Sun Valley has long been an American institution. Not one of those newfangled, battery-operated institutions like Disneyland, Monday Night Football or We Do It All for You at McDonald's. Sun Valley represents lasting class like Grand Central Station, Yellowstone National Park, the Old North Church. But the Valley also is real estate, a sprawl of property, and as such it was sold last spring—lock, stock and Hemingway Memorial—for $12 million. It was a bargain.
The buyer was Robert Earl Holding, one of the richest businessmen in America—and also one of the least known. The early book on Earl Holding was that he was as unlikely a person to spend time at Sun Valley as anyone in the world. Holding is 50, is just learning to get around on skis, does not like publicity, does not hang around celebrities, does not drink, does not even play very much. He is a Mormon, born in Utah, and mainly he works. Mainly his work is in oil refineries and gas stations, not in recreation and resorts.
"I see Sun Valley as a grande dame that has been sitting on her laurels," Holding says. "There's a tremendous challenge here. We want to make this place a masterpiece again."
Such a definition may lie in the eye of the owner. Holding is only the third chief of Sun Valley in the 41 years since skiers first rode up the sides of Proctor and Dollar Mountains in ridiculous contraptions patterned after the equipment used to load bananas into fruit boats. They were called chair lifts, the first in the world.
November 14, 1977
This was in December 1936. In those days, Sun Valley was owned by the Union Pacific Railroad; the resort lay in lonely splendor at the end of a small spur line leading into the gone-busted mining town of Ketchum, Idaho. UP Chairman W. Averell Harriman lavished railroad millions on the place, ending up with a lodge which had massive log sides (actually cast of cement) and the only dining room at a U.S. ski resort where the waiters wore white tie and tails while diners glided down the stairs to the strains of Eddy Duchin's orchestra.
But by the early '60s the thrill had long gone for Union Pacific. The management called in the Janss Corporation, a land-development outfit, to survey the Valley and make suggestions. Upon getting the suggestion—that it would take a lot of work and no less than $6 million for a face-lifting—the railroad decided to sell. Brothers Ed and Bill Janss bid just under $3 million to buy the old queen of resorts and UP accepted. It was a steal. The year was 1964.
Ultimately, it was Bill Janss, who ran a cattle-feeding operation near Palm Springs, who took over. He is a kinetic, jittery man with eyes as blue as ice and a mind alive with ideas, a consummate skier, an alternate member of the U.S. Olympic ski team of 1940, the year the Games were called on account of war. By the summer of 1965 a building program was swinging: Janss installed tennis courts, a new swimming pool, a shopping mall and some new apartments just off the lodge. The next year he helped push a bill through the Idaho legislature to allow the sale of condominiums in the state, and that did it. "We built 100 very small studio apartments," Janss says, "and they sold out before we could finish them."
Now the nature of the resort was changing drastically. Sun Valley was growing like a boomtown. Janss improved the golf course, built more tennis courts, turned the resort into a strong year-round operation. Through the late '60s and early '70s, condominiums and apartments crept steadily along the Valley floor until the formerly vast and empty reaches became relatively dense with buildings, roads, parking lots. When Bill Janss bought Sun Valley, there were 800 beds. Now there are more than 3,000. And there is also a whole new village called Elkhorn on 3,000 acres just over the hill that Janss sold to the Johns-Manville Corporation in 1971. There has been much criticism of the "urban glut" Janss brought to Sun Valley. He argues that he has always worked with a tough and enlightened master plan for land use, that Sun Valley grew no faster than "a little Austrian town." "We have allowed no further building on the hillsides beyond the master plan," he says. "Only 20% of the land has had any building activity on it."
But if Janss' massive construction program on the Valley floor was criticized, his management of the mountain assuredly was not. Under his sharp eye, the skiing anatomy of Bald Mountain has been designed and lovingly sculpted. On Old Baldy, Janss created a ski area that many U.S. skiers think of as The Mother Mountain. "When I came here 13 years ago," he says, "the mountains had been neglected. There were no lifts on the Warm Springs side. There was no real access to the best powder skiing. No grooming, just a lot of icy paths coming down the canyons." Janss opened new bowls, introduced grooming equipment, opened the Warm Springs side of the mountain—and wound up his ownership with 47 ski runs, 16 lifts and a capacity of 14,500 skiers an hour, although the resort has never had more than 8,000 on the hill at one time.
Still, Sun Valley was not a perfect profit-making enterprise. Janss introduced a plan for a complex and expensive new shopping mall in the center of the Valley, to be designed by a pair of young developers. But the mall was not built, and Janss was sued for $32 million in a breach-of-contract action by the two developers. Then came the devastating snowless winter of 1976-77 when Old Baldy sat sad and brown and desperately bald for days and days, then weeks and weeks under brilliant—and increasingly depressing—blue skies. Like several ski resorts in the West, Sun Valley lost a load of money. The corporation was said to be $6 million in debt. "I could have kept going," Janss says. "Money was not a problem."
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.
All these things will be a surprise to folks who were wary of a non-skiing boss. But, "All it takes is money, and we've got that," Holding says. "We will spend whatever we need to do a super job. I also want to concentrate on the resort facilities. The kitchens are terrible, the bathrooms are awful. I want to attract a family clientele. You can't run this place for a select group of 500 or 1,000 beautiful people. We love the folks with the kids. This is not a haven for hippies or yippies. We want clean-cut people to come here."
Along that line, some Sun Valley denizens have wondered just how clean-cut Holding's Mormonism might make the high life and low life of Sun Valley. When asked about this, he snorts. "I have nothing against other people drinking. We have cocktail lounges in all of our Little Americas. There was a rumor that we were going to fire everyone here who wasn't a Mormon, that we were busing in loads of kids from Brigham Young University to come in as a Mormon Mafia and take over all the jobs young kids usually have here. That is so wrong. I don't even know what religion half of my top people are. Honest to God, I don't know what religion they are. When people ask me about my religion and my business, I tell 'em, 'I'm not pious or biased.' "
Whatever he is, Earl Holding is now the proud possessor of a full-fledged American institution. Can he keep the reputation of the queen of resorts right up there? Why not? If a railroad man from New York City could and a cattle feeder from California could, why not a Mormon oilman from the wilds of Utah and Wyoming?