Who started Sun Valley conference? Lodge owner was embroiled in Olympic bribery scandal

The Sun Valley Lodge of Idaho is about to host its annual 'billionaire summer camp' - a tradition its late owner Robert Earl Holding started in 1982


                            Who started Sun Valley conference? Lodge owner was embroiled in Olympic bribery scandal
A view of the Sun Valley Resort ahead of the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 9, 2019 in Sun Valley, Idaho (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Sun Valley Lodge business conference is set to resume its annual tradition this year after being canceled due to the pandemic in 2020. The exciting news comes with a list of huge names as invite-only attendees at the event that brings together the elites and finest leaders from the worlds of film, technology, design and sports each year. The conference was first started in 1982 by late owner Robert Earl Holding, whose business empire bragged ownership of Sinclair Oil and world-class ski resorts, including the Idaho Sun Valley Lodge where he began the tradition.

Incidentally enough, Holding was also embroiled in an Olympic bribery scandal.

Holding died on April 19, 2013, at the age of 86, leaving behind a legacy survived by his wife, and co-owner of the resorts, Carol Holding, and their four children. But before his life was cut short due to lingering complications from a 2002 stroke, the Utah native had already accumulated an estimated net worth of $3.2 billion, making him the 423rd wealthiest person in the world when he died. It only makes sense that the skilled billionaire would hold a conference for the purpose of closing deals, unofficially at least, with names like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Netflix chief Reed Hastings on the list of invitees this year. Here's a look at the illustrious "all-American dream" story of Robert Earl Holding.

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Who was Robert Earl Holding?

The entrepreneurial mogul was described as a "lion of a man" by Clint Ensign, senior vice president of the Sinclair Companies, at the time of his death. Born on November 29, 1926 in Salt Lake City, Holding witnessed his parents lose everything in the stock market crash of 1929. He was just three-years-old then, but the tragedy spurred him to never invest a penny in stocks his entire life. Holding's rags to riches story saw him working full time by the time he was a student at high school. Holding graduated from the University of Utah, and went on to become a civil engineer for the federal Bureau of Reclamation. 

His success story began with becoming the manager of a struggling Wyoming truck stop and hotel called Little America in 1952, and Holding claimed the state as his home there on. Once he revived the establishment, he opened other branches in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Flagstaff, Arizona, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Soon arrived his daring masterstroke in 1968, when he acquired a Mobil refinery in Casper, Wyoming. In 1976, he further established himself as a stalwart of the entrepreneurial world by acquiring Sinclair Oil, that by the time of his death, grew to 2700 independently-owned stations across 22 states in the West and Midwest, with two refineries in Wyoming.

Robert Earl Holding, with wife Carol (Sun Valley website)

Who owns Sun Valley Resort?

After firming his position with abundant franchises, Holding purchased the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, in 1977, along with the Snowbasin Resort in Utah. He also bought ranches sprawled across Wyoming and Montana, and with 400,000 acres of land he owned by 2010, he became the 19th greatest landholder in the country. "He was a lion of a man," Ensign told The Associated Press when Holding died. "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."

But Holding owning Sun Valley did not kick off with the best start. There was ample skepticism from the locals about Holding's plans with the famous establishment, and he snubbed all of them with the finances poured into the resort, and its accompanying Inn, turning it into a modern destination popular among world travelers. "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."

A view of the Sun Valley Lodge on the first day of the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 5, 2016 in Sun Valley, Idaho. Every July, some of the world's most wealthy and powerful businesspeople from the media, finance, technology and political spheres converge at the Sun Valley Resort for the exclusive weeklong conference. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Olympic bribery scandal

Holding's legacy lives on through his wife Carol, whom he was married to for 64 years at the time of his death. Today, the Sun Valley Resort is the annual destination that hosts what is dubbed a 'billionaire summer camp'. A spokesperson for the resort told AP: "I think we are very lucky Mr Holding owned Sun Valley. 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, a member of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee board, was able to bring the 2002 Winter Games to the city, and also bagged the Olympics later, by building the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. He also turned the Snowbasin Resort into a prime location to hold the downhill skiing competitions. Controversies also clouded Holding's life with the Olympic bribery scandal of the 1990s. He was accused of using private jets to fly in few International Olympic Committee members, sending expensive gifts through Salt Lake's bid committee just before they got the 1995 hosting gig. Environmentalists also slammed Holding for swapping a US Forest Service land at Snowbasin.

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