Rest stop operator. Oilman. Hotelier. Ski resort owner. Builder and land baron. Olympics promoter. Much praised, much reviled, media-shy mogul. All-around American success story and billionaire thrice over.
Robert Earl Holding was all of that and more, a self-made man of many hats who, by dint of hard work, uncommon vision and attention to detail, seemed to make mounds of money out of each new head cover.
At his death Friday at 86, Holding's entrepreneurial stamp on his native Utah can be seen in the businesses he built and in the Olympic venues, one of them his Snowbasin ski resort, that attest to his typically hands-on involvement in the 2002 Winter Games.
Utahns of a certain age who journeyed along a lonely stretch of pre-interstate Highway 30 in southwestern Wyoming no doubt remember Covey's Little America, a gas, food, and lodging oasis surrounded by prairie dog colonies, that Holding first managed and then purchased, eventually adding other Little Americas in Salt Lake City, Wyoming and Arizona.
But the foundation of Holding's many holdings was Sinclair Oil, which he bought in 1976, eight years after acquiring a shuttered refinery in Casper, Wyo. Holding's fossil-fuel empire with the green-dinosaur logo grew to include two refineries, 1,000 miles of pipeline and 2,600 gas stations in 22 states. Forbes magazine estimated Holding's net worth at $3.2 billion and placed him 423rd on its list of the world's wealthiest individuals.
Holding poured some of his fortune into land. His 400,000 acres put him among the country's top 20 landowners, and his renovation of the historic Sun Valley ski resort exemplified his passion for quality and detail.
Holding's profile rose as a member of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee board that landed the Winter Games, only to became mired in a bid scandal that drove out Holding and others. Still, his construction of the Grand America, Salt Lake's only five-star hotel, and, in a much criticized land swap with the Forest Service, his transformation of Snowbasin into a prime downhill skiing venue, were crucial to landing the Games for Utah.
Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, no fan of the land swap, nevertheless was an ardent Holding fan. His view of the man as "an incredible builder" with a knack for turning his dreams into reality, is on the mark.
Indeed, it is unlikely that Utah will soon see another native son with such an assortment of sweat-stained hats.