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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.Next Page >
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