SALT LAKE CITY -- Billionaire Robert Earl Holding, whose business empire included ownership of Sinclair Oil and two world-class ski resorts in the West, has died. He was 86.
Holding died Friday in Salt Lake City after suffering lingering complications of a 2002 stroke, Clint Ensign, senior vice president of the Sinclair Companies, said Sunday. Holding actively oversaw his businesses until he slowed down a couple of years ago, Ensign said.
The Utah native's estimated net worth of $3.2 billion made him the 423rd wealthiest person in the world at the time of his death, according to Forbes.
Not bad for a man who did not invest in stocks after his parents lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash when he was just 3. Holding also worked full time by the time he reached high school and only went to high school half-time as a result.
"He was a lion of a man," Ensign told The Associated Press. "He was the All-American success story, someone who came from humble beginnings and through hard work and good management created some wonderful businesses. He truly was one of the great entrepreneurs of the West."
Holding first tasted success after becoming manager of the struggling Little America truck stop and hotel near Green River, Wyo., in 1952. After revitalizing the business and becoming its owner, he opened other Little Americas in Cheyenne, Wyo., Flagstaff, Ariz., and Salt Lake City.
But Holding's boldest moves came when he acquired a Mobil refinery in Casper, Wyo., in 1968 and Sinclair Oil in 1976. Sinclair Oil, based in Salt Lake City, now has 2,700 independently-owned stations in 22 states in the West and Midwest. The company also operates two major refineries in Wyoming.
Holding later purchased the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho and Snowbasin Resort in Utah, as well as sprawling ranches in Wyoming and Montana. He owned 400,000 acres in 2010, making him the 19th greatest land holder in the U.S., according to BusinessInsider.com.
"I think his timing (for acquisitions) was very good," Ensign said. "He saw value when others didn't. He had wonderful vision ... and a very hands-on management style."
When Holding bought Sun Valley in central Idaho in 1977, he faced skepticism among locals about what he planned to do with the famous resort. But he never sold it, and instead poured in money to refurbish Sun Valley Lodge and Sun Valley Inn to make it a modern destination that continues to draw world travelers.
"I think we are very lucky Mr. Holding owned Sun Valley," resort spokesman Jack Sibbach said. "One thing he had was a love for the place. He looked at the long term. He improved on it all the way through his ownership."
Holding also was a member of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee board that lured the 2002 Winter Games to Salt Lake City. He helped secure the Olympic bid by building the upscale Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City and by turning Snowbasin into a top venue able to host downhill skiing competitions.
"Earl was an incredible builder," former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson told The Salt Lake Tribune. "He had huge dreams and seemed to turn them all into reality."
But Holding's career was not without controversy as he was bounced from the organizing committee board in the wake of the Olympic bribery scandal of the 1990s.
He drew attention after his private jets were used to fly some International Olympic Committee members who took excessive gifts from Salt Lake's bid committee before the games were awarded in 1995.
He also was criticized by environmentalists over a land swap involving U.S. Forest Service land at Snowbasin.
"There were many of us who had differences with Earl on certain issues," Anderson told The Tribune. "But I don't think anyone can have anything but the most profound respect for Earl Holding's dedication to doing everything to absolutely the highest quality."
After graduating from the University of Utah, Holding became a civil engineer for the federal Bureau of Reclamation. While he was raised in Salt Lake City, the tycoon claimed Wyoming as home after becoming involved in business there in the 1950s.
Survivors include Holding's wife of 64 years, Carol, and three children. Funeral arrangements were pending.