In 1977, when an accomplished Utah businessman named Robert Earl Holding bought Sun Valley Resort for approximately $12 million, few who had interests in the sale knew what to expect.
The resort, led by visionary owner Bill Janss for some 13 years prior, had been revitalized after falling out of the spotlight, but had also encountered some tough times, particularly in the mid-1970s. There was a wide-ranging airline strike. The famous Sun Valley Lodge suffered through two fires. And there were a couple of years during which snow in Central Idaho was a rare commodity.
Janss, who had spent great sums of money expanding lodging options and improving skiing facilities at Sun Valley, started to run low on funds and eventually commenced negotiations to sell the resort to the mighty Walt Disney Co.
As Disney strung the negotiations out, Holding saw a small article in The Wall Street Journal that announced the potential sale. He called Janss, met with him in Sun Valley, looked around the lodge and struck a deal.
Holding had proven credentials—he had built the Little America hotel company from the ground up and had recently purchased Sinclair Oil Corp.—but his ambitions for Sun Valley were not entirely clear.
Distrust loomed. In the first year of Holding’s ownership, a bumper sticker that read, “Earl is a Four Letter Word,” was making its way around Sun Valley and Ketchum.
But, said Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley’s director of sales and marketing, what the locals didn’t see at first was Holding’s commitment to rebuilding Sun Valley’s infrastructure for the long term. Moreover, Sibbach said, Holding’s purchase of Sun Valley set the course for the resort returning to its glory days of the 1930s and 1940s, and has since had a tremendous impact on how the surrounding Wood River Valley was—or wasn’t—developed.
Sibbach started working for Sun Valley in 1978 as a doorman at The Ram restaurant, earning $1.90 per hour. Later, in 1986, Holding publicly stated his commitment to making Sun Valley the nation’s best year-round resort. He told the Mountain Express, “I plan on doing everything possible to keep it No. 1.”
“Earl Holding has always strived to make Sun Valley the best four-season resort it could be,” Sibbach said. “What he’s done has had a tremendous effect on the local economy. I just think about how lucky we are that he bought the resort and Disney didn’t. We almost certainly have a much better quality of life because of it.”
Indeed, most longtime WoodRiverValley residents would argue that Holding’s tenure at the helm of Sun Valley Resort has had a lasting positive impact on the region.
Since he bought Sun Valley, Holding has twice renovated the Sun Valley Lodge, the resort’s flagship hotel built in the 1930s. He built four of North America’s most acclaimed ski-mountain day lodges, the River Run, Warm Springs and Seattle Ridge lodges at Bald Mountain, the resort’s primary ski area, and most recently Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge at the base of Dollar Mountain, the resort’s beginners’ hill. He has made significant upgrades to the Sun Valley Golf Course. And he spent millions remodeling the Sun Valley Inn, including the Limelight Room and other conference facilities.
Furthermore, and most importantly some say, Holding has invested large sums in modernizing the skiing facilities on BaldMountain. He greatly expanded Janss’ efforts to install snowmaking by constructing on Baldy one of the world’s premier permanent snowmaking systems. And he installed new lifts, including several high-speed, detachable-quad chairlifts that skiers rely on to whisk them to key points on the 9,150-foot mountain.
“Earl Holding has done a wonderful job,” said Glenn Janss, the widow of Bill Janss who still resides in Sun Valley. “We’re all very lucky.”
Jerry Seiffert, mayor of Ketchum from 1975 to 1988, agreed.
“The investments Earl Holding made in the mountain created a superlative experience at Sun Valley that just wasn’t there before,” Seiffert said.
Seiffert credits Holding’s efforts for bringing Sun Valley’s annual skier-visit count to its highest level in the early 1980s. At the same time, he said, the influx of visitors brought in each year by the resort helped boost Ketchum’s tax revenues and fund public projects.
The state-of-the-art snowmaking system installed by Holding was perhaps his greatest contribution, Seiffert said, ensuring snow would cover vast parts of BaldMountain from Thanksgiving to April.
“The tourists didn’t get here in the old days until the 20th of December,” Seiffert said. “That has changed.”
In recent years, Holding has provided financial guarantees to Seattle-based Horizon Air to bring direct flights to the WoodRiverValley from California, flights that otherwise would have gone elsewhere.
The net result, Sibbach noted, was that area businesses flourished to an extent that was not previously possible.
“What he’s done for the economy of the valley, you can’t measure it,” Sibbach said.
The improvements have also been noticed outside of Central Idaho. Sun Valley today regularly is ranked by Ski magazine as one of the top ski resorts in North America, and is often placed in the top 10.
While many of Holding’s contributions have come in the form of major capital projects, numerous WoodRiverValley residents applaud him for the projects he hasn’t pursued. In the last three decades, as other ski resorts in North America went on building binges funded largely by real estate sales, Holding has kept Sun Valley’s approximately 2,600 acres of land pristine. Large tracts of buildable open space zoned to allow thousands of residential units have been left for the enjoyment of birds, wildlife and the public.
Holding and Sun Valley managers have proposed a long-term master development plan for Sun Valley that includes new hotels, residential projects and recreation facilities. Sun Valley city leaders and many prominent members of the public have applauded the plan for its sensitivity to the landscape, the environment and the public’s interests.
“If Disney were here, who knows what it would be like?” Janss said. “I’m all in favor of what he wants to do.”
Claude Guigon, assistant general manager of Sun Valley Co., said he has been learning about business management from Holding for nearly 30 years, and the reasons for the Wyoming resident’s success in Sun Valley and elsewhere are simple: hard work, commitment to excellence, and loyalty to customers and dedicated employees.
“We’re lucky to work for a company that we don’t have to wake up in the morning and see on TV or in The Wall Street Journal that something has changed, that someone has bought it,” Guigon said.
Guigon, who hails from southern France, started working for Holding as a busboy at one of Holding’s Little America hotels, in Salt Lake City.
“I got to know him after six months,” Guigon said. “I was very scared, because I didn’t speak any English, but he was very nice. He told me, ‘Thank you for working for us so hard.’”
Eventually, Guigon and his wife, Ghislaine, moved to Sun Valley to work at the resort. The couple and their son lived in Mr. Holding’s Sun Valley home for seven years.
“Mr. Holding was up at 4 a.m. and walking every day, sometimes before 4 a.m.,” Guigon said.
Guigon also credits Holding’s wife of more than 50 years, Carol, after whom Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge is named.
“Behind every man is a great lady. Carol is probably the greatest lady behind a great man,” he said.
The couple works as a team, Guigon said. When the Holdings come to Sun Valley, he noted, they work, inspecting hotel rooms and meeting with staff members.
“You’re not just a number here,” Guigon said. “They know everybody … Mrs. Holding is like a mother.”
One of Earl Holding’s favorite expressions, Sibbach said, is, “You don’t get what you expect, you get what you inspect.”
Holding is in contact with Sun Valley managers every day, Sibbach said, checking in on the business.
“In 1985, when Mr. Holding first remodeled the lodge, the Holdings were there until 2 a.m., and were back at 5 a.m.,” Guigon said.
In updating Sun Valley’s facilities, Guigon noted, only the finest materials were used: fine marble, granite and hardwoods. And, he said, the same high standards were applied to customer service and food preparation.
Today, Sun Valley Co. employs approximately 1,300 people in winter and 850 in summer. The core group of managers has been in place for numerous years. Forbes magazine—which in 2005 listed Holding as the 207th wealthiest American, with a net worth of $1.5 billion—has estimated Sun Valley Resort is worth more than $300 million.
Nonetheless, some worry that the future of Sun Valley might not be certain. Holding, who had a stroke in 2002, is 79, and his successor has not been announced.
But, said Sibbach, Holding is in Sun Valley “for the long term.” He has plans to build a new 9-hole golf course later this year on the resort’s Gun Club property, east of Sun ValleyVillage. And construction on another element of the long-term master plan, a new luxury hotel in Sun ValleyVillage, could begin “in the next couple of years.”
And, through it all, Guigon said, Holding will apply the same dedication and high standards he has in Sun Valley since 1977.
“It’s a labor of love,” he said of Holding’s relationship with Sun Valley. “That’s what I would call it.”