From golden oranges to slot machines, Hal Holder is a man to try anything

A Southern gentleman who made his fortune in the orange groves of Florida, Hal Holder came to the Wild West of Nevada, laying down millions on a bet he says is a sure thing.

Even Mark Twain might have scratched his head on the concept, calling Holder either a damn fool or a genius.

Judging by his success in the gaming industry during the past two years, Twain would likely marvel at the man with a soft southern drawl, who enjoys good cigars, flies airplanes, runs marathons and has a fondness for making deals the old-fashioned way: with a firm handshake.

"He's a unique man with a genuine interest in rural Nevada," said Dennis Neilander, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. "He's breathing new life into the gaming economies of small Nevada towns."

At a time when most people his age cash in their chips to enjoy the remainder of their golden years, Hal Holder is taking his chances with slot machines and poker tables.

At stake is Holder's reputation of turning everything he touches into gold.

"I enjoy the challenge and excitement of work," says Holder, the 70-year-old owner of five Nevada casinos, including Sharkey's Nugget in Gardnerville.

"Retirement doesn't work for everybody," he adds. "Work keeps my life in balance."

For a man who grew up selling scrap metal at the age of 9 to support his family, Holder said he understood early on that hard work doesn't necessarily bring success. To succeed, you have to dream.

Before he left home, he dreamed of not being poor.

"Being poor is really a state of mind," Holder says, referring to the words of movie producer Mike Todd Sr. "Being broke is a temporary situation. If you take a guy on a street corner, and one guy is poor and the other guy is broke, the broke guy is going to be the one who will be looking to make money."

Born June 25, 1931, in Anniston, Ala., Holder grew up in Pensacola, Fla., served in the Marines, did correspondence college classes and then worked his way through Sears, Roebuck & Co., managing much of the company's southern state divisions.

When they wouldn't give him the job he wanted, which was chief executive officer, because he wasn't a Sears elder statesman, Holder left Sears in 1969 to become president of Cunningham Drug Stores, based in Detroit, Mich.

He was the second youngest man to sit as president of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Within 18 months, Holder changed the ailing chain of 225 stores from a money loser to a money maker. He earned his first million dollars in his early 30s and launched his career.

At 40, Holder became president of a financially-troubled St. Petersburg television and radio station company, and again, within 18 months, the company went from a $1.7 million loss to an $846,000 profit.

But his biggest challenge was yet to come. In 1973, Holder took the reins of a Florida citrus company, American Agronomics, embroiled in scandal and on the brink of financial collapse.

Just a year before taking the reins, company executives were charged with using illegal tactics to sell orange grove properties by overstating investment returns and bribing accountants to recommend the company for investment.

The trickery landed the company in hot water with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission.

It forced the company to buy back the properties sold in the schemes, as well as pay $6 million in an out-of court settlement.

With all the problems Holder inherited, the first thing he did was establish credibility.

Putting $1.5 million of his own money into the company's stock, Holder went to work.

He sold off thousands of acres deemed not suitable for orange groves and bought land already used in orange production. Then he closed all but four of the company's 27 subsidiaries. He stressed production, buying more orange groves.

The turnaround netted him not only more money, but notoriety. Harvard University prepared a case study on his business acumen, calling him "the turnaround artist."

His turn-it-around style has been featured in magazines such as Fortune, Business Week, Barons, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

"American Agronomics' survival to affluent maturity is mainly the handle work of Harold Holder," according to a Fortune magazine article published in 1981. "When he arrived, the company was in desperate straits. Its reputation was shattered and no one was willing to buy its orange groves. It was laden with debt from its purchase of the properties and was losing money. It seemed doomed."

He turned it around, with revenues and earnings exceeding expectations.

But nothing, not even hard-nosed fiscal conservatism, could prevent a natural disaster.

On Jan. 12, 1982, Florida experienced one of its worst freezes on record. That year, American Agronomics lost tens of millions of dollars in 24 hours.

He told Florida Business magazine that he had let the company become too dependent on citrus and that he would never let the company become "so dependent on one segment that an act of God ... could almost destroy it."

For a second time, Holder would turn the company around, by diversifying into the asset management and investment business. Three years later, after suffering two consecutive losses in 1983 and 1984, the company pulled a $3.3 million profit in 1985.

In 1986, Orange-co, a Florida citrus group, agreed to acquire control of American Agronomics, and Holder resigned from the board, retaining $7.1 million in money sold from stock and kept 1.2 million shares.

Taking some time off from running big companies, Holder talked it over with his wife, Anna, and considered starting something of his own. The gaming industry had always fascinated him and yet he knew little about it.

So he studied. He read books, talked to general managers, pit bosses and card dealers in Las Vegas and Reno. He knew, for example, that Howard Hughes made a fortune buying casinos in Las Vegas.

While there's action and big money in the cities, it's small-town casinos like Sharkey's that have been under-appreciated, Holder says.

While he may not recognize it, Holder has borrowed the strategy of Hughes.

In two years, Holder has acquired the Silver Club Hotel/Casino in Sparks, the El Capitan Lodge and Casino in Hawthorne, The Sundance Casino in Winnemucca, Sharkey's Nugget, which he took over Jan. 1, and his latest purchase, the Model T Hotel Casino in Winnemucca.

"I'm not through yet," he said. "I'm working on (buying) two more and, hopefully by the end of the year, we'll have them."

Retirement, in his own way, is now about being his own boss, Holder says.

"When I sold my interest in public companies, I wanted to do this on my own and not have to report to shareholders," he said. "It's important for me and it's really what I want to do. I just want people to see me and the people I hire as regular folks, not corporate big shots."

As a case in point, when Milos "Sharkey" Begovich and Holder made their deal final, instead of having lawyers try to outbid each other, Holder said the deal was firmed up the gentlemanly way.

"We shook hands on it," he said.


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