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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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