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.
The Tribune also shows howHolding was able to wield unmatched political
muscle in Utah, and how that clout and Holding's iron will broke a federal agency.
He talks about a truck stop in southwestern Wyoming with enduring
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 stopthe 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
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 enigmanot 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
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
ranchesthrough 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
careerone in which possession often matters more than profit.
Unlike most people of his wealth, Holding's success is nearly devoid of
the complex deal making that characterizes today's business world. He doesn't buy and sell
businesses. He just buys them.
His genius is in basicsin 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 Utah 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 impropriety, 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.
Holding is direct, plain-spoken, seriousall 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.
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. 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 lifestyles of the very rich. His life
centers on his family and his businesses. And, by all accounts, he and Carol have a great
"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.
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
Almon, Hyrum and Stephen Coveybrothers who had expanded the truck
stop in the late 1940sknew 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
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."
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
Citythen no more than a motelfrom the Covey family. He built a Little America
in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1972. And he bought the Westgate Hotel in San Diego four years
Then came the investment that would propel Holding into the ranks of the
super-richhis 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
regionand Holding owns the largestto 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 employeesincluding some executivescall 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
takehe'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.
"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 wealthiestJon Huntsman is an
exampleHolding is not known for his philanthropy. He may give anonymously. Nobody
But Utah 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 stocksa 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.
Holding contends he cannot remember an investment that didn't work
outa claim few business people 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
No matter. He owns them.
The approach meshes well with Holding's greatest strengthhis 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.
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
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 in Salt Lake City late next year, nearly every detailfrom the granite for the
exterior to the door knobswill 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
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
The same holds for Snowbasin. Developing the resort will take decades,
perhaps more than this singular Westerner has left.
Still, the Grand America Hotel and Snowbasin clearly will be centerpieces
of the Holding legacy, monuments to a shrewd poker player's life spent buying and building
Call it sweat equity on a grand scale.
Tribune reporter Christopher Smith and researcher Rebecca Hodges
contributed to this story.