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Earl Holding Speaks

Earl Holding Speaks

Features
By Andrew Slough
posted: 09/14/2005

In 15 months, more than two billion TV viewers will focus in on the 2002 Olympic downhill at Snowbasin, Utah¿and, to a lesser degree, on the resort's billionaire owner, Earl Holding, an enigmatic 73-year-old who has amassed a fortune in oil, real estate and hotels. In the course of negotiating a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service at the base of Snowbasin¿a process he confesses "has been the most difficult of my life"¿Holding has been accused of influence peddling and pilloried in the national press.

At the same time, Holding is arguably one of skiing's greatest benefactors, having spent more than $100 million for on-mountain improvements at Sun Valley, Idaho, and close to that at the once tiny Snowbasin¿all without a substantial return on investment. While many contend if it weren't for Holding the Olympics would not be coming to Utah, critics have lashed out at the land trade and the famously media-shy businessman's long-term plans to develop Snowbasin.

But what's his side of the story? Can he pull off hosting the Olympics' most exciting event and help save face for the embattled Salt Lake Olympic Committee, which is fighting its own bribery scandal? What legacy does Holding hope to leave for skiers in Utah? How does he manage to oversee such a vast empire, yet still find time to personally sign his employees' payroll checks? And does he really want to change Snowbasin's name to Sun Valley, Utah?

In a rare, exclusive interview with SKI contributing editor Andrew E. Slough, Earl Holding speaks¿at last.

Earl Holding is sitting with his wife of 51 years, Carol, in the living room of their Sun Valley home, looking out at spectacular views of Bald Mountain. We are an hour into what is only the third interview Holding has granted in the past 15 years.

With all the time and energy invested at Snowbasin¿and still no end in sight¿the question you have to ask is: If Holding had known that the Olympic downhill and super G at Snowbasin would cost so much financially and emotionally, would he have agreed with SLOC to host the event? "I think I might have said, 'You're welcome to use the mountain, you can put in whatever you need, but you do it,'" Holding answers.

How Holding acquired Snowbasin¿and how Snowbasin acquired the Olympic speed events¿is a lengthy and controversial tale. Before purchasing Snowbasin in 1984, Holding knew the ski area lacked the necessary acreage for a viable base area. He approached the U.S. Forest Service about a land exchange¿a proposition that ultimately led to a bitter battle, the scars of which are still not healed. The Utah environmental group Save Our Canyons strongly opposed the land swap and any subsequent development. After 16 years of negotiations, Holding traded more than 11,000 acres near the Wasatch Cache National Forest for 1,377 acres of federal land at the base of Snowbasin.

"As much as I liked Snowbasin," Holding now reflects, "I wouldn't have bought the resort if I didn't honestly believe we would be able to buy land for a base area." When the issue comes up, his wife Carol buries her head in her hands. "We've had more than enough controversy over this subject," she quietly admits.

But the land swap paved the way for development to begin at Snowbasin¿and for the Olympics to come to Utah. And now, time is of the essence if Snowbasin is to accommodate tens of thousands of international guests. Holding must still build a 41,000-square-foot base lodge and a 26,000-square-foot skier services building, finish two on-mountain restaurants, complete the 3.5-mile Trappers Loop road connecting Snowbasin to Highway 167 (a task that will cut the trip from Salt Lake City from 53 miles on a windy road to a much-more-direct 40 miles) and sign off on a hundred other details. Given Holding's track record as a perfectionist, you can rest assured Snowbasin will be ready.

An erect 5-foot-11 with white hair, a slim build and firm but not overpowering handshake, Earl Holding could be mistaken for a college professor. His glacial blue eyes betray a restless intellect and an unwavering will. It's not surprising to learn that Holding has accumulated a vast fortune of roughly $1 billion while managing a variety of successful businesses: Sinclair Oil, Little America Hotels, enormous ranches in Wyoming and Montana and his two resorts.

Holding has a reputation as a tough negotiator who demands much from his employees. But when the Sun Valley Ski Patrol wanted to renegotiate its wages and benefits, Holding sat down with patrollers and agreed to several concessions, including providing free season passes for spouses. He is notorious for micro-managing his empire, from reviewing architectural plans and interior décor to inspecting snowmaking lines and cat-track grades. There is no decision too small to escape his attention: Two seasons ago, a Snowbasin season passholder tore her ACL on the first day of skiing. She later limped into the ticket office and asked if she could possibly get a refund. Four months later, a check for the full amount arrived in the mail. It was hand-signed by Holding.

Ski resorts routinely send out press releases touting the millions they've spent in capital improvements, and some have been accused of overstating the numbers. But if you call Sun Valley to inquire how much has been invested on the mountain, the media relations department simply doesn't know. And while other resorts have made millions on real estate sales, Holding has instead focused the majority of his efforts on on-mountain improvements, including snowmaking systems, new lifts and other less-than-glamorous infrastructure.

Holding, a Salt Lake City native, is no stranger to public scrutiny, which he first experienced after purchasing Sun Valley. It was 1978, the winter after the most severe drought in the resort's history, and Disney Inc. was negotiating to purchase Sun Valley from Bill Janss. Earl and Carol had visited the resort the summer before. "I liked it a lot," Holding remembers. "We thought it was a nice place, well run. But I didn't think a thing about buying it." He did though, and subsequently spent millions to bring the resort into the 21st century, a commitment that has since led many Wood River Valley locals to conclude that Holding is the best thing that's ever happened to Sun Valley¿a radical change of heart from the late-Seventies, when residents greeted Holding with bumper stickers that read: "Earl Is A Four Letter Word."

The criticism did not scare Holding away from the ski industry¿or the then little-known Utah resort called Snowbasin. Though skiers were climbing the high ridgeline that overlooks the small city of Ogden as far back as the Thirties, Alta founder Alf Engen officially discovered Snowbasin in 1940. At that time the high, sunny basin was used for cattle range, but it was so overgrazed that eroded topsoil and bloated carcasses of dead cows were tainting Ogden's water supply. Working with the U.S. Forest Service, Ogden's town fathers decided that a ski resort would provide income and recreation while also safeguarding the water supply. A deal was struck with the ranch owner, and Snowbasin opened for business.

In the 60 years since, the resort has struggled under five owners, including Vail-founder Pete Seibert, who owned it in the mid-Eighties. The problem was a lack of lodging. Snowbasin was too far from Salt Lake City to attract out-of-state skiers and too far from Ogden to use the city's aging railroad center as a resort base. Successive owners realized that to succeed, Snowbasin needed a base village, but building one from scratch is a costly proposition. So for half a century, the resort has remained the private powder stash of Ogden locals and the few lucky skiers who have followed rumors of deep snow and empty lifts up Ogden Canyon.

Enter Holding. "I was working at the Sinclair Oil offices one day and Pete Seibert called and said, 'I'd like to sell Snowbasin, and I'd like for you to come up and look at it.'" At first, Holding wasn't interested. Remembering the millions he had sunk into Sun Valley, he told Seibert, "Pete, one ski area is enough, I'm not going to even come look at it." But Seibert persisted. "Earl, just come up and hike it with me. I'm not going to twist your arm."

He finally agreed and made the trip with his youngest daughter Kathleen, who was 23 at the time. Like many first-time visitors who climb Snowbasin's crumbling access road to Inspiration Point, he was stunned by the beauty of Mt. Ogden, where rock pinnacles rise above open meadows studded with islands of dark fir, aspens and scrub oak.

Guided by Seibert, Earl and Kathleen traversed the upper bowls. "We hiked down through Strawberry Bowl, where the chaparral was clear up to my arm pits," he remembers. "Pete was going like a mountain goat¿he was in great shape¿and on the way down we were hiking down Penny Lane. My daughter was on one side of me and Pete was on the other, and she tugged at my sleeve and when I leaned over, she whispered in my ear, 'Dad, you ought to buy this.' When I asked her why, she said, 'Because it's so unspoiled.'"

Though Holding had the resources to buy Snowbasin, he quickly realized a base area was needed. Before he purchased the roughly 7,000 acres of rolling hills, he asked the U.S. Forest Service about a land exchange, a request he says he was given assurances would be a priority for approval. In the intervening 16 years, it is difficult to sort out who said or promised what, but the fact remains that Holding's efforts to solve Snowbasin's lack of a base area were subsequently colored by accusations of influence peddling and mismanagement of both public funds and lands. In early 1999, Holding, along with several other members, resigned from his seat on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee board to avert any suggestion of conflict of interest.

Critics claim that Holding used the approaching Salt Lake Olympics as a way to push the land swap through Congress. As part of its Olympic bid, SLOC agreed that Little and Big Cottonwood canyons¿in other words, Snowbird, Alta, Solitude and Brighton¿would be off limits. But Snowbasin's 3,400 feet of vertical, consistent snow and a downhill course that had been scaring the bejeesus out of college racers since the mid-Sixties offered what appeared to be a perfect venue.

Snowbasin General Manager Gray Reynolds, whose position at the resort has drawn even more criticism, points out, "The problem was the public had been involved and expected to be involved in each step. But if you allowed everyone to challenge each phase, then there was no chance of getting approval before the Olympics. Congress decided that given the repeated challenges, the Olympic development would never succeed. So it enacted special legislation."

Despite the fact that Reynolds was the former deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service who served as an expert witness in the land trade negotiations with Snowbasin, Holding offered him the job of general manager, which he finally accepted in 1997. "Gray Reynolds had been a ski racer, a downhiller at Sun Valley and Jackson," Holding says. "He loved the sport, loved the skiing, loved the mountains, and I think following his separation from the Forest Service, it fit me and it fit Snowbasin. I saw Gray one day and asked him if he'd have any interest in being the manager of Snowbasin."

As a newly retired senior executive with the U.S. Forest Service, Reynolds was required to wait a year before considering any offers that might even hint at a conflict of interest. "People cast aspersions about collusion between Gray and I," Holding says. "But there is absolutely nothing to it. He's as straight an arrow as you'll find. I've heard it said that we hoped he'd get the trade for us but I'll tell you, I think hiring him probably delayed the trade two Pete Seibert called and said, 'I'd like to sell Snowbasin, and I'd like for you to come up and look at it.'" At first, Holding wasn't interested. Remembering the millions he had sunk into Sun Valley, he told Seibert, "Pete, one ski area is enough, I'm not going to even come look at it." But Seibert persisted. "Earl, just come up and hike it with me. I'm not going to twist your arm."

He finally agreed and made the trip with his youngest daughter Kathleen, who was 23 at the time. Like many first-time visitors who climb Snowbasin's crumbling access road to Inspiration Point, he was stunned by the beauty of Mt. Ogden, where rock pinnacles rise above open meadows studded with islands of dark fir, aspens and scrub oak.

Guided by Seibert, Earl and Kathleen traversed the upper bowls. "We hiked down through Strawberry Bowl, where the chaparral was clear up to my arm pits," he remembers. "Pete was going like a mountain goat¿he was in great shape¿and on the way down we were hiking down Penny Lane. My daughter was on one side of me and Pete was on the other, and she tugged at my sleeve and when I leaned over, she whispered in my ear, 'Dad, you ought to buy this.' When I asked her why, she said, 'Because it's so unspoiled.'"

Though Holding had the resources to buy Snowbasin, he quickly realized a base area was needed. Before he purchased the roughly 7,000 acres of rolling hills, he asked the U.S. Forest Service about a land exchange, a request he says he was given assurances would be a priority for approval. In the intervening 16 years, it is difficult to sort out who said or promised what, but the fact remains that Holding's efforts to solve Snowbasin's lack of a base area were subsequently colored by accusations of influence peddling and mismanagement of both public funds and lands. In early 1999, Holding, along with several other members, resigned from his seat on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee board to avert any suggestion of conflict of interest.

Critics claim that Holding used the approaching Salt Lake Olympics as a way to push the land swap through Congress. As part of its Olympic bid, SLOC agreed that Little and Big Cottonwood canyons¿in other words, Snowbird, Alta, Solitude and Brighton¿would be off limits. But Snowbasin's 3,400 feet of vertical, consistent snow and a downhill course that had been scaring the bejeesus out of college racers since the mid-Sixties offered what appeared to be a perfect venue.

Snowbasin General Manager Gray Reynolds, whose position at the resort has drawn even more criticism, points out, "The problem was the public had been involved and expected to be involved in each step. But if you allowed everyone to challenge each phase, then there was no chance of getting approval before the Olympics. Congress decided that given the repeated challenges, the Olympic development would never succeed. So it enacted special legislation."

Despite the fact that Reynolds was the former deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service who served as an expert witness in the land trade negotiations with Snowbasin, Holding offered him the job of general manager, which he finally accepted in 1997. "Gray Reynolds had been a ski racer, a downhiller at Sun Valley and Jackson," Holding says. "He loved the sport, loved the skiing, loved the mountains, and I think following his separation from the Forest Service, it fit me and it fit Snowbasin. I saw Gray one day and asked him if he'd have any interest in being the manager of Snowbasin."

As a newly retired senior executive with the U.S. Forest Service, Reynolds was required to wait a year before considering any offers that might even hint at a conflict of interest. "People cast aspersions about collusion between Gray and I," Holding says. "But there is absolutely nothing to it. He's as straight an arrow as you'll find. I've heard it said that we hoped he'd get the trade for us but I'll tell you, I think hiring him probably delayed the trade two or three more years."

Despite owning the perfect Olympic venue, Holding remains an intermediate skier who's never been much of a fan of ski racing. After purchasing Sun Valley, he declined to host the resort's famed Harriman Cup, thereby costing the U.S. Ski Team one of its few World Cup stops. Along with the cost, Holding felt that hosting the races excluded guests from too large a percentage of Bald Mountain's terrain. Yet when SLOC asked him to host the Olympic downhill, then offered $13.8 million to help upgrade the facilities (at best a small percentage of the total investment), Holding agreed.

In the past two seasons Holding has added two gondolas, one jig-back tram, four triple chairs and one high-speed quad to access Snowbasin's 3,200 acres of trails, bowls and glades. No one argues that Snowbasin has always offered excellent terrain and superb snow. But despite the recent addition of a modern lifts, it has still failed to attract more than 100,000 skier visits the past two seasons, partly due to late openings and the fact that the Olympics, not today's lift ticket revenue, is the management's priority. At any rate, Reynolds and Holding are betting that the major improvements and Olympic publicity will dramatically increase business.

The new lifts, lodges and snowmaking have helped bring Snowbasin into the 21st century, but the truth is the Olympic downhill will put Mt. Ogden on the map. Designed by 1972 Olympic gold medalist Bernhard Russi, it is extremely fast, plummeting 2,770 feet through a series of steep faces, abrupt jumps, off-camber corners and gut-check compressions.

The one thing GM Reynolds can't control is weather. While riding the new John Paul Express detachable quad to the Olympic Tram that climbs to the start of the downhill course, he confesses having nightmares about snow. The problem (or the blessing during any February besides 2002) is that Snowbasin gets 400 inches per year¿a natural snow machine that could dump 2 feet on the day of the downhill.

The ideal situation would be to receive early-season snow for a base, then use the snowmaking to finish the process. "If the weather is cold and clear and we don't get snow the first week of February, everyone will look so damned smart," Reynolds says. "But if it storms, we're going to pull our guts out trying to get the course prepped."

By prepped he means groomed by winch cats, then iced down till it shines like stainless steel. Consistent, fast, hard and challenging, it will be a course that the world's best downhillers can depend on to spread the field. And yet, the Great Salt Lake's microclimate has bit Snowbasin more than once. Last February, the resort was scheduled to hold a World Cup women's downhill. However, 10 days before the race was scheduled to run it was canceled due to lack of snow. "We could have run the downhill," Reynolds claims. "It would have been tough, but no tougher than Bormio, Italy, where the finish was ankle-deep mud."

The cancellation proved costly. As it stands, the Olympic men will have but one visit to the course, for a World Cup downhill and super G slated for Feb. 24-25, before the training runs of the main event in 2002.

When skiers think of Earl Holding and Sun Valley, they do not picture a white-haired businessman in his early 70s. Instead they see massive log-and-stone lodges filled with leather chairs, beautiful carpets and granite countertops. Or they think of high-speed Doppelmayr lifts, York computerized snowmaking and fleets of new groomers. With the same quality slated for Snowbasin, it can be argued that Holding is doing more for skiing than anyone else in the country.

There is no doubt Holding could build it cheaper, but that's not his style. "It's like that first snowmaking system in Sun Valley," he says. "We reworked that first snowmaking system and added this and that, but for it to work, to really be of some value, you have to do it right in the first place.... Everything I've done and done well in the long run has paid its way. I think things that aren't done well are a waste of money."

And yet, taking Holding's

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