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Fort Worth

Trailblazer: Holt Hickman leaves a legacy

By Betty Dillard bdillard@bizpress.net

Holt Hickman, a multifaceted entrepreneur/developer who became a legendary figure in Fort Worth business circles and spearheaded revitalization of the city’s once-decaying Stockyards, died Nov. 15 at the age of 82. Hickman was founder, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Hickman Companies, a diversified group of more than 50 business entities focusing on commercial real estate, oil and gas, farming/ranching and entertainment. But far beyond his acclaimed business acumen, Hickman put an indelible stamp on the city and its cultural heritage in ways that continue to resonate even as Fort Worth undergoes unprecedented growth and change.

Hickman grew up in Weatherford but his affinity for the Fort Worth landmark that would eventually become the high-profile centerpiece of his business dealings was established early in life when he visited the Stockyards with his father, who owned ranches near Mansfield and Aledo.

“In 1940, I came up here with my dad,” Hickman recalled in a 2007 interview with the Fort Worth Business Press. “We trucked cattle to the Stockyards to buy and sell. You could see what it [the Stockyards] was doing for the city of Fort Worth. It was the marketplace of the world. We’re known for Cowtown and the Stockyards. It’s a vital part of this city and worth preserving.” The Stockyards was the “center of the universe” in Hickman’s view and it was a center of economic life for Fort Worth in the mid-20th century, with two large and then-modern meatpacking firms, Armour and Swift, and a Livestock Exchange Building that helped the area earn the nickname “Wall Street of the West.” But economic changes in the mid-1970s led to decline and the historic Stockyards’ future was in jeopardy. By the early 1980s, Stockyards boosters were hanging their hopes on a new enterprise, a nightclub/entertainment complex called Billy Bob’s Texas and billed as “the world’s largest honky-tonk.” Billy Bob’s thrived for a while, then encountered financial problems and seemed destined to become the world’s largest failed saloon. But Hickman and some partners rode to the rescue in 1988, buying Billy Bob’s and restoring it to prominence as a tourist attraction and a magnet for Stockyards nightlife.

(Richard Connor: Remembering Holt HIckman)

It was also in the 1980s that Hickman and his associates began leasing or buying empty buildings in the Stockyards and creating new businesses such as the White Elephant Saloon and the Stockyards Championship Rodeo. Hickman eventually owned or co-owned more than 100 of the 125 acres in the Stockyards. In 2000, he and his wife Jo bought the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and moved it from Hico to the Stockyards’ former horse and mule barns on Exchange Avenue. Among the exhibits there is the Sterquell Wagon Collection, an array of frontier vehicles that the Hickmans acquired in 1999.

Hickman also was a driving force behind one of Fort Worth’s most popular tourist attractions, the twice-daily cattle drive of longhorns along East Exchange Avenue, the Stockyards’ principal thoroughfare. His dedication to the Stockyards, and to Fort Worth, went beyond investments that would make money, according to Gary Brinkley, general manager of Stockyards Station, a special events and shopping area developed by Hickman. “We were negotiating to buy the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame in Hico,” Brinkley recalled. “As the negotiations went on, we stepped out to discuss it privately. I told him that I thought they were asking too much for what they were offering. Holt said, ‘Thank you for the advice, but this is something I want and it’s something I am going to do. Let’s go in and complete this deal.’ “Holt knew the museum would be good for Fort Worth and he was willing to pay for it without expectations of a big profit. That’s how he viewed the Stockyards – as an investment in the city.”

In the 1990s, Hickman and businesswoman Lyda Hunt Hill of Dallas redeveloped much of the Stockyards property with projects that included Stockyards Station on the site of the old hog and sheep pens, a new visitors center, and a new Hyatt Place hotel. Hickman also spearheaded the arrival of a tourist train into Stockyards Station. Today, the Fort Worth Stockyards is one of the top tourist attractions in Texas and draws more than 3 million visitors annually. Although Holt Hickman curtailed his direct involvement in recent years, the Hickman family has continued to develop the area. Earlier this year, Hickman’s son Brad unveiled a 1 million-square-foot, $175 million project calling for an array of mixed-use improvements ranging from corporate headquarters to retail, hotels, restaurants and residential. The plan, undertaken in partnership with the nationally known developer Majestic Realty Co. of California, includes redevelopment of the Stockyards’ long-neglected Mule Barns. Some Stockyards stakeholders voiced concern that the project might threaten the historic character of the area but assurances from Hickman helped quiet their fears. While best known for his Fort Worth ventures, Hickman’s business interests reached far beyond the confines of Cowtown. Brinkley recalled a time when he was reminded that Hickman was a global force. “Prior to international cell phones that we all carry today, I received a phone call early one Sunday morning and to my surprise it was Holt calling from Russia,” Brinkley said. “He was there on business but had a question about a deal I was working on. When I asked if he was still in Russia he said, ‘Yes, this is expensive so talk fast!’ The world was not too big for this bigger than life Texan who loved Fort Worth!” His accomplishments and character won him universal acclaim and respect. In her remarks honoring Hickman at the Texas Independence Day ceremony in Fort Worth two years ago, Congresswoman and ex-Mayor Kay Granger said the colorful businessman’s tenacity and passion helped make the city what it is today. “His energy, generosity and vision will continue to enhance our city’s cowboy heritage for generations to come,” Granger said. In a statement after Hickman’s death, Mayor Betsy Price said: “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.

“I will remember him as a dear friend with a special optimism that made others around him believe anything was possible. He was always willing to help with an important cause or issue – all you had to do was call him. The spirit of Fort Worth is alive and well thanks to the hard work and dedication of our friend, Holt Hickman.” Hickman was born May 7, 1932, in Fort Worth. He was raised in Weatherford and attended Southern Methodist University on a four-year swimming scholarship. Two weeks after his graduation in 1954, he married his high school sweetheart, Jo Aycock. Hickman did business much like he swam in college, said Ernie Horn, a former construction executive. “When he swam, they said he was a shark – he knew what his goal was,” said Horn. “That was the way he was in business. But he was so kind, he just endeared himself to the people he worked with.”

Hickman served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He launched his entrepreneurial empire in 1963 with the purchase of his father’s business, Fort Worth Battery Co. A year later, he founded Lone Star Manufacturing Co., an automotive air conditioning business. Successful deals with the world’s largest automakers led the company to become the leading independent manufacturer of auto air conditioners in the world. Hickman sold that venture in 1978 and started an automobile cruise control and keyless-entry device business called Specific Cruise Systems (SCS). In 1990, he bought an air-conditioner company called Frigette and combined it with SCS. He sold that venture in 2006 for $70 million. He is survived by his widow, Jo Hickman; son, Brad; and daughter, Brenda Kostohryz. Funeral services were held Nov. 19 at University Christian Church, Fort Worth. Burial was in Greenwood Cemetery. – Additional reporting by Scott Nishimura and Robert Francis  

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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