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Earl has bought a pearl
William Oscar Johnson
November 14, 1977
How much green did it take to buy Sun Valley? The resort went for $12 million, a bargain, and the man who purchased it is going to make it even more of a gem
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November 14, 1977

Earl Has Bought A Pearl

How much green did it take to buy Sun Valley? The resort went for $12 million, a bargain, and the man who purchased it is going to make it even more of a gem

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But the combination of his growing wish to remove himself from the pressures of running the resort plus the lawsuit and the drought got to Janss. There were potential buyers around. Indeed, until early last winter, Janss was pretty certain the Walt Disney operation would take over Sun Valley. "The Disney people took a month and a half thinking over the decision," he says. "Lots of people around these parts were convinced they were going to do it. But they didn't. They're good businessmen, but you know in that organization they still bow three times toward Walt's ashes in Forest Lawn before they make any big decision. And they knew Walt had always wanted his own ski resort, built from the ground up in his own image. They were also very worried about the lawsuit. So they pulled out."

It was then, in mid-January of '77, that Earl Holding read in The Wall Street Journal that Sun Valley was for sale. He had seen the area during a motor trip three years earlier and had been impressed, but had no thoughts of buying. Now he flew into Sun Valley, walked the mountain from top to bottom with Bill Janss and immersed himself in the intricacies of ski-lift engineering, trail maintenance and snow-making. He liked what he saw. He offered Janss $12 million. "Yes, it was a very small figure," says Janss. "We were talking about more with Disney and I could have gotten $16 million even then. But it seemed to me that Holding would do a better job than any of the big corporations. I mean, what if a Hilton or a Sheraton came into Sun Valley? Holding seemed to care about the mountain, he seemed to care about the golf course, and he definitely cared about quality. He was the one I wanted to have the place."

The deal was announced on April 8, 1977. It came as a surprise, indeed, a shock, to many in the ski industry and to almost everyone in Sun Valley.

Earl...who? Holding turned out to be an energetic man with a shock of silver-gray hair and the hyper-enthusiastic demeanor of a master salesman. He had grown up in surroundings about as un- Sun Valley as you can imagine. He was born in 1926, the son of an impoverished apartment-house manager in Salt Lake City. "We were extremely poor," Holding says. "I was working when I was nine years old. I worked for a landscaper in my teens for 15� an hour." He went into the Air Force during World War II, came home to Utah and married his college sweetheart, Carol Orme. "She was the only one I knew with less money than me," says Holding. They have since added three children to their assets, plus almost uncountable millions of dollars.

Starting with a small orchard outside Salt Lake City where he planted 3,500 fruit trees, Holding has marched steadily onward in the West, adding a bit of property here, an oil refinery there, a gas station, a motel here and there, until it is estimated that the combined businesses Earl and Carol Holding own do a gross annual volume of $600 million. One Idaho banker, who had scoffed at a rumor that Holding enterprises were grossing $1 million a day, checked on Holding's business while the Sun Valley sale was in the works. He found that the true figure was almost $2 million. Last year Holding bought the Sinclair Oil Corporation of Sinclair, Wyo. It was his largest acquisition to date. He had begun oil business purchases by "integrating backwards," as he puts it, going into the gas-retailing business through his chain of Little America service stations and motels, which have come to be something of an institution for Western motorists. He bought a refinery, then pipelines, and he is now in oil exploration.

And, of course, he is in Sun Valley. Obviously, it is not as consuming an operation for Holding as it was for Janss, who had no other business interests. Holding, whose home is in Wyoming, intends to live in Sun Valley about a third of the year. He has named former mountain manager Wally Huffman, 33, to operate the place but insists he will keep in very close contact.

"I'm a doer, not a delegater," Holding says. "I am interested in maximum efficiency here. I think we can run a profit-making operation. I am not going to be proud of this place unless it is well run. And it is not going to be a choice between being first class and making a profit. We will do both. My concept in business is that you get out of something exactly what you put in. If a place is run well, the money comes back and you put it back in again to keep getting better and better."

Last spring in a flurry of activity Holding ordered 5,000 trees and shrubs and 20,000 flowers brought in for a mass landscaping project. Day after day during the summer he covered the grounds at close to a full gallop, inspecting everything from paint on the windowsills to cracks in the sidewalks. He displayed a fascination for detail that was almost fanatical. Holding could cite the exact number of begonias planted, the traffic on specific ski lifts, the precise color of carpeting—and its thickness—that he would put in the employee quarters. He says, "We want to know everything that is done. We do everything that is done. We pump the gas, we make up the rooms, we plant trees, we involve ourselves with every angle of every operation. We believe that 1,000 details go together and—if they're put together right—they will make a masterpiece."

Holding does not consider Sun Valley to be primarily a ski resort. "What I was interested in when I bought it was a resort that would be open year-round. That is our emphasis here. I want to make Sun Valley a place that will never shut down. We have put in new snow-making to that end. If we ever have another drought like last winter, Sun Valley will be open when the others are closed. And I've improved the golf."

In his first six months Holding estimates that he has pumped more than $3 million into esthetics as well as equipment. This winter's skiers will be delighted to find a new triple-chair lift on Exhibition Run, replacing the creaky one-chair operation that had been there for years. There also is a new lift on Seattle Ridge, opening a new area there, and another on Little Dollar Mountain. Snow-making now covers 100 acres on Warm Springs up to 8,200 feet, believed to be the highest snow-making apparatus in the U.S.

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