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(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Earl Holding, former Salt Lake Organizing Committee trustee.
Earl Holding: Maverick entrepreneur has made a fortune through hard work and patience
From the archive » This story was published by the Salt Lake Tribune in February of 2000.
First Published Apr 20 2013 08:41 pm • Last Updated Apr 21 2013 06:36 pm

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.

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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.

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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.

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