Feature: Wednesday May 23, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Dude Wrangler

Holt Hickman’s shrewd business sense has helped save the Stockyards.

By Betty Brink

On one of the hottest afternoons of the summer of 1998, a crowd of old friends, former nemeses, politicos, and Fort Worth Stockyard aficionados from every corner of the city showed up at Stockyards Station. They came to drink beer, eat barbecue, tell Sue McCafferty stories, and bid a fond farewell to the woman who was hanging it up after a 23-year stint as head of the North Fort Worth Historical Society, which she and her late husband, Charlie, founded. McCafferty’s retirement party was a bash worthy of the fiery woman whose name, along with Charlie’s, was synonymous with saving the Stockyards from the wrecking ball. Their mission, the restoration of the Stockyards Historical District into a viable economic arena and the preservation of its most significant structures, was largely done.

A send-off for McCafferty, however, would not have been complete without the man who came late to the mission, but whose passion for preserving the Stockyards and its rich history equaled that of the McCaffertys — with one difference. Holt Hickman, a wealthy Fort Worth entrepreneur, had the money to make it happen.

“Together, they saved the Stockyards,” North Side councilman Jim Lane said.

They were seldom in sync. After Hickman began buying up properties in the Stockyards in 1989, he and McCafferty became at once fast friends and public adversaries as her vision of an authentically restored Stockyards clashed with his businessman’s eye on the bottom line.

Yet, even McCafferty’s farewell party wouldn’t have been possible at the spot where it was held without Hickman. The 85,000-square-foot Stockyards Station, with its uneven walkways of carefully preserved, original Thurber bricks connecting the shops, eateries, and bars in spaces once occupied by hog and sheep pens, was one of Hickman’s early projects.

“We had the same vision,” McCafferty said recently, “but did we disagree on how to get there? Oh yes, did we. I was in Holt’s business as much as Holt. ...We were always fighting. I would tell him I would ‘break both his legs’ if I found out he was restoring some place in a way that would cause it to lose the architectural integrity of its beginning. And then I’d tell him how to do it right ... that for historical accuracy, people had to be able to look at the horse and mule barns and know that there were once horses and mules there.”

So when Holt hobbled into her party that hot July day, on crutches, with his leg bandaged up above the knee, she was pretty sure he hadn’t been in an accident.

“Sue did this to me,” he told the crowd. “But now that she’s finally going to be gone, I’m okay,” he said, and unwrapped the bandages from his leg and threw away the crutches. It brought the house down, she said, laughing. “Then he gave a speech about me ... that made me cry.”

Hickman and Lane give McCafferty the lion’s share of the credit for saving the Stockyards, but she says that’s poppycock.

“If it hadn’t been for Holt,” McCafferty said, “the Stockyards would be a blighted area today. He came with a pocketful of money and saved it.”

Whether one sees Hickman’s development of the 107-acre heart of the Stockyards Historical District as a faithful reconstruction of a short-lived but important piece of Fort Worth history or just another Disneyland with a cowboy theme, there’s no disputing the area’s importance to Fort Worth’s past and its present. The area that once brought prosperity to Fort Worth through livestock has become an economic engine of another kind. Doug Harman, head of the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau, calls today’s Stockyards the catalyst that brings in a billion tourist dollars annually to Fort Worth.

"It’s the idea that they can see real cowboys, longhorns, a vanished way of life, that brings people here from all over the world, more than anything else we have to offer," he said.

Not a bad legacy for a man who started out in business about as far away from the cowboy and cattle culture as one can get. Holt Hickman made his fortune manufacturing car air conditioners.

Unlike many of Fort Worth’s current crop of wealthy business folk, developers and philanthropists who have made a financial and cultural impact on the city — from the Moncrief, Tandy, and Bass families downtown to the westside cultural district’s Anne Burnett Marion, Ruth Carter Stephenson, and Kay Kimbell Fortson — Holt Hickman’s money didn’t come through inheritance or marriage. He earned it the old-fashioned way, said his friend and sometime critic, Jim Lane, “by being one of the shrewdest businessmen in the world.”

The man whose father owned a battery-charging station in Fort Worth and who was reared by his divorced mother in “comfortable middle-class” circumstances in Weatherford is today head of a multi-million-dollar manufacturing and real estate empire and lives in Westover Hills.

Hickman’s entrepreneurial and personal roots go back to Oklahoma and to an uncle’s “terrible misfortune,” that two siblings managed to turn into a benefit, the 70-year-old Hickman said in a recent interview.

He sat tall and courtly at a massive glass-topped conference table in the dark-wood-paneled boardroom of his SCS/Frigette Custom Air-conditioning Systems office on Fort Worth’s far south side. The office and the manufacturing plant behind it are located on 250 acres in a pocket of mostly undeveloped industrial land. From the office entry, windows overlook a field of Johnson grass, wildflowers and mesquite.

Dressed in a starched white shirt and red tie, speaking with a slow rhythm and twang unique to Texans of his generation, Hickman told the “miraculous story” of his uncle, a railroad man who was run over by a train and lost one arm at the shoulder, four fingers of his other hand, a leg, and a foot. He was rolled to town on a railroad handcart, and survived.

With the small settlement the uncle got from the railroad, he and his brother Cecil opened a battery station, which charged and repaired car batteries, a necessity in those days, when new auto batteries were expensive. Around the time of the Great Depression, Cecil Hickman married Eurith Holt, who lived about 20 miles from the Hickman family farm in Oklahoma. When the uncle’s business took a downswing, the couple moved to Fort Worth, where Cecil opened his own battery station. Holt was born at Harris Methodist Hospital in 1932 and named for his mother’s family. He was their only child.

The business thrived, but the marriage didn’t. Hickman’s parents divorced when he was a young boy; he and his mother moved to Weatherford, where she later married Carlis Hartnet, who was “a great step-dad,” Hickman said. Holt graduated from Weatherford High School in 1949.

He wasn’t very good at basketball or football, he said, but was an accomplished swimmer, which earned him a four-year scholarship to SMU where his team won the Southwest Conference championship in 1953 and ’54. Two weeks after he graduated from college in 1954, he married his high school sweetheart, Jo Aycock.

In spite of the divorce, Hickman and his father remained close, he said, a relationship that put him in direct touch with the district around Fort Worth’s Main Street and Exchange Avenue in its last years as a working stockyard, before the last packinghouse, Swift & Co., closed in 1971.

While Hickman was growing up in Weatherford, his father’s battery business was profitable enough that the older man bought a ranch near Mansfield. Later, he bought one near Aledo. As a youth Hickman worked the ranches when he wasn’t in school and made trips with his father to the Fort Worth stockyards to buy and sell cattle. He remembers the thousands of head of cattle in the pens, the smells, the sounds, “the excitement of it,” he said.

Hickman joined his father’s company, Fort Worth Battery and Automotive, as a partner in 1957. He and Jo had two children and, for the next 30 years, the Stockyards would be the last thing on his mind. He was too busy making money through a spate of buying and selling that read like a Monopoly board game.

In 1951, air-conditioning was not standard equipment on cars. The buyer of a new Cadillac (the price that year was $3,600) would pay about $600 to air-condition it. “I decided then, that that was what I wanted to get into,” Hickman said. He took the company into the auto air-conditioning business and soon it was the largest U.S. distributor of Mark IV in-dash auto air conditioners.

In 1964, he formed his own auto a/c company, Lone Star Manufacturing, which became another “largest in the U.S.” success story, he said. He sold that one in 1978, and with his son Brad Hickman, Carlos Green, and Neil Shields as partners, branched out into auto cruise controls under the company name of SCS. In 1990, they bought Frigette and became SCS/Frigette, the company name under which he operates today. During that time, they also owned a distributorship for cellular phones, which the partners sold in 1988.

Today, his real estate division owns approximately 2.4 million square feet of office space, shopping centers and warehouses in the city, he said, exclusive of the Stockyards. The manufacturing company produces auto accessories — air-conditioners, cruise controls, security systems, and power door locks — and occupies more than 500,000 square feet at its Risinger Road location. His business interests are worldwide. And while Hickman won’t say what his companies are worth, his real estate holdings alone, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District, are valued at approximately $35 million.

“I’ve always gone to the edge, pushing where no one else would go,” he said. “I took risks,” he said, and more often than not they paid off.

In the 1960s, he was in Japan selling the automakers there on the idea of putting the first air conditioners in their cars made for the American market. “They thought it was a luxury,” he said. “I was the first one over there, to tell them differently.” The units they bought, of course, were Hickman’s.

Next stop was Korea, where he sold air conditioners and cruise controls for the Hyundai. But when he tried to take advantage of South and Central America’s foot-dragging on global warming by selling them Russian cars built with emission controls that couldn’t meet U.S. standards, his plan backfired. Hickman had made a deal through one of his partnerships to import the cars from Russia to the United States, install air conditioners here, and sell them to dealers in South and Central America. After he was well into the deal, however, the governments of those countries got worried enough about global warming to bring their auto emission standards up to those of the U.S., jinxing Hickman’s deal for good. “If it wasn’t for that, we would have really developed that market,” he said. “I lost a fortune.”

Unlike his earlier days, Hickman now has the money to weather such a setback and move on, he said. Today, it’s Russia he’s excited about. “It’s a great frontier where fortunes can be made,” he said. And Hickman expects to get his share. He’s set up a partnership with Russian businessmen and is making air conditioners for “the two largest car producers over there,” he said. And with General Motors putting in a plant there to make a car to be sold to the European market, the possibilities for profit from his investment in the former Communist country, he said, are endless.

“Hell yes,” it’s different doing business over there, he said; corruption is rampant. “I do a lot of investigating before I take on a foreign partner,” he said. “I don’t do business with someone until I know I can trust him. I choose my partners carefully.” And, he emphasized, no matter how big or small his partnerships are, he is “always in complete control” of his companies.

Sue McCafferty might differ with him on that — at least as far as his business in the Stockyards.

Hickman first became involved in the area in 1988 when he partnered with Steve Murrin and Don Jury to take over the operation of Billy Bob’s Texas. The self-proclaimed “world’s largest honky-tonk” had taken a financial nosedive when its owner, Billy Bob Barnett, declared bankruptcy and walked away.

Hickman added real estate to his business interests in 1989, with his first outright buy of Stockyards property — and met Sue McCafferty. She was never a financial partner in his deals, but in a very real sense, according to those who know of their relationship, she was his partner-without-portfolio in what has been called one of the largest historic preservation projects in the country. Hickman soon found out that controlling foreign nationals of dubious ethics would be a picnic compared to controlling McCafferty.

“I warned Uncle Holty early in the game,” Jim Lane said, “that I wouldn’t be concerned with the city or the feds or any of the legal entities that he was gonna have to deal with, but that I’d be damned concerned with Sue McCafferty.”

Her knowledge of the Stockyards, its financial, social and architectural history, said Lane and others who have followed her long struggle to preserve the area, has no equal in the city today.

Lane, an attorney, has lived and worked on the North Side for more than 20 years. His early 20th-century home on Grand Avenue is in the Stockyards Historical District and he has represented the area on the Fort Worth City Council for four terms. He has known McCafferty all of that time. “She’s all guts and principle,” he said, “and not afraid of the devil herself.” As Pam Minick, manager of Hickman’s Billy Bob’s Texas, said to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1993, “When somebody takes a walk down the valley of Sue, it’s not Sue who needs to fear any evil.”

Many people have found that out over the years, as McCafferty fought for her beloved Stockyards. But none more dramatically than Holt Hickman, who learned early on that Lane’s advice wasn’t just rhetoric.

In an incident reminiscent of the recent attempt by Fort Worth philanthropist Anne Marion to tear down the 7th Street Theatre, Hickman caused a firestorm of controversy in 1995 when he tore down a pair of the Stockyards’ historically protected red-brick hay barns. The city, in “an apparent oversight,” it later said, had neglected to list the barns as protected structures. McCafferty was livid. The negative publicity almost had Hickman ready to pull out of the Stockyards. McCafferty can hardly speak of it even today. “It was a real travesty,” she said.

Hickman said the barns were falling down, and couldn’t have been restored. Lane and McCafferty say otherwise.

“I was always on Sue’s side,” Lane said, “With this one, I think Holt finally realized that keeping all those structures was in his best interests.”

McCafferty fought city hall as much as she fought developers. When the head of the city’s park and recreation department tried to plant trees around the cattle pens to provide shade for the Fort Worth Herd, whose longhorns were in the pens for a short time each day between the herd’s twice-daily cattle drive, she stood in the way. “There were never trees there,” she said. “That would have totally gone against what the pens were.” The city backed off, putting up removable awnings at her suggestion.

But her biggest challenges came from Hickman. Even though she’s been retired since 1998, neither her memory nor her passion seems to have cooled as she remembers the man with whom she fought royal battles over their different visions of how to keep alive the flavor and authenticity of the historic district.

“We both had the same goals. He loved the Stockyards and I came to love him and respect him,” she said, “but for a long time we were friendly adversaries, and sometimes things got pretty heated.”

Hickman calls McCafferty “a special lady,” and gives her full credit for her role in saving the Stockyards. Without people like McCafferty, he said, there would have been no Stockyards for him to restore. Did they fight? “Well, no,” he said. “There wasn’t any way to win. ... She was just tough. She told us what we had to do and told us what not to do ... and mostly, I did what she told me,” he said, laughing.

From the horse and mule barns to the cattle pens behind the Exchange Building — which Hickman wanted to tear down, because, he told her, “Sue, I can’t put money into something I can’t use” — to the salvaging of the original Thurber bricks in the sheep and hog pen arena that Hickman turned into the Stockyard Station, McCafferty fought for what she called “the architectural integrity of these old structures’ beginnings.” All were saved, but it took a lot of convincing, she said. She compromised on the bricks, which were left in the walkways between the shops, she said, but had to be covered with concrete in the restaurants and shops to meet city health codes.

By leaving the bricks that he did, she said, Hickman saved money, which made him happy. “I wanted him to do it for the integrity,” she said, but still, it was one time their two visions meshed.

“I know [the bricks] are hard to walk on, but they have history. When you walk there, you’ve gotta wonder how many animals walked here first,” she said.

(A brochure in the Stockyards Visitors Center, says that, over the years, the pens were home to more than 83 million hogs and sheep, on their way to the auction block or the slaughterhouse.)

Unlike Holt, who visited the Stockyards with his daddy, McCafferty grew up on the North Side not far from the cattle pens and the packinghouses, and has lived there all her life. “I loved everything about it, including the smells,” she said in a recent interview from her home in Rosen Heights, an old North Side neighborhood.

McCafferty tells the story of sleeping in the back seat of her parents’ Packard as a child, as the family traveled from job to job during World War II with her ironworker father, and how she always knew when they were home. “I’d smell it,” she said. “I’d sit up in that back seat, no matter what time of night it was, and say, ‘We’re home.’

“That’s what makes the difference,” she said. “This was home, for both of us,” speaking of her husband. “We understood the Stockyards.”

Charlie McCafferty was a Fort Worth firefighter turned Stockyards historian and preservationist, who was responsible for making an activist out of her, she said. His grandfather was weighmaster in the No. 1 scale house, which sits right behind the auction barn. When her husband’s father was a boy, he painted his name on the scale-house wall and it is still there, she said. “That’s when I told Holt that I’d break both his legs if he took down the scale house.” Hickman saved it.

The battle over how to finish the floors in the Livestock Exchange Building was one McCafferty lost. She wanted the deeply stained wood grain to be kept intact to show its history. His workers sanded it to whiteness, she said, and put a new finish on. “Those are things most people wouldn’t care about,” she said. “To me, it was the difference between preservation and restoration.”

Before Hickman, the McCaffertys had fought off “some idiots” who wanted to tear down all the historic structures and replace them with clapboard buildings and wooden sidewalks, as though it was “an old frontier town,” she said. “This was a very modern place in its day,” she said.

“Economically,” she said, “the Fort Worth Stockyards saved the city from becoming a suburb of Dallas.” It was annexed in the early 1900s when the packinghouses came in, and immigrants were recruited from the ports of Galveston to come to the Stockyards and work. “That made this area very rich culturally,” she said, but as a child, she didn’t appreciate it. “I didn’t know that everyone wasn’t growing up eating tamales and baklava,” like she did.

Then there was Billy Bob Barnett, founder of Billy Bob’s Texas, the outlandishly big, garish, and gaudy honky-tonk with its mechanical bucking bull that put the Stockyards on the world’s tourist map when the club opened in 1980.

“Billy Bob wanted to put in a racetrack out here,” she said. “That would have wiped out the Stockyards.”

But Billy Bob’s star fell before he did any damage; the honky-tonk was reopened by a coalition of Hickman, former Billy Bob partner Don Jury, and Steve Murrin in 1988. It was Hickman’s first foray into the district.

And with family-values oriented Hickman in the mix, Lane said, the image of Billy Bobs’ as a wild, almost 24-hour beer bust where just about anything was tolerated, changed. It’s still a honky-tonk and a draw for good bands; you can still buy beer or margaritas and ride the bull, but the tenor of the place has been tamed. Families come in the afternoon to shoot pool with their kids, take pictures behind wooden cutouts of Old West characters and play video games.

Since Hickman’s first 40-acre purchase south of Exchange Avenue in 1989, he and his associates have almost tripled their Stockyards holdings. From Mule Alley, east on Exchange to the spot where the old packinghouses were, to Stockyards Boulevard on the north, back to Marine Creek on the south, Hickman owns 107 acres of property and buildings.

He holds his Stockyards property with various partners, all of whom have the means to contribute to the area’s development. People such as Lyda Hunt Hill, granddaughter of Dallas billionaire Lamar Hunt, who until recently owned a large travel agency and now runs a resort in Ruidoso. And Murrin, the rancher, Stockyards developer, and former city councilman, who Hickman says played a key role in saving the old district along with McCafferty long before Hickman became involved. Murrin, a frequent sight on Exchange, with his handlebar mustache, ten-gallon hat, and starched jeans stuck into knee-high boots, is known as the Mayor of the North Side.

Billy and Pam Minick, who have run Billy Bob’s since 1989, Hickman said, have made that venue a success. “When they took it over for me,” he said, “I was ready to give it up.”

Today he and his associates have controlling interest in Stockyards Station, Billy Bob’s Texas, the ride park, the Visitors Center, and the Livestock Exchange Building. He operates the city-owned Cowtown Coliseum under contract.

He and his wife Jo brought the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame to Fort Worth from Hico and set it up in the restored horse and mule barns, along with the Sterquell Wagon Collection from Amarillo. Bill Davis’ Grapevine-Tarantula train leaves the Stockyards Station four times a day on its run to Grapevine.

Hickman takes great pride in the fact that he has restored the “only real Stockyards left in the country,” he said. “From Chicago to Kansas City to Omaha to St. Louis, they’re all gone,” he said. “This is the only one that can pay tribute to our history. It can’t be lost.”

Folks are even buying and selling cattle again in the old Exchange Building, but not in the traditional way. Superior Livestock, in a kind of virtual cattle auction, has been brokering cattle sales between ranchers via a closed-circuit satellite hook-up from the building for five years.

Before Hickman, tourists and visitors along East Exchange Avenue numbered between 300,000 and 400,000 annually, he said, “most all from two festival weekends,” Pioneer Days and the Chisholm Trail Roundup.

Now, he said, between 1.3 million and 1.5 million people visit that end of the avenue each year. He has the numbers because “my people are out there counting.”

“My goal was to make it family oriented,” he said. “And I’ve done it.”

Not everyone would agree that one of his proposals was family oriented: He wanted to bring in casino gambling a few years ago. However, the bill to legalize casino gambling didn’t get out of committee in the Texas Legislature. Hickman was disappointed, he said, because again, he’d done the numbers. “About $10 billion of Texas money goes out of the state to Louisiana, New Mexico, and Nevada annually,” he said. “I argued that that money ought to stay here and benefit this state, with the state’s take set aside for education. I still think it should.”

On the drawing board today is a smaller version of the 500-room hotel he had planned to build if the legislation had passed. He is “very close” to finalizing a deal for a 96-room Amerisuites hotel to be built on the south side of Exchange close to the Stockyards Station, he said.

“This will be a medium-range hotel,” Hickman said, “with suites for families who can visit all of the Stockyards on foot, and where the kids will be safe if mom and dad want to go out to hear some music or dance at Billy Bob’s.”

Most of the places available to these families will be owned by him. The Stockyards may not be Disneyland West, as some critics call it, but Disney’s moneymaking model isn’t lost on this old entrepreneur.

That’s not a bad thing, Sue McCafferty said. “Making money was what the Stockyards was all about in the first place. And jobs. And that’s what we have now.”

“I’m not a major player in Fort Worth,” Hickman said, in an answer to a reporter’s final question. That answer, however, flies in the face of reality. Or at least it paints Holt Hickman as a much more naïve man than his business acumen would suggest.

He owns most of the city’s historic Stockyards, as well as large tracts of land filled with warehouses and shopping centers all over town. He owns a fair amount of property along Camp Bowie and Highway 80, where he’s involved in that corridor’s restoration, and he lives in Westover Hills, where most of the “major players” hang their hats.

The Star-Telegram has reported that he is consistently one of the largest contributors to local politicians.

But the most telling thing about his role within this town’s power elite is a tidbit that he volunteered. He’s a member of a small, exclusive Fort Worth club known as the Roundtable, made up, he said, of the CEOs of some of Fort Worth’s most powerful corporations (Pier 1, Lockheed-Martin, RadioShack, Bell Helicopter), the chancellor of TCU, members of the Bass family, Ross Perot, Jr., and Fort Worth’s city manager, to name a few. There are about 25 in all, Hickman said. He’s been a member for years.

John Roach, former CEO of Tandy and Justin Boots, put the club together, Hickman said. The group meets for lunch quarterly. Part of its reason for being, he said, is to introduce newcomers at the CEO level or the city manager’s post to the city’s other business leaders. But more importantly, the group also gets “briefings” from Mayor Ken Barr and Congresswoman Kay Granger, both of whom are regular attendees, he said.

Mostly, the group just visits, he said. “You never sit at the same table, so you won’t always be talking to the same people,” he said. “This has all been John Roach’s idea. His secretary makes all the arrangements.”

When asked if he found any similarity between the group he had just described and Fort Worth’s old 7th Street Gang, that infamous crew of powerful businessmen of 50 years ago, or more, who reportedly ran the city from their offices high above 7th Street, without the public’s knowledge, Hickman answered with a firm no.

“This city’s too large and diverse today,” he said, “to be run by such a small group of men.”

Holt Hickman seems to sincerely believe that. As he talks about Fort Worth, his love for the city is obvious. It seems impossible for him to think that anyone in power here would want anything but the best for the city. “John Justin [the late CEO of Justin Boots] was my mentor,” he said. “He always thought of what was best for Fort Worth, before what was best for him, and that’s the way I think it should be.”

Hickman says what he can’t understand is why anyone would want to fly to Europe or anywhere else, “with all the rich culture here, right under their noses?”

“This is the greatest place to live in the world,” he said. “Where else can you find a place where you can visit the Stockyards, with all its cowboy lore and history, and just two miles away be strolling through some of the world’s most beautiful and renowned museums? A few families here have made that happen, and it’s good for the city.”

Hickman doesn’t add that that these amenities for the masses have also been very good for the families who provided them.

Hickman, however, may not think that way for a simple reason. He has put so much money in the Stockyards so late in his life, he said, “I don’t think I’ll ever live long enough to see a return on my investment.”

More than $50 million has been spent by “a number of people” on the restoration of the Stockyards, he said. So, how much of that is Hickman’s? On that question, he plays it close to the vest. “I don’t know,” he said, laughing. “And I wouldn’t tell you if I did.


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