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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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"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.

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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.

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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.

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