Holt Hickman, who made a fortune manufacturing auto air conditioners and led a transformation of Fort Worth’s Historic Stockyards into a major tourist destination, died Saturday evening after a long illness, his son, Brad Hickman, said Monday. He was 82.
Though Mr. Hickman spent decades building companies that sold air conditioners and cruise control devices to automakers worldwide, the cowboy-hatted entrepreneur is best-known for rescuing the “world’s largest” honky-tonk, Billy Bob’s Texas, and transforming the struggling Stockyards into what is today a magnet for more than 3 million annual visitors. An even bigger Hickman project for the district is in the works.
“Holt was a visionary,” said H.B. “Hub” Baker, a partner with Mr. Hickman in various investments and executive director of the Cowtown Coliseum and the Stockyards Championship Rodeo. “He had love and heart in his soul for the Fort Worth Stockyards. This is a one-of-a-kind thing and he realized that. I loved him for that.”
Mr. Hickman was born in Fort Worth and grew up in Weatherford after his parents divorced. Attending Southern Methodist University on a swimming scholarship, he worked vacations at his father’s battery business.
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After his service as an Air Force officer, he and his wife pulled together $25,000, half from savings — “It was every penny Jo and I had in the world” — and half borrowed money to launch Lone Star Manufacturing to make air conditioners.
At one point, his main supplier for compressors cut him off but forgot to tell the shipping department. Mr. Hickman drove to the Dallas company and asked for enough compressors to fill every cranny of his Cadillac, the springs barely carrying the weight, recalls Steve Murrin, then an insurance salesman and later a Stockyards partner. The quick action saved Lone Star until Mr. Hickman found a new supplier, he said.
He sold the company in 1978 and formed Specific Cruise Systems the next year, merging it with another manufacturer in 1990 to form SCS/Frigette, which brought him back to producing auto air-conditioning systems.
In 2006, he sold most of the company for $70 million.
Not all of his ventures succeeded. A plan to sell cheap Russian-made cars in Latin America failed, and plans to bring a casino to the Stockyards never got off the ground.
Murrin said Mr. Hickman got interested in the district in 1988 when he mentioned that another local millionaire, Richard Rainwater, was in the running to invest in Billy Bob’s, which closed after founder Billy Bob Barnett overextended himself in real estate that didn’t produce income.
What Murrin didn’t tell him was that Rainwater saw it only as a quick turnaround with the aim of selling out to Japanese investors in a few years. Murrin left Rainwater out of the deal, knowing that Mr. Hickman would see resuscitating and then maintaining Billy Bob’s as a long-term commitment. Mr. Hickman, Murrin and Don Jury, a former financial officer at Justin Boots, formed a partnership to reopen Billy Bob’s that year.
Mr. Hickman, alone or with various partners including Dallas heiress Lyda Hunt Hill, began acquiring property after property. Among them were the Livestock Exchange Building and Stockyards Station, once-crumbling hog and sheep pens for the annual Fort Worth Fat Stock Show before it moved to the Cultural District. He also built what became the 101-room Hyatt Place Stockyards Hotel on Exchange Avenue.
In all, the Hickman family owns about 80 acres in the 125-acre historical district and more in partnerships.
Billy Bob’s wasn’t an immediate success after it reopened. When Mr. Hickman brought in Billy Minick as general manager, he reportedly told him, “I don’t care if it ever makes a profit, just stop the bleeding; Billy Bob’s is good for Fort Worth.”
It was a common refrain. Brad Hickman told the Star-Telegram this year that after his father bought the Stockyards property, he walked Hickman Cos.’ chief financial officer, John Bills, down Exchange Avenue and told him, “We may never make a penny on this, but it’s good for Fort Worth.”
In July this year, despite initial opposition from key Stockyards figures like Baker, Murrin and Jury, the City Council voted 8-1 to approve tax incentives for the district that would allow a $175 million development by the Hickman family and Majestic Realty Co. of California.
A 1-million-square-foot Heritage development is planned for 68 acres of Hickman-owned land in the Stockyards. Critics earlier decried any change from locally owned firms making major investments and expressed fears that the development would hurt the district’s authentic Western image.
Baker, who now supports the project, explained his earlier reservations by saying: “It happened so quick that there was some misunderstanding. Most of that has been worked out.”
Mayor Betsy Price said in an emailed statement: “Fort Worth mourns the loss of a great man and a true pillar of our community. Holt Hickman was a talented businessman and entrepreneur, a humble and generous philanthropist, and a passionate protector of the Fort Worth story and experience.”
Her predecessor as mayor, Mike Moncrief, said, “Fort Worth lost another good man with a big heart who was a visionary and in part was responsible for preserving and protecting our Western heritage in the Historic Stockyards. He leaves behind big boots to fill.”
Minick’s wife, Pam, herself a longtime Billy Bob’s marketing director, said, “While Holt is known primarily in the last 25 years for his commitment to the preservation and restoration of the Stockyards, his fingerprints are really all over Fort Worth, from the east side to West Loop 820 and all up and down Camp Bowie.
“He and Jo have been so generous to all of Fort Worth. He loved this city and we are all better off because of his passion. Billy and I are truly blessed that they came into our lives.”
Brad Hickman said, “Holt was a wonderful husband, father and grandfather and we will all miss him greatly.”
Other survivors include his wife, Jo Hickman; and a daughter, Brenda Kostohryz.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
10 a.m. Wednesday at University Christian Church. Burial: Greenwood Cemetery.