he didn't.
Holding died Friday at the age of 86. His death was confirmed Saturday by Sinclair Oil. No cause of death was given. Holding's activities had been restricted by the complications of a stroke in December 2002.
In a statement, Gov. Gary Herbert said that he and his wife Jeanette "offer [their] heartfelt condolences to the family of Earl Holding, a Utah icon of initiative, industry and hospitality. May they find peace and comfort at this difficult time, as well as reassurance that Earl's profound contributions to the greater community will endure."
At the time of his death, Forbes estimated Holding's wealth at $3.2 billion and ranked him as the 423rd richest person in the world.
A 2010 report on BusinessInsider.com said Holding was the 19th greatest land holder in the United States, owning 400,000 acres, about the size of Davis County.
"Earl was an incredible builder," said former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who had many dealings with Holding during his years in office. "He had huge dreams and seemed to turn them all into reality.
"I've never known anyone who would imagine, and carry through to reality, such enormous projects and be intimately familiar with every single aspect along the way," Anderson added. "You could ask Earl how many stalls there were in a bathroom and how many different materials were utilized, and he could tell you in detail, including how and where he picked out all of the materials. It's the way he lived his life."
Holding was born in modest circumstances in 1926. His parents lost everything in the stock market crash three years later. Even as his wealth grew, Holding refused to invest in stocks.
Holding's first big break came in the years after World War II when the Covey brothers hired him to run their Little America truck stop and hotel west of Green River, Wyo.
They knew Holding from his childhood, when he mowed the lawn at the Salt Lake City apartment that bore their family name. So Holding and his wife, Carol, went to southwestern Wyoming and made their mark, pumping gas and waiting on tables.
Eventually, Holding bought out the Coveys' interests in the property. He opened another Little America in Cheyenne, Wyo., then others in Salt Lake City and Flagstaff, Ariz. In 1976, he added the foreclosed Westgate Hotel in San Diego to his collection.
He made perhaps his biggest move in 1967 when he borrowed heavily to purchase a closed refinery in Casper, Wyo. Holding got it operating again and expanded his oil-and-gas interests, making Sinclair Oil an energy empire that included three refineries, 1,000 miles of pipeline and 2,600 gas stations by 2010, when Forbes magazine listed him as the 232nd richest person in the world, estimated value $3.9 billion.
Along the way, Holding also purchased Sun Valley ski area in Idaho and thousands of acres of ranch lands in Wyoming and Montana.
This acquisitive approach epitomized Holding. An employee once gave him a plaque that read "All I want is the land next to mine."
Unlike many members of the nouveau riche, however, Holding did not use his wealth to build a popular niche among the elite of Utah society. He did not become a trustee for other big Utah companies or buy memberships in some exclusive clubs.
"I'm really not a joiner," Holding told Salt Lake Tribune reporter Guy Boulton in one of the few interviews he gave to the news media, in late fall of 1999.
His antipathy to the press was at a height then. The Olympic bribery scandal was a year old, and Holding had been pushed off the Salt Lake Organizing Committee board because of it.
This was partly because his private jets had been used to bring to Utah some of the International Olympic Committee members who took excessive gifts from Salt Lake's bid committee before the Games were awarded in 1995.
But Holding's ouster from the board stemmed primarily from the apparent conflict-of-interest that existed since he was both a trustee deciding how Olympic money would be spent, and a recipient of some of that SLOC funding as the operator of both Snowbasin and the Grand America and Little America hotels.
The Grand America had been scheduled to be the IOC's headquarters hotel for the Games. But, to distance itself from the scandal-inspired image of being greedy socialites, the IOC moved its headquarters to Little America and the Grand America became NBC's digs instead.
Holding was offended that his motives were questioned. "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 told The Tribune.
This controversy was not the only one to surround Holding. He also got into a nasty fight with the owner of the Flower Patch retail store at the corner of 500 South and State Street. The owner refused to sell the property to Holding for The Grand America, forcing the magnate to build around it.
"There are many of us who had differences with Earl on certain issues, like [for me] the preservation of forest land near Snowbasin," said Anderson, Salt Lake City's mayor when the hotel was completed.
"But I don't think anyone can have anything but the most profound respect for Earl Holding's dedication to doing everything to the absolutely highest quality," Anderson said. "He took incredible risks with some of these ventures, but wouldn't settle for anything but world class."
Survivors include Holding's wife Carol, his brother Ralph and his three children, Stephen Holding, Anne Peterson and Kathleen Holding. The family is still deciding funeral plans, according to a press release from Sinclair.
Michael McFall contributed to this report.
Sen. Orrin Hatch statement
"Earl Holding was a tremendous business and community leader; and a cherished friend. The companies and facilities he shepherded throughout his lifetime are a lasting testament to the strength, determination, and hard work of this great man. Not only did Earl contribute greatly to Utah's business climate â he also cared deeply about our community and was willing to roll up his sleeves and help get the job done. Elaine and I send our deepest sympathies to Earl's wife Carol, and his family and friends. He will be deeply missed by many, and the impact he has had on our state and community will be felt for generations to come."
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